May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1996


The tale of a certain gold relic that should have stayed in the ground
By Randy Wayne White

There was a lightning storm a few nights ago that knocked out all the power on the small island where I live. You have to know the circumstances to understand why it brought to mind a lost civilization, a ceremonial gold medallion, and the teenage boy who died shortly after pulling it from the Florida soil.

I was a couple of miles offshore at the time, heading back from a neighboring island in my flats skiff when--zap!--all lights vanished. The abruptness of it was disorienting. Those of us who live in solitary places think we know darkness. What we know is a diaphanous gray. When that grayness is extinguished unexpectedly, it's a little like standing on the lip of an abyss.

I backed the throttle, killed the engine, and waited. The rain hadn't reached me yet, but the wind was fierce. A Halloween moon rose above a tower of cumulus clouds. My island had taken on a strange new look. It was no longer a place of tin-roofed houses built upon Indian shell mounds. Tonight, it was a black mass elevated over the water, a dinosaur-shape afloat.

I stood at the boat's wheel, feeling the wind, and thought: This is the way it was when the Calusa were here.

At the time of Spanish contact in the sixteenth century, Florida's west coast was dominated by Calusa fishermen, hunters, and gatherers. Theirs was a sophisticated society. They were building and living on elaborate shell pyramids by the time of the Roman Empire, and their civilization lasted 200 years after the arrival of the Spanish. In terms of human chronology, the high-rise hotels of Sarasota and the modern condominiums of Sanibel and Captiva Islands are but a few pale seconds in a long calendar day.

Although my own house happens to be built atop an Indian mound, I'm not a fanciful person. I've never seen Calusa ghosts. I've never communicated with the spirits of people who lived and worshiped and died right on the hillsides I now tend with a Sarlo lawn mower.

But when my island went black, it was easy for me to imagine the way it had been: Temple mounds and sweeping plazas, networks of holding ponds for fish, priests presiding over human sacrifices, hand-dredged canals that led to the sea. And for just a moment, I could see a certain gold medallion, dangling from the neck of the son of a Calusa king as he walked among the thatch-roofed huts of his village. It might have been 1996, or it might have been a thousand years ago. Cut the electricity and the eyes are quick to readjust to primal light.

As I told Dr. William Marquardt, curator in archaeology of the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville,"Considering all that's happened before and all that's happened since, you have to agree that the tale of the Calusa medallion sounds a little like a Stephen King novel."

Like most archaeologists, Marquardt is a pragmatist by training and a diplomat by necessity. "It's certainly alarming," he said. But it was clear from his unequivocal tone that as far as he was concerned, the story of the gold medallion had nothing to do with ghosts or the supernatural or, as some have said, the curse of a once-proud Native American tribe that was wiped out by European diseases, warfare, and slavery.

We were off the coast in my skiff, making a tour of the Calusa mounds. It was a few weeks after the lightning storm that had zapped all the power from my island. The west coast of Florida was once again tropic-bright, vacation-friendly.

"The remarkable thing about the Calusa," Marquardt told me, "is that although there's no uncontested evidence of horticulture, they still managed to create a culturally complex society. They built permanent towns. They developed elaborate art, a sophisticated religion, a formidable military, and a political system that relied on tribute sent by various chiefs under Calusa control. Unfortunately for us, that tribute sometimes included a tiny bit of gold and silver, probably taken from Spanish shipwrecks."

Unfortunate for archaeologists. And unfortunate for anyone who's interested in the pre-Columbian history of Florida.

This was our second day in the boat, yet we had visited only a few of the dozens of major habitation sites that range from Charlotte Harbor, about 35 miles north of Fort Myers, all the way down to Everglades National Park. Access to these islands isn't easy. To tourists charmed by Disney World and Florida's innumerable roadside attractions, the sites would be indistinguishable and, furthermore, unappealing: just a hedge of dense mangrove spreading out beneath a canopy of gumbo limbo trees. Most of the ruins were reachable only by shallow-draft boat.

