MANATEE COUNTY -- Fourteen hundred years ago, an indigenous people lived
at the mouth of the Manatee River.
They settled in a small village where they fished, harvested, lived
and worshipped. The river was good to them. They ate shellfish and small
game, and built inland huts and a temple.
The temple was a sacred site where the bodies of tribal leaders were
buried. In a religious ritual, they periodically burned the temple and
built it again.
Today, the remains of their dead are under a white sand mound that
rests in the shade of mansions and holds the history of Manatee County's
The Native American burial mound could be in jeopardy, however, as
developers eye the historic site, which was put on the market recently
by the South Florida Museum.
A three-person executive committee made the decision to sell the mound,
although a board of more than 50 people will have to approve any deals.
Board President Jeff King, a Bradenton accountant, said the museum
needs the money for new exhibits and has trouble maintaining the 20-foot
Yet critics say the museum is casting aside its commitment to preserving
"I'm astonished that they're selling it," said Bill Burger,
a local archaeologist who has studied similar sites throughout Southwest
Florida. "They have said that the mound doesn't 'fit their mission.'
What is their mission if it's not this?"
A wealthy land baron gave the mound property to the museum in 1974;
it is valued at $147,500 and the museum's board is looking for $200,000
or more. The one-acre site in northwest Bradenton is now in the vicinity
of waterfront mansions, including the home of pro golfer Paul Azinger.
Sometime in the last few weeks, the board rebuffed an overture from
a local developer who owns a house adjacent to the mound and plans to
build 15 homes to the south. The offer, from developer Bill Manfull,
was short of what the museum is looking for.
Museum board members have vowed to make sure the mound is protected.
They would like a buyer to make a commitment to saving the mound; a
developer could move the mound to another site with the participation
of historians, archaeologists and Native American groups.
"We're interested in its preservation," King said last week.
"Any possible buyer has to be willing to preserve it."
Manatee County entered the fray when officials last week questioned
the potential sale and tried to find a way to save the mound. While
the county does not plan to make a bid, Charlie Hunsicker, the conservation
lands management director, said officials are exploring grant possibilities
to take over the maintenance.
"Our mindset is to preserve it," he said. "So that's
how we're pursuing it."
The county already looks after another mound on Emerson Point, while
the state takes care of the Madira Bickel Mound in Terra Ceia.
The site in question -- known as the Pillsbury Temple Mound, after
famed landowner Asa Pillsbury -- is recognized by state officials, and
could be eligible for a 2007 preservation grant, Hunsicker said.
Nearby residents have started to look for state or federal funds as
well. ScottBassett, a lawyer who lives in the area, said King has promised
not to make a sale until "we fully explore other avenues."
"This area is just incredibly rich in Native American heritage,"
said Scott Bassett, a lawyer who lives about 100 yards from the site.
"We've managed to wipe out 99 percent of the evidence of their
existence. Now we're doing the same to the few remaining pieces."
Archaeologists say the Pillsbury Temple Mound was likely active in
600 A.D., and an expedition in the 1960s revealed 147 burials and numerous
ceramic artifacts -- including pottery that now is in a South Florida
Museum exhibit. The indigenous people who built the temple would have
stored the bones of high-ranking leaders there, ritually burning the
structure and building it again and again.
"Often times, the temple mound is associated with religious ceremonies,"
said Richard Estabrook, an archaeologist with the Museum of Science
and Industry. "In that regard they would be much like our churches
Inside could be a treasure trove of information, some that sheds light
on a culture that died long ago. Little is known about the groups that
first lived on the banks of the Manatee River; researchers, in fact,
have never settled on a name.
"It's a significant site," Burger said. "It's worth
fighting for and preserving."
The Pillsbury Temple Mound is up for sale and could soon be developed.
Archaeologists say the site is critical, because it could shed light
on one of the oldest civilizations along Florida's west coast.
While little is known about the people who lived here thousands of
years ago, researchers have several theories:
The thriving estuaries and woodlands probably made for ample food.
The tribes ate clams, mollusks and other shellfish, but also hunted
small game and fished in area waterways. Bottlenose dolphins and sea
turtles were also staples of the diet.
They lived in "kin groups" of 30 to 40 family members. Inland
huts were likely for low-ranking members of a band; the chief lived
in the temple built atop the burial mounds.