BREVARD HISTORY: Windover’s Ancient ‘Bog People’ One of Most Significant Archaeological Finds In North America
By Space Coast Daily // November 6, 2023
BREVARD HISTORY: 1982 Discovery Led To Great Archaeology Find in Titusville, Florida
ABOVE VIDEO: Windover Pond – named after the development — is the site of one of the most significant archaeological finds ever made in North America, an underwater cemetery created by ancient people about 8,000 years ago. (Sophia Jones video)
EDITOR’S NOTE: In December 2013, the Windover Pond archaeological site was purchased for $90,000 by the Archaeological Conservancy, which is the only national non-profit organization dedicated to acquiring and preserving the best of our nation’s remaining archaeological sites. As the only national non-profit organization that acquires endangered archaeological sites, The Archaeological Conservancy has preserved more than 465 sites across the country.
Every day, prehistoric and historic archaeological sites in the United States are lost forever–along with the precious information they contain. Modern-day looters use backhoes and bulldozers to recover artifacts for the international market. Urban development and agricultural methods such as land leveling and topsoil mining destroy ancient sites. The Conservancy protects these sites by acquiring the land on which they rest, preserving them for posterity.
BREVARD COUNTY • TITUSVILLE, FLORIDA – There’s a tiny nondescript roadside pond in an upscale residential development near Titusville that can’t even be seen by passing motorists, and yet it’s the site of Brevard County’s greatest hidden secret.
Windover Pond – named after the development – is the site of one of the most significant archaeological finds ever made in North America, an underwater cemetery created by ancient people about 8,000 years ago.
It’s been 40 years since the discovery, made totally by chance in 1982 by a developer’s backhoe, but scientists remain excited about what they found at the site because they can continue to study its artifacts, remarkably preserved by the low acidity of the pond’s peat-bottom.
The unmarked site has been reburied to preserve it for future study, but the lessons learned from such a miracle find in highly developed Central Florida continue to be important.
For insight into the site, refer to Rachel Wentz’s “Life and Death at Windover,” which was released in 2013, and her related “Chasing Bones: An Archaeologist’s Pursuit of Skeletons,” released in 2011.
‘MOST IMPORTANT SITE IN THE AMERICAS’
“I think Windover is one of the most important sites in the Americas,” said Wentz.
“For one thing, it’s rare to find a burial site made underwater. All five such underwater burials found in the world have been in Florida, But there are three aspects that make Windover stand out.
“One is the antiquity of the site, over 7,000 years old. Another is the level of preservation that comes from a peat environment that provided excellent preservation. And three, that there were 168 individuals buried there, which gives us a large sample to study, said Wentz.”
Another factor that makes Windover more significant is that legal changes make it much more difficult for archaeologists to excavate burial sites in America for research in the future. Archaeologists, however, will be studying aspects of the Windover site for a long time.
WOVEN FABRICS OLDEST KNOWN IN THE WORLD
And although the remains cannot be put on display, the public can get a feel for them at the Brevard Museum of Natural History Museum in Cocoa, where a showcase houses replicas of what was found at Windover.
The museum exhibit displays a replica of a skeleton positioned as it was when it was buried as well as replicas and information about two of the most significant finds at the site – brain matter – the largest source of its age in the world from which DNA was extracted – and woven fabrics that are the oldest-known in the world.
The story of how Windover’s scientific treasure was found also is incredible.
In 1982, backhoe operator Steve Vanderjagt struck something hard and shiny with his shovel and got down to investigate. When he picked up the object and found it to be a skull staring back at him, he immediately stopped his work and called the developers, Jack Eckerd and Jim Swann. The environmentally aware developers called archeologists onto the scene.
RELATED STORY: JIM & JONNIE SWANN, CENTRAL FLORIDA HUMANITARIANS
When Florida State University archeologist Glen Doran arrived and saw the skull, he knew immediately from its extremely worn teeth that it was prehistoric and not evidence of a modern crime.
Doran was thrilled, thinking the skull might be as much as 1,500 years old. What he found in the subsequent excavation was much more amazing than he had dreamed, and the developers even helped with financing his research.
Tom Penders of cultural resources management firm Thomas Penders and Associates in Titusville, started his archeological career as a graduate student under Doran working on the Windover site.
And he marveled at what they found on the dig – going far beyond just the skeletal remains.
7,000-YEAR OLD LEAVES THAT ARE STILL GREEN
“When you’re digging down six or seven feet and you’re seeing 7,000-year-old leaves that are still green like they just fell from a tree and insects that are still iridescent, it is absolutely amazing,” Penders said.
Windover Pond’s puzzling lack of acidity in its peat preserved the burial remains, which included incredible artifacts that scientists can use to paint intimate pictures of ancient people.
“Sometimes you get so caught up in the technical aspects of archeology that you can forget what you’re really working on,” Penders said as he recalled his work at Windover.
“So…I’m working on this (skeleton of a) woman who’s in her 70s, and I could tell that she had been in so much pain. She probably died from the abscesses. It made me think she could have been my grandmother, and that changed my perspective fast.”
The assumption about people who lived 7,000 years ago has been that they were too nomadic to develop much of a culture, and certainly couldn’t afford to care for crippled people.
NOW OFF LIMITS TO RESEARCHERS
Windover painted quite a different picture. One skeleton was of a boy crippled from spina bifida who had to be carried around and treated for the 16 years of his life.
And there was an elderly woman who also needed such long-term care. Our ancient ancestors apparently tended carefully to each other despite their constant need to keep themselves safe and alive.
That care extended through life and death, as people were buried with personal items and carefully wrapped in fabric of a surprisingly detailed weave.
Researchers say such intricate work had to have been made on looms too large and complicated to be moved around much.
In addition, they also found such a wealth of edible flora and fauna on the site, they believe the Windover Bog People didn’t have much need to move around seasonally and thus were more sedentary than previously imagined.
Such insight is going to be harder to come by, now that burial sites have been respectively made off-limits to researchers.
DEVELOPERS MAKE A LOT OF FINDS
But the impact of the Windover find will continue to be felt in the future as scientists can continue to study its artifacts. Wentz was a firefighter for 13 years in New York before becoming what is called a bio-archeologist.
“I have stepped back from skeletons,” she said in 2013. “I’m now looking at Windover from a broader perspective – how they lived and how they mitigated their diseases. Being a paramedic gives me a different perspective.”
From any perspective, it would seem Central Florida would have little else of archeological value left after all the development that has taken place here. But Wentz said that’s not true.
“We have a tremendous amount of archeology to be done in this area, mainly because of the land set aside for NASA’s use,” she said.
“In addition to the hundreds of Indian shell mounds that were largely destroyed to make roads, we find lots of occupation sites, from campsites to butchery site. So there’s a lot out there and we need to be notified when anybody knows of something they think might be of interest.
“Developers, in particular, make a lot of finds. And most of them were good about contacting us.”
That is a good thing because otherwise, the Windover Bog People would have remained “dead” to us for perhaps 8,000 more years. And there’s no telling what else archeologists will discover to teach us more about us, and how we used to be, even here in modern Brevard County.
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