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Bringing history home

The boat sets out for a trip through history, as it does most Fridays, pushing west through the murky Crystal River toward the Gulf of Mexico, moving as it would on a time line, each mile taking it a few centuries back.

Onboard the V-hulled Monroe, a state park ranger tells tourists about the eerie burial mounds they just walked through at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park. He talks about the mysterious indigenous people who formed the mounds and the hundreds of artifacts that went missing, like the ancient river dwellers themselves.

The park manager, ranger Nick Robbins, explains how the ancient American Indians clung to the Crystal River area coastline from about 1500 B.C. until before the first Europeans came ashore. The boat passes a shell heap the river dwellers built, and tourists stare at the banks of the 6,000-year-old river that sustained them with fish and oysters.

The little that is known about the river dwellers comes from what they left in the landscape, which bulges with bodies and buried possessions. Some of these artifacts can be seen in modest display cases within the park's tiny white museum.

But a trove of objects is missing, and scientists and historians say it is valuable to our understanding of the ancient American Indians. More than a century ago, a treasure-hunting, pioneering archaeologist _ some call him a grave robber _ came down this same river in a coal-fed steamboat and ripped many clues out of the ground, taking the city's pre-Columbian history with him to the Northeast.

Few have seen what he took. But a quest is under way to return the artifacts to Crystal River.

The archaeological state park's 14 acres lie about 2 miles west of U.S. 19 on Museum Point along the Crystal River. Moss-draped oaks, needle palms and southern red cedars blanket the bubbled ground like a tarp hiding secrets. A "midden," or village mound, stretches about 1,600 feet and consists of shell, broken tools, pots and animal bones. Steps leading up a 30-foot-high temple mound provide a towering river view. Burial mounds as high as 15 feet hide as many as 1,500 skeletons.

The park was the seasonal home of indigenous people at least as far back as 500 B.C. and probably centuries earlier. Between 7,000 and 10,000 people may have lived in Crystal River and the surrounding coastal area by 1,000 A.D., compared with 3,656 people who live in the coastal city now.

The old civilizations relied on the river and gulf for oysters, but the people also fished for drum and hunted turtle, dolphin, bear, elk and deer.

They used spears, awls and needles made of bone, axes and fishing weights. They built canoes using stone, shell, fire and wood tools. They made pottery and drank from shells, adorned clothing with quartz and smoked tobacco out of L-shaped pipes, which probably came from the Midwest, indicating the people traveled or traded.

Some say the river dwellers may have sailed to Mexico using the swift-moving Gulf Stream.

Sometime before 1500, an entire civilization disappeared from our historical record. The people may have moved away. Or they might have been decimated by diseases brought by Spanish explorers.

They buried the only clues they left.

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Except for the billowing 600-foot towers that rise from the Crystal River Power Plant, the river probably looked much the same when Clarence Bloomfield Moore came tromping downstream 100 years ago, determined to dig up the past.

What he did changed the course of American archaeology, drew praise and debate because of his methods, and altered the historical record of the city of Crystal River and the South.

Moore, born in Philadelphia in 1852, studied in France and Switzerland before entering Harvard, where he may have accompanied a professor to the South on an expedition. After graduation, Moore traveled through Europe, Central and South America, India, Ceylon, Siam and Java, then took over his father's paper-manufacturing company.

After a drawn-out battle with his mother over a $5-million inheritance, Moore retired and became a self-taught archaeologist.

Paddle-wheel steamboats ferried him into the South beginning in the late 1800s as he pushed through the shallow rivers of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and eight other states. He bought the aptly named Gopher, specially furbished to accommodate his crew of locally hired black workers and stocked with a saloon and photo lab.

The boats made for a strange sight in the serene South, and author Frederick R. Swift thought he heard a steam engine's ghost when whistles of distress blew in the distance one day sometime around 1895.

There never had been a steamer through this narrow shallow stream. That was an impossibility. Then what could it be?

It was the Alligator, owned by Dr. Moore of Philadelphia. That explained everything. Dr. Moore has a fad. And he can't seem to get over it. His fad is hunting for Indian relics, and he's chased them from coast to coast.

