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Caracasi and the Mortuary Mounds of Mayport

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Situated on U.S. Navy property near the mouth of the St. Johns River is Caracasi, a St. Johns II site (A.D. 900-1250) that was the focus of the 2016 University of North Florida field school. Situated in the vicinity of two previous sand burial mounds known as the Mayport mounds, Caracasi's shell middens extend across a maritime hammock bordering expansive tidal marshes. This study presents preliminary testing results from the field school and explores the connection to the mortuary mounds once located adjacent to the site. The University of North Florida (UNF) is actively investigating early St. Johns II sites (AD 900-1250) in northeastern Florida as part of our Mill Cove Complex Project. The centerpiece of our research is the Mill Cove Complex, a large village and ceremonial center containing two burial mounds located about 750 m apart. Previous excavations of the Grant and Shields mounds by CB Moore and ongoing excavations by UNF in other areas of the site have yielded raw materials and artifacts demonstrating contacts and interactions with early Mississippian communities, including Macon Plateau and Cahokia. With the broader objective of understanding St. Johns II culture across the region, UNF has undertaken testing of several other contemporaneous sites. With this in mind, the 2016 UNF summer field school focused on the Caracasi 1 site, located along the south side of the St. Johns River approximately 9 miles east of the Mill Cove Complex.
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CARACASI AND THE MORTUARY MOUNDS OF MAYPORT
Paper presented at the 73rd Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological
Conference, Athens, GA, October 28th, 2016
S. Lee Johns and Keith Ashley
Abstract
Situated on U.S. Navy property near the mouth of the St. Johns River is
Caracasi, a St. Johns II site (A.D. 900-1250) that was the focus of the 2016
University of North Florida field school. Situated in the vicinity of two previous
sand burial mounds known as the Mayport mounds, Caracasi's shell middens
extend across a maritime hammock bordering expansive tidal marshes. This
study presents preliminary testing results from the field school and explores the
connection to the mortuary mounds once located adjacent to the site.
The University of North Florida (UNF) is actively investigating early St. Johns II
sites (AD 900-1250) in northeastern Florida as part of our Mill Cove Complex Project.
The centerpiece of our research is the Mill Cove Complex, a large village and ceremonial
center containing two burial mounds located about 750 m apart. Previous excavations of
the Grant and Shields mounds by CB Moore and ongoing excavations by UNF in other
areas of the site have yielded raw materials and artifacts demonstrating contacts and
interactions with early Mississippian communities, including Macon Plateau and
Cahokia. With the broader objective of understanding St. Johns II culture across the
region, UNF has undertaken testing of several other contemporaneous sites. With this in
mind, the 2016 UNF summer field school focused on the Caracasi1 site, located along the
south side of the St. Johns River approximately 9 miles east of the Mill Cove Complex.
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Caracasi Site Description and Previous Archaeology
Caracasi is situated in a maritime hammock on U.S. Navy property, adjacent to
Naval Station Mayport, located at the mouth of the St. Johns River. Expansive tidal
marshes fringe the northern and eastern margins of the site, while State Road A1A and
Mayport Landing subdivision form its western and southern boundaries respectively. The
coastal strand fronting the Atlantic Ocean lies just over a mile to the east, and the
Intracoastal Waterway is two miles to the west.
Although recently identified during a CRM project, Caracasi lies adjacent to a
series of previously recorded sites, including two sand burial mounds. The Mayport
Mound (8DU96) was located approximately 180 m south of Caracasi, prior to its
destruction during subdivision development in the late 1960s. Excavations were
conducted there in 1964 by National Park Service archaeologist Rex Wilson, who was
searching for evidence of contact between the local Timucua Indians and the French at
Fort Caroline. Testing revealed that the mortuary mound was Swift Creek and dated to
the middle to late Woodland period. Pottery collections from the mound have been the
focus of research by Neill Wallis of the University of Florida.
