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Archaeologists piece together history one artifact at a time

Reflections of Manatee said they wish they had more time to dig, but are grateful the City of Bradenton gave them funding for the month.
Credit: Kimley-Horn

BRADENTON, Fla. — This month The City of Bradenton paid $100,000 for a historic preservation group, Reflections of Manatee, to dig for the sake of history. 

They only have two more days before Manatee Mineral Springs Park gets swallowed up by the Bradenton Riverwalk Expansion project.

“A month ago, we saw potential, but we also knew we were facing a really complicated archaeological site,” Uzi Baram said.

Baram is an anthropology professor at New College of Florida. He’s overseeing the project.

After long days of digging and sifting Baram’s team found hidden artifacts, they believe date back to the African-American settlement of Angola Freedom Seekers.

“We understand the site much more and many of the histories are being revealed for the people who lived here,” Baram said.

They’ve found things like marbles from the late 19th century and even tobacco pipes, which were used before cigarettes existed.

“We’ve been finding ceramics that are part of the dishes, and storage jars that people used,” Baram said. “We found pieces of glass that are part of bottles and including a lot of medicine bottles.”

These artifacts hit home for Daphney Towns and her family. She’s the organizer for the Back to Angola Festival and a decedent.

“My cousin Jason was here helping with archeology digging and he was like, 'this is about us,'” Towns said. “It became so home to him where he got very emotional.”

Baram said they’re looking for signs of how people lived on this land. He said they’ve found collections of clams, shellfish, fish bones, pig bones and cow bones. Baram said this is a sign of what the settlers ate.

“I feel like if we know where we came from, it helps us identify where we are going,” Towns said.

“Over this area, there is a layer from the 20th century, there’s layers from the 19th and mid-19th century and then there is this thin layer that we are still shading with the early 19th century, which is the period the freedom seekers were living here,” Baram said.

The Project Director and VP of Reflections of Manatee, Sherry Svekis, said every little thing they find is another puzzle piece to the full story.

“We did find the skeleton of a dog that had been buried, very carefully buried in a wooden box and so that is just evidence for who were here had pets,” Svekis said. “And that seems like a very simple thing, but it's not something you generally think of when you think about the past.”

Svekis said their biggest finding from digging is a well.

“It’s thrilling because it's something so tangible and it’s so important that the reason people were here, we know was because of the spring water. But, we had never seen anything in historical documentation that actually said there was a well here, so this was totally surprising to us,” Svekis said.

Reflections of Manatee said they wish they had more time to dig, but are grateful the City of Bradenton gave them funding for the month.

The preservation group has more than 30 boxes full of artifacts. On Friday, they'll close up shop, but the work is far from over.

The team will take their findings back to the New College archeology lab where they’ll clean them, make sure they are conserved, sort them into categories and then identify them.

“Since we are dealing with fragments, sometimes identifications are a challenge, sometimes impossible, but oftentimes, particularly with ceramics we have lots of resources to help us understand very well what time period it was made,” Baram said.

They said it'll be a year before we learn of their full discoveries, but they hope that some of their findings will be on display for the public when the park is redesigned.

Towns hopes projects like this continue to shed light on buried history.

“Let’s follow that passion and let’s uncover as much as we can uncover, not just for me, but every other ethnic group’s history that’s been hidden,” Town said. “Let believe that we can unveil, to give the next generation some sort of real history that’s not recorded in history books.”

RELATED: Archaeologists work to preserve history at Manatee Mineral Springs Park

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