At each site, Marquardt and I bushwhacked through monkey-bar prop roots and then made our way into the island's interior. We swatted sand flies and mosquitoes, ducked spiderwebs, dodged bayonet plants and prickly pear cacti. The vegetation of Florida soon strangles anything that doesn't move. Leave a plot of ground untended for a year and it will become jungle; most of these islands have been uninhabited for more than a century.

At one point, while picking a cactus spine out of my hand, I said to Marquardt, "You really enjoy busting your butt to get to these places?"

Marquardt, who looks like one might expect an archaeologist to look--eyeglasses, backpacker clothing, and a sparse beard--is a precise and methodical man. He's a gourmet cook and a musician. His interests are wide-ranging, but his professional focus is laserlike: He's hell-bent on protecting these ancient mounds and establishing a research center to study the Calusa. "Sure," he said. "It's a lot better than being in an office." Then he waved at the haze of gnats orbiting his face. "But I could do without these damn bugs. People are still arguing about how the Indians endured them."

How the Calusa endured is puzzling enough, but how they managed to prevail is truly mind-boggling. It's a stunning thing to hack your way through the jungle and come upon a man-made hill, 38 feet high, covered with whelk shells the size of footballs. In the context of the mangrove littoral of west Florida, a 38-foot mound might as well be a mountain. The Calusa workers piled on the shells and shaped the contours, basketful after woven basketful. Like developers in modern times, these people erected their civilization upon the swamp.

"That's why it's so sad what's happened to the mounds," Marquardt said. During the early and mid-1900s, he explained, road builders used many mounds as fill. Many others have been destroyed by developers operating under Florida's modern economic ethic: The old girl's dying anyway, so go ahead and bite off a chunk.

But what really angered Marquardt was this: At nearly every site, cut deeply into each mound, one can find a multitude of holes, some of them the size of bomb craters. "Treasure hunters," Marquardt said. "Archaeologists all over the world have to contend with them. The thing is"--Marquardt had to smile in frustration when he said this--"there's nothing here for them to find, unless they're looking for old shells. Nothing they could sell. It's unusual to find even a single large pottery shard. They didn't have stone, and the little bit of metal they had came from the Spaniards."

So what are they looking for?

"They're looking for treasure buried by a pirate named Jos‹ Gaspar," Marquardt said. "And they're looking for metal ceremonial ornaments that are extremely rare and are unlikely to be in a shell mound anyway--like the one the little boy found near here."

In 1969, on an island off Florida's west coast, a 14-year-old boy named Rommie David Taylor and his younger brother were sifting for Indian artifacts when they unearthed a few human bones, a few Spanish chevron beads, and then a small, oddly designed pendant made of sheet gold.

It was 64 millimeters long and 33 millimeters wide, and weighed a little less than an ounce. On the medallion's face, concentric circles had been etched upon a cross. There were three bisecting lines, a pair of teardrop shapes, and a series of half-rectangles nested like doors within doors. On the medallion's back were several crescent-moon shapes, one above the other.

What was the medallion's significance to the Calusa culture? No one knew for sure, but according to early Spanish missionaries, the sons of Calusa kings wore a certain gold ornament on their foreheads as an emblem of rank. Perhaps, archaeologists surmised, the boy had stumbled upon one of these royal insignia.

David Taylor was blessed with a finely tuned radar for buried relics. As his mother, Lorraine, recalled, "David was far more interested in archaeology than, say, baseball. He read everything he could about the history of the Calusa, and he liked to hunt for artifacts. It was uncanny the way he could find things. Like the gold medallion--he was digging in a place that no one would think to look."

It's still not known for certain exactly where the boy was digging, but Marquardt believes that he had stumbled upon a burial ground. Apparently, David Taylor found the medallion among several human ribs--a fact that appears to have troubled the boy.

"He grew increasingly nervous as the weeks passed," Lorraine told me. "He had always been a very good student, but suddenly he was having trouble concentrating on his homework. I know he was having nightmares, and he seemed to be obsessed with thoughts of Indians. It really bothered him that he'd dug up a grave."

Lorraine also had nightmares. In one, she and her son were standing in water up to their necks. The boy held the gold medallion in his hand. Then he dropped it. She begged him not to go after it, but he laughed and disappeared beneath the water's surface.