Of greater importance to the UNF Field School is the Mayport Midden Mound,
also known as Mayport Mound 2 (8DU97). To avoid confusion with the Mayport Mound
we have renamed this mound, Atosi, a Timucuan word for owl. Located 150 m southeast
of the Mayport Mound, Wilson described Atosi as being 3-4.5 m high and 15-23 m in
diameter, with much shell midden removed from its north side. He excavated a single
5-foot test pit in the mound, and noted that it dated to a later time period than the
Mayport Mound. He gives the impression that this is a shell mound but notes that
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according to amateurs assisting in excavations much of the shell on the mound's summit
was heavily stained with red ochre. Following Wilson's departure, members of a local
archaeological society continued excavating both mounds between 1965 and 1973.
Two large and inconsistently provenienced artifact collections from these mounds
are now curated at the Jacksonville Museum of Science and History. The Atosi Mound
collection has relevance to our St. Johns II project in that it contains thousands of
potsherds, most of which are St. Johns Plain and Check Stamped; smaller amounts of St.
Johns Punctate, Little Manatee, Papys Bayou and Ocmulgee Cordmarked are also
present. Collectively, the pottery types compose a typical early St. Johns II pottery
assemblage. Other artifacts in the museum collection include hundreds of shell beads,
drilled shark and bear teeth, fossilized animal bones, Archaic projectile points, a few
pieces of copper, and a large number of shell tools. Pottery types along with an AMS date
on soot (AD 890980) from one of the St. Johns II vessels date the mound to the St.
Johns II period, AD 900-1250.
Notes and sketch maps on file at the museum indicate that alternating layers of
colored sands and shell lensing were quite common throughout the mound. Sloping and
arcing layers of hematite-impregnated sand and shell appear to have marked mound
construction episodes, and perhaps former surfaces. The mound summit, as it existed in
the 1960s, was capped with a mantle of oyster shell, except in places that had been
previously disturbed. Atosi was not a shell midden mound as suggested by Wilson but a
St. Johns II burial mound.
According to locals involved in the excavation, both primary and secondary
burials were uncovered, as were a few prone or extended face-down burials. In addition
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to the museum artifacts, greenstone celts, a steatite elbow pipe, and small pieces of sheet
copper were purportedly recovered during amateur excavations. Grave goods were found
both associated with burials and in mound contexts unassociated with human bone. In the
1970s, the Atosi Mound was razed as a result of the combined forces of looting and land
clearing activities that included construction of a convenient store. The location is
currently the site of a Jacksonville Transit Authority Park-n-Ride parking lot and
retention pond.
Another previously recorded site, situated 900 m southwest of Caracasi is Mallard
Cove. Originally identified in 1983 by FDOT archaeologists, a thin section of the site
associated with a proposed road widening project was tested in the 1990s. Most of the
site had been destroyed and the roadway easement contained mixed refuse deposits
dating to the Woodland and later prehistoric periods. It should be noted that St. Johns
Check Stamped was the predominant pottery type, suggesting the presence of a St. Johns
II component contemporaneous with Caracasi and the Atosi Mound.
The Caracasi site (8DU21730) was identified during a CRM project by SEARCH
who surveyed a 19-acre parcel belonging to the U.S. Navy in 2015. Thirty-one 50-𝑐𝑚2
shovel tests were excavated across the site at 25 and 50 meter intervals, with additional
judgmental shovel tests excavated in areas. Twenty-two shovel tests were positive for
cultural material. Of the 146 diagnostic sherds recovered from the site, 133 were St.
Johns II types, constituting 91% of the diagnostic assemblage. In addition, intact shell
midden deposits containing abundant animal bone were encountered. The results of this
CRM project, combined with the presence of St. Johns II materials in nearby middens
and mounds, are what drew the UNF field school to the Caracasi site.
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UNF 2016 Field School
Armed with this preliminary information about the site and U.S. Navy approval,
the UNF field school set out for six weeks of testing to explore Caracasi in greater detail.
Initial work began with tightening up the grid laid out by SEARCH. Due to time
constraints we focused on the eastern part of the site, which yielded intact shell midden
deposits and high pottery frequencies during CRM testing. Ten 50-𝑐𝑚2 shovel tests were
dug to a depth of one meter, when possible. We decided to focus excavations on and
around a cluster of oyster shell heaps. After clearing the area of vegetation, we realized
that what we thought were individual shell heaps were in fact the remnants of one large
mounded shell midden that had apparently been mined for shell; much of its interior had
been taken away, leaving abrupt and shell exposed walls. It is estimated that the mounded
shell midden originally measured about 16 x 12 m and was likely 80-100 cm high.
