The Land Remembers
The area now known as Crystal River Archaeological State Park was an epicenter for Native Americans in Florida and it has a story to tell.
Join me, and together, we’ll climb. One step up, then 50 more, till we reach the top, and look down on the ground below where water, land, marsh, and trees remain largely undisturbed. The scene is expansive — a bird’s eye view of nature — as we stand layer upon layer of sand and shell, constructed by ancient human, thousands of years ago. We are, in fact, on top of a temple mound within the Crystal River Archaeological State Park.
The story goes like this: Sometime around 2,500 years ago, the people who inhabited the Crystal River region decided to build. With resources readily available such as sand, shells, rock, animal bone fragments, and perhaps even stone tools, temple and midden mounds steadily rose higher and served distinct functions within the tribal community.
The largest mound, Mound A, was built approximately 1,400 years ago, in a location that is said to align with the sun and stars during specific times of the year. Though massive as it may be, Mound A is reportedly a fraction of its original size and scope. Like many recurrent themes in modern history, when these parts were first discovered by new settlers to Florida in the 19th and 20th centuries, attempts to reconstruct the sacred and abandoned land unfortunately succeeded. Or, rather, partially succeeded, as the previous owner of the mound site removed the ramp and half of the east side, drastically reducing its magnitude. Despite the desecration, most of Mound A and remaining mounds have been preserved.
Mound A, of course, is just one of six mounds located at the site. There is Temple Mound H, the second largest of the mounds, followed by midden mounds, J and K, and burial mounds, C and F. The complex also contains a plaza area designated for large gatherings and ceremonial purposes
So that’s the story. A bunch of people lived here a long time ago and built things. Except, there’s always more to the story. Much more. And, yet, what do we know exactly about this area? For starters, it is estimated that ancient people have used the site for about 2,500 years prior to European arrival. It is estimated that 7,500 people visited the site annually. And it is estimated that 1,500 ancients were buried within the complex, which underscores Crystal River Archaeological State Park as not only a gathering of souls, it’s a land of living memories.
In search of way back when
On a recent trip to the North Florida area, and in search for signs and symbols of an ancient civilization, my family and I decided to head out west, driving along State Road 121, toward US 19, then south to our exit, W State Park Street. The journey was peaceful; passing through undeveloped and untamed land, flush with large trees and plants — pine, oak, palm, and more — that lined the roadside between bright green meadows and pastures. The further we ventured west, the older and more animated the land appeared to be — raw, unvarnished, pure.
We first learned of Indian mounds at Crystal River Archaeological State Park a few months ago. An admission I’m not particularly proud of being that I spent my adolescence 30 minutes south of the mounds in Hernando County, home of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and Buccaneer Bay, where live mermaid shows and a charming waterpark accurately represent Old Florida and “the way things were.” And yet, these attractions are not old, not by a long shot. But the mounds and artifacts found at the Crystal River complex are old, extremely old. Take, for instance, a few arrowheads found at the site, dating back to around 9,000 BC when Paleo-Indians inhabited the region, followed by later cultures, through the Fort Walton period.
But even with archeological digs and fragmented artifacts, the mound complex and its previous inhabitants remain a mystery. And the truth of the matter is that it takes more than academic research to understand who these people were and what made this specific location so sacred. Since the area was abandoned years before European arrival (another perplexing question) there are no written records or even oral stories passed down from one generation to the next. But someone, or rather, something knows what happened on Temple Mounds A and H, or inside the plaza, and around the complex. They know who was buried here and they know who buried them. Indeed, there is a record kept — a memory locked away — and the answers to our questions are waiting to be discovered. If only we could speak the language.
Lost in translation
Walking through the grounds that day in July, we found several sloping hills, covered in smooth green grass, and large oak trees with hanging moss next to Sabal palms. The mounds were distinct from the smaller hills — fuller, more rounded, taller — part of the land itself, and yet peculiar, unnatural even; they were manmade, after all. We followed the paved foot path to Temple Mound A, climbed to the top, and took in the view. The air was still humid, but different, thinner, and enjoyable, despite the summer heat. We stood on the platform and stared at the land and river below. It was just us in that moment: No other tourists were on site, nor visitors walking the trail. It was only the four of us, surrounded by an infinite number of living souls — souls weaved within the earth itself: grass, trees, rocks, water, and weeds. And they’ve been watching the entire time.
According to Native American teachings and traditions, the earth is alive, not simply in a physical sense, but spiritually, with a soul, or souls, that exist alongside our human selves. Thus, no heartbeat is necessary for a living creature to exist. It’s called animism; a belief in which many tribes consider the universe and everything within to be living organisms, or beings, with an inhabiting spirit that transcends modern limitations of what it means to be alive. In other words, Mother Nature has eyes and ears; she can tell us stories and connect us with our past. Her memory runs deep, and yet, we often fail to notice.
As we strolled through the mound complex, never straying from the designated foot path, to the midden and burial mounds, and pushing further in to Temple Mound H, the stifling summer humidity kicked in and the crickets chirped louder as temperatures continued to rise. We had crossed the grounds, stopping occasionally to read the signs, and now we were unquestionably on sacred land. As we stood there talking, the sun grew brighter, and from the trees and the grass and marshy puddles nearby, the bugs came, slow at first, then quick, without mercy. Large horseflies, mosquitos and mystery bugs we couldn’t see, came for our arms, our legs, hands, throats, neck. They buzzed in our ears and around our head. It was an onslaught.
The bugs chased us back, past the mounds and through the plaza. Our once leisurely stroll turned into a fast walk, then a jog, then a sprint. We made it back to the museum, sweating and panting and cursing the bugs. It looked as though we had lost a battle, red marks on our skin from bites and self-inflicted hand slaps. It looked as though we didn’t belong, as if we were the unwelcome guests, rejected, turned away. And, so, we left.
We left that day because we were hot and getting bit. But mostly because we were getting bit. In hindsight, though, and we failed to notice at the time, but the bugs didn’t start biting until we stopped at the burial mounds. The hungry bloodsucking horseflies, mosquitoes, and mystery bugs didn’t bother us on our initial walk through the plaza or at Temple Mound A. Surely, that was a coincidence. Right?
Our day visiting the sacred land was cut short. Had the bugs not been so bad, we would’ve stayed longer; we would’ve seen more. For when we left, and though we did learn a few things about the area, the land and everything that happened there, long before explorers washed up on Florida’s coastline, remained a mystery. There is an answer, but it involves a greater level of understanding. If only we could speak the language.
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