From 1891 to at least 1918, Moore barnstormed the South, "demolishing" _ as he even said _ burial mounds in search of the ware and skeletons inside.

He gained national fame as a treasure hunter and was featured by newspapers such as the Chicago Daily and New York Times.

But Moore often made wrong conclusions. He once assumed charred human remains were a result of human sacrifice, not cremation. His crews damaged artifacts and ruined historical context forever.

But he also kept detailed journals. He wrote voluminous reports and consulted with other scientists, archaeologists and doctors. At the time, there was probably no one who could have shown him that being meticulous was better than speedy shoveling.

He sent bones to medical museums in Washington, D.C., and took inventory of how he found them.

31 closely flexed on the right side.

11 lone skulls.

In a grave was the skeleton of a child at full length on the back and another child's skeleton lying flexed to the left.

He sent pots and other display worthy artifacts to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Moore spent a total of just 34 days at Crystal River in 1903, 1906 and sometime about 1918, said Jerald T. Milanich, a professor and curator of archaeology at the University of Florida.

But even in that short time, his workers ripped nearly 40 intact ceramic vessels, hundreds of artifacts and the remains of at least 429 people from graves.

Moore quit his expeditions at the age of 66 and returned to Philadelphia. Eleven years later, George Heye, who owned the Museum of the American Indian in New York, paid $10,000 for his work.

The New York Times reported that the collection, totaling 13,500 items, was displayed in 1931. But for the most part, the Crystal River artifacts sat in obscurity, leaving a gaping historical hole that remains at the archaeological state park 100 years later.

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Today, laws protect American Indian burial grounds and ancient ceremonial sites.

In 1990, the federal government passed the Native American Repatriation Act, which prohibits the excavation or removal of American Indian artifacts from federal lands without the cooperation of native cultural groups. Florida also enacted state laws to protect burial sites and remains.

The repatriation act also orders museums and federal agencies to try to return bones and funerary objects to descendants or to cultural groups on whose land the objects were found.

In the case of the artifacts that Moore took from Crystal River, there are no known descendants of the ancient river dwellers. With no one to speak for the bones Moore plucked from graves, the act cannot bring the artifacts home.

But Sandra Noble has found a way.

Noble, a former college instructor who has a doctorate in history, heads the decade-old Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Inc. The Crystal River foundation was started by former Wall Street tycoon Lewis Ranieri, who owns a Homosassa vacation home and several county properties. Each year, the center provides $250,000 in research grants _ funded by Ranieri, corporate and private donors _ to people studying ancient cultures of North and South America, such as the Maya and Aztec. The center also compiles research on its Web site.

Noble knew about the Crystal River park's puzzling history when she arrived here in 1993 from British Columbia. She often went running through the archaeological state park. But the small, stately woman with rusty red hair never discovered just how many artifacts were missing from it until she read a local newspaper story in 2000.

Her curiosity grew, and she learned that the Philadelphia and New York museums no longer held the Crystal River artifacts.

She found out in 2001 that the Smithsonian Institution had them. The national center was creating its 16th museum at the time: the National Museum of the American Indian.

The painstaking effort to move collections to the museum had started two years earlier, and Smithsonian officials warned researchers nationwide that its artifacts would be off-limits for viewings until an inventory and assessment was done.

The bulk of the fledgling museum's artifacts came from the Heye Museum, including those Moore dug up.

Noble asked the Smithsonian for an inventory of Crystal River artifacts. Back came a five-page spreadsheet last month.

It showed Moore had taken scores of arrow knifes, arrow points, awls, beads, bowls, copper plummets, deer jaws, discs, gorgets, pendants, jars, pipes, chisels and deep bowls of pottery "killed." That meant they were burial vessels large enough to cover heads with single holes drilled in them, possibly to allow the dead to speak with "supernaturals."

The list added up to 648 artifacts: the largest collection of Crystal River artifacts above ground. Milanich, the UF archaeologist, says there's a lot more to learn from them.