Three days after she experienced this dream, David Taylor hanged himself from a tree.

It's a tragic story that gets worse. While still out of her mind with grief, Lorraine was approached by a local amateur treasure hunter who told her that if she would be willing to participate in a s‹ance at his house, it might be possible for her to communicate with her dead son. She agreed to attend.

At the s‹ance, Lorraine, the treasure hunter, and several other participants sat looking at a candle as David "spoke" from the grave through a series of small raps on the table. The boy was asked whether his mother should give the medallion to the treasure hunter. Two raps--yes. Lorraine did as she was told.

But life did not go smoothly for the treasure hunter once he took possession of the ancient artifact. When the news got around about how he'd hoodwinked Lorraine, the community was so outraged that he decided to move away. Later, he would sell the medallion, saying, "I'm glad to get rid of the damn thing."

The current owner--who lives within a few hundred yards of the area where the medallion was found and who prefers not to be identified--says he's had his share of problems with the Calusa medallion, too.

"A friend and I bought it just to get it away from the guy who cheated David's mother," he explained. "We gave it to a third friend, with the stipulation that it be placed in a museum with David's name on it. But our friend was worried that publicly displaying it would only promote more looting. Eventually, we began to bicker. One friend purchased the other friend's share. We bickered some more. It came so close to ruining our friendship that we began to joke about it. The Curse of the Medallion, we called it."

The owner added, "I'm not superstitious. But I've given the thing away three times, and each time it's ended up back in my hands. My Indian friends--who are superstitious--say that's because the medallion is meant to remain here. They say it should be reburied."

After a long pause, he said, "Maybe that's the right thing to do."

"Discussing a find as rare as David Taylor's is a double-edged sword," Marquardt said. "When we publicize information about archaeological artifacts, we risk more damage to the mounds. On the other hand, the more people we educate about how much can be learned from the sites, the better chance we have that people will want to protect them."

We were now 25 miles from Fort Myers, roaming around the bayside village of Pineland on Pine Island, which is connected by a drawbridge to the mainland. The mounds around Pineland are among the Florida Museum of Natural History's most important and ambitious projects and may offer the last best hope for understanding the Calusa.

In 1895, the Pineland sites were first described by Smithsonian ethnologist Frank Hamilton Cushing: "The foundations, graded ways, and canals here were greater...than any I had yet seen. The central courts were enormous."

The ruins have remained relatively unscathed since Cushing's time, but as looters have become more and more brazen in recent years, Marquardt fears that the sites are increasingly vulnerable.

"A few years ago," he said, "three men were arrested for using a bulldozer--a bulldozer!--on one of the remote islands. They were using it to dig up the mounds. They completely destroyed one of the area's most important sites. And you know why? They said they were looking for 'Jos‹ Gaspar's treasure.' It would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic."

Laughable because Jos‹ Gaspar was invented out of whole cloth in 1919 by a railroad company flack who needed a way to romanticize the mosquito-infested area in order to promote both tourism and land sales along what he called "the pirate coast."

That the west coast of Florida was far off the route of Spanish gold shipments (and thus had no pirates) did not deter later Gaspar "historians," whose cheap fabrications are still on sale in Florida bookstores. Many of the booklets contain "authentic" pirate maps where X marks the spot--and the spot is always an Indian mound. The fiction of Gaspar and his "captive women" has been so widely accepted that Tampa has an annual Jos‹ Gaspar Festival.

"The treasure is mythical," Marquardt said, "but the hope is persistent.The story's always the same. The treasure's buried next to a gumbo limbo tree on one of the mounds. Every year, new people hear those stories, and they think, 'Hey, I'm going to get my buddies and do some digging.'"

Other relic hounds have struck out in the hope of unearthing more medallions like the one David Taylor found.

"I think the whole story of the medallion is tragic," Marquardt said as we stood on a bluff at the Pineland site, looking out across a vast courtyard toward another shell pyramid. "It's tragic what happened to the boy, and it's tragic that artifact hunters have been trying to duplicate his find."

Marquardt pointed to an old crater in the shellwork--not even Pineland had been spared. "If there's a curse," he said, "you're looking at it."

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