A diver off the coast of Florida thought he was taking home a souvenir from his trip below the waves. Imagine his surprise when he was told he inadvertently discovered a prehistoric Native American burial ground.
In June of 2016, the diver sat the specimen on a paper plate in his kitchen for a “couple of weeks” before realizing it was probably human, reports National Geographic.
The “unprecedented” find is part of a 7,000-year-old jaw containing a single molar, and sparked the creating of The Manasota Offshore Key (MOK) archaeological site.
Underwater archaeologists with Florida’s Bureau of Archaeological Research (BAR), who maintain archaeological and historical resources on state lands, were able to locate the dive site 91 meters (900 feet) offshore and 6 meters (21 feet) below the surface. The team soon noticed other human remains indicating a burial ground that had been covered by seawater, but somehow undamaged.
Located on the continental shelf and measuring three-quarters of an acre, the team believes the dive site was a peat-bottomed freshwater pond thousands of years ago during the Early Archaic period. The pond, made of peat known to slow the organic process of decay, likely 10 feet above sea-level, was an ideal watery graveyard for Florida’s indigenous people.
Eventually, it was covered by the Gulf as sea levels rose.
Offshore archaeological sites that survive natural occurrences are rare, but they’re not unheard of. An underwater settlement in Denmark was preserved around the same time when rapid sea level rise covered it before the waves were able to destroy it. In Israel, five offshore submerged sites have been recorded off the Carmel Coast.
The Florida find may open up new possibilities for understanding how ancient civilizations may be preserved below the surface.
“Seeing a 7,000-year-old site that is so well preserved in the Gulf of Mexico is awe inspiring. We are truly humbled by this experience. It is important to remember that this is a burial site and must be treated with the utmost respect,” said Ryan Duggins, underwater archaeology supervisor for BAR, in a statement. “We now know that this type of site exists on the continental shelf. This will forever change the way we approach offshore archaeology.”
Divers are prohibited from disturbing the site out of respect for those buried and their living descendants. In the state of Florida, it is a felony to knowingly disturb or damage an unmarked human burial.
The bones are going through a slow drying and desalination process before being entered into Florida’s Bureau of Archaeological Research. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, tribes will then be able to claim ancestry and repatriate them.
Archaeologists are testing soil composition and other cultural deposits to reconstruct the environment 7,000 years ago. They’re also coming up with a management plan that focuses on “protection and preservation.”
[H/T: National Geographic]