Life Lessons on the Mound at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park
Dragonflies dart across the sun-drenched field. They hover over the drying remnants of stormwater cradled in the shallow hollows in the grass.
Clusters of yellow goldenrod and clumps of purple aster sway in the October breeze as butterflies dance between the blooms.
A dark asphalt trail cuts through the manicured lawns leading from the cubist museum building and through the park. The path winds through ancient oaks and towering palms dotted around the native American mounds at the 61-acre Crystal River Archeological State Park on Florida’s Nature Coast.
The 6-native mounds were once one of the largest continuously occupied native sites in Florida. Inhabited for over 1600 years, burial mounds, middens- or trash mounds, a plaza, and the grand ceremonial temple mound were built upon the river-side lands. Evidence from these shell mounds has linked the site to other native cultures as far north as Ohio.
These grassy mounds rose above the Florida flatlands. Everything cut, maintained, and trimmed, gave a solemn air of a reflection park, or a cemetery.
The path leads away from the parking lot and white-washed museum, a CLOSED sign stuck to the glass front door. Today was not a day for museum education. It was a time for lessons from the land.
On the Temple Mound
A green mound rises in the trees on the left, and two more on the right, but it is the tallest one on the 61 acres of state park land that beckons visitors. Look at me. I am magnificent. It draws the curious, this superstar of shell mounds, the ceremonial Temple Mound.
Oyster shells bleached white from the salty gulf waters and centuries in the sun, peek out from the eroded sides of the main mound, Temple Mound ‘A’. A step back in time, this still awe-inspiring shell mound was once double the existing size at 30 feet high, and 182 feet long. Archeologists believed it also had an 80-foot-long ramp leading to the top. (Think Mayan temple architectural awesomeness).
“Which native American tribe built these mounds?” I remember asking a ranger in the museum that question years ago.
“It was before they had names,” she answered.
Historians refer to the creators of the mounds as the Weedon Island Culture, named for the native culture along Florida’s Gulf Coast dating back 500 BCE – 1000 CE. These peoples hunted, fished, lived, and survived Florida. On the timeline, Europeans were facing the early Middle Ages. Over 1200 people were laid to rest in the burial mounds that now make up this Florida State Park.
A climb of over 50 stairs leads to a wooden platform on top of the Temple Mound. Those who brave the steep climb are rewarded with unencumbered vista views of Crystal River. I take the challenge.
From the platform on the mound, I can see everything. To the right, there is evidence of our last storm surge. Flattened marsh grasses with a trail of what looks like buoys in the distance. A tidal creek meanders from the river through the salt marsh to a little pond below.
A pair of oaks drape curtains of Spanish moss overhead, blocking the sun’s rays on the temple mound overlook. As the afternoon breeze picks up velocity, the hanging moss twirls and spins in a wild dance with the elements.
Life Lessons on the Mound
Another moss-filled tree hangs over the steps. This one I can’t identify and use an app for tree ID. It informs me it is ‘Spanish moss”. I try a second time to no avail- Spanish moss, again. Frustrated, I take a seat on the steps to ponder the glitching app. From the step below, a lizard pauses to watch me with curiosity.
Beside me, a butterfly alights on the white blooms of a frostweed (still using that app) growing from the side of the shell mound. One of its wings is torn and battered, yet it continues to flit around the white flowers, unhindered by its’ tattered wing.
I turn my attention back to the mystery tree. The app won’t work because the tree looks choked with moss- so all it sees is the moss.
A naturalist once told me that Spanish moss is not parasitic- this air plant lives in a symbiotic nature with its host. But here, today, the Spanish moss seemed to have taken over, blotting out this tree’s identity (according to my ID app, that is). In nature, not all symbiotic relationships are always beneficial to both parties.
Spanish moss is not from Spain. A native to Florida and the southeastern United States, Spanish moss is an epiphyte or air plant in the Bromeliad family (like a pineapple). These air plants get their moisture and nutrients from the atmosphere, hence the name ‘air plant’. Spanish moss is not parasitic, but it can hasten the death of an already dying or unhealthy tree. It can block the sunlight of the host tree and hinder the leaves from photosynthesizing sunlight into food.
Life lessons in nature abounded. The lizard stared, unblinking. The butterfly flew away, unhampered and free. And then there was the tree…
I was surrounded by life, death, and balance.
And with balance, I descended the stairs, a little humbler than when I had ascended.
A Peek Inside the Ceremonial Temple Mound
I followed the path away from the ceremonial mound towards the river. An amphitheater of wooden benches built at the base of the mound, under the shade of a giant oak, served as a place for lessons and learning from the state park rangers. From there the erosion on the river-side of the mound was evident. A chunk of earth was missing and exposed the mussel, clams, and whelks, tightly packed, that had been used to build the foundations nearly 2 thousand years ago, cut away by hurricanes and storm surges.
Boardwalks, fishing piers, and even houses have come and gone along the banks of Crystal River, but the ceremonial temple mound has stood against the incoming elements, a testament to ancient building and time.
Scotland may have the Callanish Stones (thought to be the inspiration for the fictional Craigh Na Dun Stones in the Outlander series), but Crystal River has standing stones as well. Two large limestone slabs, believed to be native stelae used for celestial or ceremonial purposes were uncovered in 1964 when the newly acquired state park site (1962) was being outfitted with trails and the museum building site.
One of the stone slabs has the relief of the head of a native carved into it. It’s said to be comparable to those found at pre-Columbian sites in Mexico and South America. Both slabs are located on the state park grounds, for visitors to view.
Take a stroll through time at Crystal River Archeological State Park for history and life lessons.
Things to Know Before You Go to the Crystal River State Archaeological Park:
- The Crystal River Archeological State Park is located at 3400 N. Museum Point, Crystal River, FL 34428
- This Florida State Park is open 7 days a week, 8 AM to sun down year-round. An on-site restroom outside of the museum is available during park hours.
- Fees: $3 per vehicle (up to 8 people); $2 per pedestrian/ cyclist. Honor box at the entrance. Bring change.
- The museum hours are 9 AM to 5 PM., Thursday through Monday
- This park is part of the Native American Heritage Trail.
- Contact number: 352-795-3817
- Bring bug spray – the mosquitoes around the burial mounds are thick.
Due to the Great Outdoors Initiative that went into effect on October 14 of this year, Florida State Park Passes are 50% off until January 13, 2024 (Individual and family passes). Stop by a State Park ranger station or museum during open hours to take advantage of the Great Outdoors Initiative.