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Archaeologists with drone find bead-making settlements

Scientists stumbled on the site while assessing BP oil spill effects in 2010

The drone hummed above the thick foliage on Raleigh Island, about 8 miles north of Cedar Key. It carried remote sensing technology that uses the pulse from a laser to collect measurements.

The information it transmitted to University of Florida archaeologists was astounding. The result: a map of 37 ring-shaped piles of oyster shells up to 12 feet high. Within those rings lived an ancient tribe, who turned lightning whelk shells into beads that were then shipped to other settlements.

“There’s no parallel to this” discovery of a whole village, University of Florida archaeology professor Kenneth E. Sassaman said Thursday. The site "has a huge percentage of shell beads in the final stages of manufacture.

The discovery was just revealed in a Nov. 4 article co-written by Sassaman in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, which noted, “The Raleigh Island village of AD 900 to 1200 is unprecedented in its architecture, its scale of bead production, and its place in regional geopolitics.”

A drone with laser-equipped measuring equipment mapped out the archaeological site on Raleigh Island, near Cedar Key, finding 37 oyster-shell rings where an ancient settlement made beads from lightning whelk shells. [ Photo courtesy of Kenneth E. Sassaman ]

Two of Sassaman’s graduate students stumbled on the site in 2010. They were surveying the Florida coast for historic places that could have been damaged by the spreading slick from that year’s BP oil spill, Sassaman said. While working their way through the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, they stopped at Raleigh Island.

They got out of their airboat, the professor said, and one started walking across the island. The one who stayed to secure the boat later told Sassaman he could hear his colleague saying, "Whoa, geez, what is this? Oh, wow, look at this!’ "

The Raleigh Island site had been kept pristine by its inaccessibility. It’s surrounded by salt marshes that are not navigable by anything but an airboat. That’s why it escaped the fate of other islands, which have been mined for shells for roadbuilding or looted by treasure-hunters.

RELATED: Rising sea level threatens ancient Florida archaeology sites.

But that also made the place difficult for archaeologists to survey, explained Terry Barbour, another University of Florida grad student who is the lead author on the drone study. They had to chop their way through dense vegetation, and wade through deep mud. They even had to pack in their own water supplies for drinking.

“We could be doing this better,” he recalls telling Sassaman.

Over at the university’s forestry school, scientists had developed what they call the “GatorEye Unmanned Flying Laboratory” — a drone packed with sensor equipment, including laser beams that could take 650,000 measurement points a second, Barbour said. That’s what they used on Raleigh Island.

The images the drone produced give the archaeologists a clearer picture of both the size of the settlement and its arrangement, although they still have questions. For instance, Sassaman said, they don’t know why the rings were arranged in a cloverleaf pattern or whether the larger, square areas were used for some other purpose.

Meanwhile they have continued digging up the iridescent beads and the bead-making materials/ Each bead was just a little smaller than a dime and made with a hole drilled in the middle. In the ancient culture the beads weren’t used as money, Sassaman said, but rather symbolized spiritual values. Anything related to the water, including shells taken from the Gulf of Mexico, had connections to their idea of the underworld, he said.

Still, the chiefs tended to have more beads than anyone else in a village, he said. The beads could be strung on belts or bracelets, or added as decoration to their clothing.

The people in the Raleigh Island settlement didn’t use the beads themselves, he said, but most likely produced them and then shipped them to other ancient outposts.

Barbour and Sassaman both said they have a lot more questions they hope to answer — but time is limited, Sassaman said.

“This place is probably only a few more decades away” from being lost to the rising sea, he said.