Nine 1X2 m units were excavated in levels not exceeding 10 cm in depth (Figure
1). Units 1-3 formed an L-shaped block along the shell heap’s southern periphery, Units
6-7 formed a 1X4 m trench on its eastern flank, and Unit 8 was placed on its northern
edge. Units 2 and 3 demonstrated extensive shell crushing in their upper levels suggesting
heavy impact as a result of past shell mining activities. Units 4 and 5 were placed 16 m to
the southeast, adjacent to a productive shovel test. Unit 9 sampled a separate shell heap, 8
m east of Units 6-7.
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Figure 1. UNF 2016 excavation area, Caracasi site.
Results
Like the neighboring Atosi Mound, Caracasi dates to the St. Johns II period. The
majority of pottery recovered was typical of a St. Johns II ceramic assemblage, although
the actual type percentages was a little unusual. By count, 87.1% of the diagnostic
assemblage is St. Johns pottery, defined by its chalky feel and sponge spicule temper.
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Other pottery types present include Ocmulgee Cordmarked (2.4%), sand tempered
(7.9%), grit tempered (0.7%), grog tempered (1.8%), and charcoal tempered (0.1%).
Breaking down the St. Johns pottery further shows that 52.4% is check stamped,
29.7% is plain, and 1.9% are finewares. The latter includes mostly St. Johns Burnished
and one Papys Bayou. St. Johns pottery constitutes 85.7% of the total assemblage weight.
Typical of local St. Johns II sites is the presence of Ocmulgee Cordmarked pottery.
Normally Ocmulgee makes up between 5% and 27% of local St. Johns II site
assemblages by count. On average, most sites assemblages contain about 10% Ocmulgee.
Caracasi, however, yielded a slightly different result. The assemblage was only 2.4%
Ocmulgee. It is worth noting that an additional 33 cordmarked sherds were recovered,
including 26 St. Johns and 7 sand tempered sherds. This is an inordinately high
percentage of non-grit-tempered cordmarked sherds compared to other St. Johns II site
assemblages. If these are combined with the Ocmulgee then the percent of cordmarked
sherds increases to 4.8%, which is at the lower range of expectation. It is currently
unknown what such a low percentage and variety of cormarked sherds means.
Another pottery type worthy of mention is a unique grog tempered ware
comprising 1.8% of the total pottery count. This finely tempered, well-fired and
burnished ware has been noted at three other St. Johns II sites UNF has investigated (Mill
Cove, Grand Shell Ring, TR Preserve site). It is unclear, whether this is a local product or
an import, although the latter is suspected at this time.
Non-ceramic artifacts from the field school were limited and include a fossilized
shark tooth and bone fragment, incised bone pin, a few lithic flakes and shatter of quartz
and chert, and a biface fragment from a shovel test. The fossilized bone and intricately
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designed incised bone pin were recovered from unit 6 and 7, the units comprising the
trench along the eastern boundary of the shell midden.
Unlike their Mississippian counterparts to the north, the St. Johns II people were
not maize farmers but fisher-hunter-gatherers who harvested the rich and diverse aquatic
resources of the St. Johns River estuary. Preliminary results of ongoing faunal analysis
mirror our current understanding of St. Johns II subsistence. Greater than 1
4" bone from a
few unit levels has been completed to date. The assemblage is overwhelmingly bony fish,
with relatively small amounts of cartilaginous fish (including three shark teeth), reptile,
bird, crab, and mammal. Of the identified elements in Unit 1 level 6, 98% is bony fish,
which is made up of 23% sea trout, 19% redfish, 15% flounder, and 7% catfish. Unit 6
level 3 and 4 yielded similar results, containing 98% bony fish with catfish accounting
for 50%, flounder 12.7%, and sea trout 8.4%. Finally, Unit 9 level 3 consists of 98%
bony fish, which includes 30.3% catfish, 22% flounder, 10.6% sea trout, and 12.5% red
fish.
