Getting to the Bottom of Mount Elizabeth

The ARCOOP is proud to announce another sponsored  research project!

This past Fall Theresa Schober (ABD UF) presented the ARCOOP with series of research questions, proposed archaeological analyses, and secured funding aimed at Mount Elizabeth, a critically important Late Archaic Site in Southeastern Florida.  The site is a  4,500 year old shell heap under an historic mansion and its structure and contents are in need of thorough analysis and reporting.

The Willaford R. Leach mansion was constructed in 1938 right on top of the shell heap that is the site.  Understanding of the important temporal context, geographic extent and structure of the Mount Elizabeth site increased substantially with cultural resource management assessments in the 1990s and research oriented excavations in 2008.  Restoration of the mansion in 2008 allowed for the systematic collection of sediment and zooarchaeological samples for future analysis.

These samples and specialized examination of unanalyzed cultural material recovered in 2008 and 2009 provide an opportunity to significantly enhance our understanding of the unique position Mount Elizabeth holds in the East Okeechobee Region and southeastern Florida during the Late Archaic.

The Leach Mansion was constructed in 1938, replacing an earlier wood frame structure, at the height of the elevated site area. A black earth midden directly underlies the mansion.

When was Mount Elizabeth first occupied and for what purpose? The restoration of the Leach mansion in 2008 and 2009 provided an opportunity to sample deposits at the very base of the Mount Elizabeth site including samples for botanical and zooarchaeological analyses. Submission of radiocarbon samples in addition to specialized analyses of remains from these lowest deposits will reveal whether a preceramic component occurs at Mount Elizabeth and whether the site’s first occupants were some of the earliest fiber tempered pottery manufacturers in peninsular Florida.

When constructed, a full basement under the mansion removed a significant amount of the site. Restoration of the mansion included installation of an elevator, providing the opportunity to excavate below the basement floor to the bottom of the site.

How long was Mount Elizabeth occupied? Whether Mount Elizabeth was occupied over a short period of time by many people or over a longer period with seasonal reoccupation will be determined through studies of seasonality in animal and plant remains and by radiocarbon dating of multiple deposits within the site’s stratification. Information about how Mount Elizabeth was constructed – as regular midden accumulation from seasonal or year round occupation, as a periodic feasting locale, or some form of intentional construction – can be inferred from an enhanced understanding of site chronology.

What, if any, changes in subsistence or environment occurred during occupation? Limited zooarchaeological analysis has been conducted on deposits at Mount Elizabeth. The present study will provide baseline data that defines subsistence strategies and practices of the people who inhabited the site and establishes the relationship of site subsistence to the surrounding ecological habitats and seasonality of site use. In addition, the proposed research will address larger questions about shifting resource use through time, including the potential to address to what degree Mount Elizabeth inhabitants relied upon horticulture.

Principal InvestigatorTheresa Schober,and Greg Mount profile excavation units in 2008.

Was Mount Elizabeth a site of technological innovation? Excavations and preliminary analysis conducted in 2008 and 2009 revealed a consistent pattern of alternating shell midden layers with thin earthen strata and numerous postmolds observed in cross-section in the five meters of accumulation underlying a one-meter thick black earth midden. Preliminary analysis determined shell, bone and ceramic artifact densities decreased with depth while lithic frequencies increased with depth.  Is the apparent shift in technology through time reinforced with reexamination and additional analyses of shell, bone, and lithic tools, zooarchaeological and botanical remains, and comparisons of artifact profiles with other sites in the broader southeast? Is there evidence for increased use efficiency in shell or lithic tools suggesting intensification? What social conditions may be reflected in any technological change?

What role does Mount Elizabeth play in the Late Archaic of southeast Florida? Was Mount Elizabeth a permanent settlement or did it serve as either a resource procurement site or ceremonial center where groups in the East Okeechobee Region gathered for short periods at certain times of year? How local was the technology that was employed at the site? Petrographic characterization of pottery thin sections can provide some detailed information on manufacturing origins contributing to any understanding of techniques, social interaction, mobility, and exchange. As greater exchange is often correlated with greater environmental risk – ameliorated through social networks – do we see a consistent or variable pattern of technological provenance through time that can provide clues to the extent or scale of social networks in which the inhabitants of Mount Elizabeth were participating?

Auger testing revealed 5 meters of shell midden deposits at Mount Elizabeth.

The most robust understanding of Mount Elizabeth and it’s role in Late Archaic peninsular Florida will come from the interaction of archaeologists with different specialties and backgrounds. Proposed here is a collaborative effort that will provide baseline data and integrative interpretation.

 The 2008 excavation was financed in part with historic preservation grant assistance to Martin County provided by the Bureau of Historic Preservation, Florida Department of State, assisted by the Historic Preservation Advisory Council. The project was conducted with adult volunteers from the Friends of Mount Elizabeth and Southeast Florida Archaeological Society.