"I can't wait to see these things," Noble says as she scans the inventory, eyeglasses resting low on the bridge of her nose.

In February or March, Noble plans to view them. Later, she plans to read some of the 45 notebooks that Moore's field notes and journals filled at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

She hopes to see the old pots and tools to gauge what type of space is needed to bring them back. She is a member of the Inverness Old Courthouse Heritage Museum exhibits committee and hopes to use her experience to create an ancient river dwellers exhibit here.

She said she'd love to dig deep in researching each artifact and create placards for them.

"Right now, these items are in the bowels of the Smithsonian," Noble says. Leaving them there, she says, denies the ancient river dwellers' history.

"You learn about people from their things," Noble says, holding up her own coffee mug, which is brightly colored and displays a smiling sun.

She is a former elementary school teacher who took night classes to learn more about the history of American Indians after she inherited some woven baskets. Like a person who becomes fascinated by climbing the branches of their family tree, Noble was driven to go further. Night school turned into a doctorate.

"It amazes me that we live so much in the present. We think about our grandparents, perhaps, and maybe who came before them. But people were doing amazing things before us," she says. "We think we're so clever _ we went to the moon and all. . . . I guess we are _ but people for so long fought the elements and were self-sustaining and had complex governments."

As she walked around the Crystal River Archaeological State Park museum, her voice echoed against the block walls and the Formica-like floor. She stopped near some simple pots in a display case.

"You look at those pots and say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah,' " she says. But she sees the complexity of them: How an ancient culture figured what type of earth held together, and how they knew fire made clay strong.

She thought about what it would be like if the objects C.B. Moore took came back.

"I look around, and there's display space here," she says. "With some money, this can be redesigned to handle them."

If proper arrangements are made, Smithsonian officials would be willing to agree to a long-term loan with Noble or another local group. The institution has made similar agreements, such as a 10-year-old partnership with the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Seminole Tribe's Big Cypress Reservation.

But there are many steps to take before the Smithsonian would send anything to Crystal River.

According to museum spokeswoman Amy Drapeau, a local institution first must send the Smithsonian a report on its buildings. Then, the National Museum of the American Indian conservation department surveys the requested artifacts and determines whether they are in a condition to be loaned. They also figure out what care the objects would require and the cost, which is borne by the borrower.

The museum's curatorial council then makes a recommendation. The museum director makes the final call. Loans last a year, but can be renewed.

Noble says an accredited institution needs to volunteer as the artifacts' caretaker. Her foundation and the Florida Parks Service could qualify, she says.

Someone also needs to find a secure building with space to house the Crystal River collection. The state park's small 1960s-era museum is often unstaffed.

Unearthing local interest hasn't been hard. Inverness Mayor Bob Plaisted asked his city council to consider converting the squatty building that housed the city's disbanded police department into a museum that could house the artifacts.

Plaisted is a member of the Citrus County Heritage Task Force, a group with members from county government and the Tourist Development Council that is hoping to create more tourism opportunities based on Citrus' history. He thinks the former police department building is an ideal home for a tourist attraction, close to the Withlacoochee State Trail, that would bring more people downtown.

Noble is respectful of the idea. Inverness is just 21 miles away. But to her, that's still too far.

Crystal River, she says of the artifacts, is "where they're from."

Justin George can be reached at (352) 860-7309 or jgeorgesptimes.com. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

TO LEARN MORE

To get to Crystal River Archaeological State Park, 3400 N Museum Point, travel north on U.S. 19 from Crystal River, turn west on State Park Street, turn left on Museum Pointe and follow it into the park. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to sundown. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $2. (352) 795-3817.

Background material for this story came from Florida State Parks; "Prolific Pioneer or Mound Mauler?" from Archaeology, July/August 2000, by Jerald T. Milanich; National Genealogical Society Quarterly, March 1940; "Archaeological Pioneer or Pot Hunter: The Life and Work of Clarence Bloomfield Moore" by Sarah Washam; and The West and Central Florida Expedition of Clarence Bloomfield Moore edited by Jeffrey M. Mitchem.

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