The sampled shell middens were composed mostly of mollusks, primarily oyster,
with minor amounts of Atlantic ribbed mussel, stout tagelus, and coquina. Quahog clam
was surprisingly rare. Univalves included whelk and shark eye. Shell volume from the 9
units ranged from 267 liters in Unit 5 to 594 L in Unit 1, with a unit mean of 428 liters.
Although oyster represented greater than 90% of shell recovered from the units, coquina
made occurred in concentrations found in Units 1 and 9. Coquina is a small clam that
inhabits the ocean surf zone. Because of its annual growth cycle, its maximum shell
length can be used to determine season of coquina death. Samples from individual units
were separated by side and the side producing the largest for each unit was selected for
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measurement, ensuring the same specimen was not measured twice. Currently three
coquina samples have been analyzed, with all results suggesting a fall harvest of
September-November.
Conclusion
While analysis is ongoing, a few preliminary statements can be made with the
data at hand. Caracasi contains a significant St. Johns II component that is
contemporaneous with the nearby Atosi Mound. Radiometric dates from the two areas
suggest a pre-thirteenth century date for St. Johns II activities. The current boundaries for
Caracasi and Mallard Cove are reflective of CRM property boundaries, and it appears
that St. Johns II deposits were once spread intermittently over a broad area, with Caracasi
forming its northern end. The lack of archaeology of the area prior to subdivision
development hampers our perception of the nature and layout of the St. Johns II
community associated with the Atosi Mound.
Based on ceramic and faunal evidence, the sampled shell middens at Caracasi
represent every day domestic refuse. The pottery assemblage is ordinary in that it
contains few finewares in the form of St. Johns Burnished and one Papys Bayou.
Cordmarked sherds are at the low end of expected frequency compared to other St. Johns
II sites. Samples from other areas of the site are needed to determine how widespread this
trend is. The faunal assemblage is typical of St. Johns II sites, although the percent of
mammal bone appears extremely low.
In sum, much more work needs to be done. We are still examining other ceramic
attributes such as surface wear, sooting, and rim and vessel form. Additional faunal
analysis is ongoing with emphasis on seasonality. It is only by working on a broad range
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of sites in the region will we obtain a more complete understanding of St. Johns II culture
in northeastern Florida.
Notes:
1. Caracasi is a Timucua Indian word for a specific species of fish. Early Spanish
translate it as corvina (Aaron Broadwell 2016, personal communications), a fish
of the Sciaenidae family, commonly called croakers or drums.
References Cited
Hendryx, Greg, and Blue Nelson
2016 Executive Summary: Phase I Archaeological Survey at Naval Station Mayport,
Duval County, Florida. Report submitted by SEARCH, Inc. to the U.S. Navy
Kirkland, S. Dwight, and Robert E. Johnson
1999 Archeological Data Recovery at the Mallard Cove Site 8DU1552. Report on file,
Division of Historic Resources, Tallahassee.
Wilson, Rex L.
1965 Excavations at the Mayport Mound, Florida. Contributions of the Florida State
Museum 13, Gainesville.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Archeological Data Recovery at the Mallard Cove Site 8DU1552
  • S Kirkland
  • Robert E Dwight
  • Johnson
Kirkland, S. Dwight, and Robert E. Johnson 1999 Archeological Data Recovery at the Mallard Cove Site 8DU1552. Report on file, Division of Historic Resources, Tallahassee.
Executive Summary: Phase I Archaeological Survey at Naval Station Mayport
  • Greg Hendryx
  • Blue Nelson
Hendryx, Greg, and Blue Nelson 2016 Executive Summary: Phase I Archaeological Survey at Naval Station Mayport, Duval County, Florida. Report submitted by SEARCH, Inc. to the U.S. Navy Kirkland, S. Dwight, and Robert E. Johnson 1999 Archeological Data Recovery at the Mallard Cove Site 8DU1552. Report on file, Division of Historic Resources, Tallahassee.