Remembering Tocobaga

Remembering Tocobaga: Recent Archaeology Safety Harbor Site

The Safety Harbor site (8PI2), located within Pinellas County’s Philippe Park, is one of Tampa Bay’s most iconic archaeological sites.

The site is widely recognized as the probable location of the native town of Tocobaga, where Spanish Governor Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established a short-lived mission-fort in the 1560s. It later became the location for the planation owned by one of the area’s most legendary settlers, “Count” Odet Philippe. Philippe is said to have been a childhood friend of Napoleon, the first European settler of Pinellas County, the first to cultivate citrus in Florida, and the first to introduce cigar rolling to Tampa Bay; generally omitted from such tall tales are his likely Afro-Caribbean heritage, reputation as a maritime smuggler, and the fact that he owned enslaved Africans.

In 1948, Pinellas County purchased the property from Philippe’s heirs for the creation of its first public park. Visitors to the park today can walk a paved path to the top of Safety Harbor platform mound for a sweeping view of the bay; this is presumably the “the highest and most prominent place” described in historical accounts as the location of the chief’s house, where Tocobaga met with the Spanish Governor in 1567. The mound’s summit is a good place from which to imagine the village of Tocobaga, although envisioning the historic landscape is a challenge to even the most informed observer given the changes that have taken place to the site over the intervening 500 years. One side of the mound has been terraced and landscaped in an effort to stabilize damage wrought by hurricanes, including one in 1848 that reportedly reduced the mound’s size by one-third. The presumed plaza at the foot of the mound has been paved for a parking lot. A picnic shelter has been built on one arm of the village. Farther in the distance, another picnic shelter and a playground now occupy the area where a burial mound formerly stood.

Despite the historical importance of the native town of Tocobaga and Philippe’s plantation, the Safety Harbor site has been minimally investigated, and rarely using modern archaeological methods. Matthew Stirling of the Smithsonian Institution excavated the burial mound in the 1930s, resulting in the recovery of hundreds of human burials. However, the methods were coarse and the results were scantly reported. The first modern-era professional investigation of the Safety Harbor site was conducted by John Griffin and Ripley Bullen in 1948; they excavated a test trench in the platform mound and several additional trenches in the village. Several groups of avocational archaeologists conducted investigations at the Safety Harbor site in the late 1960s, but unfortunately the results of this work were never adequately reported and most of the artifacts and documentation appear to have been lost. In 2012, Phyllis Kolianos and AWIARE conducted salvage excavations of ground disturbance resulting from a fallen tree on the slope of the platform mound. 

In 2019, the Department of Anthropology at USF began the first intensive and professional archaeological investigations of the Safety Harbor site in more than 70 years. Recognizing the importance of the site and its protected status (it has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark since the 1960s), the investigations were carefully planned to be minimally invasive. Geophysical surveys (including ground-penetrating radar, gradiometry, and electrical resistivity) provide a glimpse of what lies buried beneath the surface, including everything from buried shell middens associated with the village of Tocobaga to utility lines associated with the development of the park. Small systematic excavations (50-cm square shovel tests and 1-x-1-m test units) spaced throughout the site helped to ‘ground-truth’ the geophysical data and produced samples of artifacts, including: copious quantities of shell, pottery, and stone tools associated with Tocobaga; pipe fragments, pottery, nails, and bricks associated with the later settlement by Philippe, his family, and the enslaved people that worked the plantation; and coins and other modern artifacts associated with modern-era park goers. At each test pit, student excavation crews screened the soils through fine 1/8-inch mesh and took particular care to record and collect the smallest of artifacts, animal bones, and identifiable shell fragments for analysis.

Although laboratory analyses are ongoing, some preliminary results can be reported. GPR survey and coring of the platform mound suggest that it was built in several construction stages, including one comprised of greenish-grey clay and others of shell. Despite disturbances from later occupations and modern park infrastructure, significant portions of Tocobaga village remain well preserved; shell midden stratigraphy and radiocarbon dating suggest two major occupation episodes during the Mississippian period. The diligent work of fieldschool students at the fine-mesh screens during excavation is paying off, and there are early signs of temporal and spatial changes in the presence and relative frequencies of marine shell species in midden deposits. Finally, the distributions of nineteenth-century artifacts seem to conform to the locations of structures depicted on historic maps, and probably indicate the former locations of the houses of Philippe and his enslaved workers.  

The results and interpretations from these recent USF investigations at Safety Harbor site will be summarized in a technical report in hopes will be used by the Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources Department to better manage this important historic site. However, we think the history of the site is compelling enough to warrant a number of other publications, perhaps including a book. In addition, we hope to use the findings to improve the public interpretation of the site through online media, community outreach, and enhancements to interpretive aids at the park. 

Tom Pluckhahn and Kendal Jackson 

Platform mound excavations 1948 by Griffen and Bullen.

Philippe Park

Stirling’s excavations of the burial mound at Safety Harbor, 1924

AWIARE Provides Grants for Weeden Island Research

RESEARCH

Grants Awarded

To further our mission of facilitating archaeological research and educational opportunities, AWIARE, in cooperation with the Levett Foundation, is offering up to $10,000 in grant funds annually to support student research on Weedon Island and the Weeden Island culture.

This year the awards committee chose three worthy recipients to receive funding. University of South Florida doctoral candidate Kendal Jackson will receive funding for 12 radiocarbon dates to assist in dating relict estuarine flooding surfaces to determine how human-environmental interaction shaped the establishment and development of late-Holocene (ca. 6500 BP-present) estuarine ecosystems in Tampa Bay. Kendal’s project is a fine example of using an interdisciplinary approach (archaeology and geo-sciences) to address a topic that also has relevance for today.

Trevor Duke, from the University of Florida, will receive funding that will contribute to his petrographic and instrumental analysis of clays used to make pottery found in mortuary and domestic contexts at Weeden Island and Safety Harbor culture sites in Tampa Bay. Determining whether mortuary pottery was made with different or more restricted varieties of clay, would support the hypothesis of ceramic specialists and will contribute to his doctoral research topic of assessing the role of mortuary pottery specialization in creating, maintaining, and transforming social connections in the region during these periods.

The final recipient, Heather Draskovitch, is an MA student at USF who is currently surveying and testing the Weeden Island site to better understand its chronological development. Her grant funds will help obtain radiocarbon dates to document this development. Congratulations to all three recipients for submitting clear and well-developed proposals that are consistent with the overall mission of AWIARE.

Research Opportunity

RESEARCH

Do Your Research Work in Our Lab

The Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research and Education, Inc. (AWIARE) is accepting applications for research at Weedon Island Preserve in Pinellas County, Florida. 

The 3200-acre preserve is home to the Weedon Island archaeological site (8PI1), listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well other sites related to the Manasota, Weedon Island, and Safety Harbor cultures.  Use of the AWIARE Research Station is open to qualified researchers and graduate students who wish to conduct archaeological research related to Weeden Island and related topics.  Multidisciplinary projects that address questions of human-environment interactions (e.g., sea-level change, climate change, human ecology) are encouraged.  Applicants must complete an application form that describes their research, explains how it conforms to the mission and objectives of AWIARE, and indicates the source of funding for the project.  AWIARE does not provide funding, scholarships, or fellowships at this time.  Use of the Research Station for research and living accommodations is provided free of charge.  Applicants must be legal residents of the United States and be associated with an educational organization or institution.  Independent researchers or those pursuing advanced degrees also may apply.  Research may include field work, laboratory analysis, or archival research.

For more information, contact: Robert Austin, AWIARE, 1500 Weedon Dr. NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33702
or by email awiare1@gmail.com. DOWNLOAD THE APPLICATION

COLLECTIONS ARCHIVE

AWIARE maintains collections of artifacts, archival documents, and photographs from archaeological sites in the greater Tampa Bay area, including Weeden Island.  The collections are available to students and researchers by appointment.  Most documents and photographs have been digitized and are viewable online. A searchable online collections database can be accessed here(https://awiare.pastperfectonline.com/).  AWIARE does not charge for copies, but donations do cover the costs of reproduction and shipping.

Reproduction, exhibition, and distribution of images is strictly prohibited without prior written permission from Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research and Education, Inc.

Donations can be made by check mailed to:

AWIARE
1500 Weedon Drive NE
St. Petersburg, FL 33702

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