by Tim Gilmore, 11/24/2017
The road takes me past large suburban tract houses onto the cul-de-sac built into the burial mound. Centuries of burials of Timucuan Indians raised the earth at this sacred site. I try not to wince at the street sign that warns me this road’s a “dead end.” It dead-ends at Grant Mound.
Though the house stands three stories tall, its horizontal emphasis lends it a look of fitting the hill, the bluff, the mound it tops. Clerestory windows belt across the top floor and show the blue of the sky from behind the house through its façade.
The brick house beside it tries to bury itself in the hill. Perhaps it’s ashamed. It should be. The house burrows into the mound of the dead.
Its builders bulldozed and removed human remains and pottery shards and centuries of Indian artifacts and tribal earth to level the land for this ordinary suburban house.
You could walk from the top of the burial mound in the back yard of the larger house to the roof of the house built into the mound.
Horror novels and films that use the trope of tribal spirits seeking revenge on houses built on Indian burial grounds come instantly to mind: Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, Pet Sematary, The Shining. Alongside slavery, it’s the central-most haunting of North American culture—Freud’s “return of the repressed” worked through America’s original and foundational genocide.
And one of its names, right here, is He-Who-Wears-Human-Heads-as-Earrings.
In the pestilential and insectile summers of 1894 and ’95, archaeologist Clarence B. Moore dug into the Grant Mound and found “numerous human burials,” as University of North Florida archaeologist Keith Ashley writes in “Introducing Shields Mound (8DU12) and The Mill Cove Complex,” though the “exact number is difficult to decipher from Moore’s writings.”
Moore also found objects suggesting trade with different Indian tribes in sophisticated settlements like Cahokia, a pre-Columbian “city” near St. Louis, and the Spiro Mounds settlement in Oklahoma. From Grant Mound and neighboring Shields Mound, Moore excavated 147 polished stone blades called celts, “chipped stone tools” and “shell drinking cups” and pearls and shell beads and “pottery vessels” and “stone beads” and “two long-nosed god maskettes.”
Grant Mound’s copper long-nosed god faces seem to correlate to the mythical figure known as He-Who-Wears-Human-Heads-as-Earrings, a warrior deity in Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) and Ioway tribal cosmology whom Earthmaker sent to make the earth safe for that creation least likely to survive, human beings. His earrings were living human heads that winked and made comic and grotesque faces when people stared at them, tricksters that caused their wearer to fail his mission.
Archaeologists have found these god maskettes made a thousand years ago of bone, shell, and copper in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, and other states. Seven pairs have been found around the country, including the copper pair Moore found at Grant Mound.
Scholars believe the maskettes were manufactured at Cahokia, so their presence at Grant Mound indicates a wide-ranging circuit of trade between tribes across the continent.
Far older finds suggest the Timucuan peoples were trading materials across the Southeast as far back as 4500 to 5,000 years ago. A half-circle of soapstone, used to heat water after being heated from a central fire, dates to 2500 to 3000 B.C. Since the nearest source for this material is the Soapstone Ridge southeast of today’s Atlanta, it seems the Timucuans were trading across such distances as early as 5,000 years ago.
In his “Mill Cove Complex” paper, Ashley writes of 1988 archaeological studies, during which “The area immediately south and southwest of [Grant Mound, state archaeological site 8DU14] was not inspected due to cul-de-sac construction and landowner refusal, respectively.”
He calls the hills that roll up and down through the old Gilmore settlement, so uncharacteristic of Northeast Florida, “the rolling relict dune landscape.” Surely He-Who-Wears-Human-Heads-as-Earrings still walks them.
In his opening, Ashley evocatively explains, “The northern faces of the high sand ridges that front the river are exposed as steep bluffs that in areas rise some 16 m [52 feet] above the water.” Referring to the two principal Timucuan Indian archaeological sites in what’s now called the Mill Cove Complex, both named for late-19th-century landowners early in the Gilmore settlement, Ashley writes, “The Shields and Grant Mounds were erected upon the two highest points along the west side of Mill Cove, each perched with a magnificent view of the river.”
Tall as is this mound of Timucuan dead, much of it is gone. That “magnificent view of the river” also lured accountant John Petherbridge to build his family home here in 1989.
Petherbridge’s daughter, Leanne Moye, who now lives in Texas, tells me her father asked UNF archaeologists to inspect the site before he built, “because he didn’t want any bad juju.”
But Pat Petherbridge, Leanne’s mother, says dismissively, “They didn’t find nothin’ but a bunch of broken pots.”
The story in the UNF archaeology lab is that Petherbridge “adamantly opposed” any archaeological excavation.
These hills have their secrets. These hills are no mere hills. The tallest natural formations rising from the river mask ancient forms of human architecture.
People sought the natural inclinations of the land to add their own towers of meaning in the pine trees and oaks and loblolly bays reaching skeletally across the flat, sinking, quick-devouring sucking sumps of marshland.
The new suburban builders did the opposite. Referring to the house dug into the burial mound, Ashley writes, “In January of 1989, a large segment of the Grant Mound was removed by earthmoving equipment.” Whether He-Who-Wears-Human-Heads-as-Earrings moved with the ancient earth is an open question.
Ashley reports, “Robert Thunen and students from the University of North Florida were permitted on the property during bulldozing, but were not allowed to stop the removal of mound fill.”
Subsequently, Thunen and his students were allowed to study small units “where the mound once stood in anticipation of uncovering either intact basal remnants of the mound or submound features.”
In the archaeology lab, Ashley points out an array of Grant Mound finds, including check-stamped pottery, animal bone as kitchen refuse and animal bone as ornament. Clearly, Timucuans wore as ornament these shark teeth with holes perfectly bored.
Keith Ashley is wiry and energetic. He moves rapidly around the lab as he talks. He has a sense of this work being sacred, not in a spiritual sense, but “in a human sense.” Though the Timucua were wiped out by illness and Spanish acculturation centuries ago, he says he has “a great love and respect for the people I study.”
He holds in the palm of his hand a piece of engraved deer bone, depicting three eyes seemingly depended with beaded ropes. This ornamental pendant came from Kinzey’s Knoll, a small site near Shields Mound, from which archaeologists have excavated more than 10,000 pieces of pottery. While it’s far from certain what this ancient image might mean, Southeastern tribes today commonly see existence split into three worlds—ours, the world beneath the water, and the sky—held together by four cords. Such worlds are frequently represented as eyes.
When UNF archaeologists and students were able to scan the Petherbridge site after bulldozing, they “found thousands of pieces of pottery, and pieces of human remains—a tibia here, a skull fragment there—were strewn all over the place.” Even today, Keith Ashley would love to be able to work Grant Mound.
Radiocarbon-dated shell, pottery and human bone dates Grant Mound to A.D. 905 to 1025. In 1990, the year after the dugout house was built, Congress passed NAGPRA, the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, and Florida passed Statute 872, regarding “Offenses Disturbing Dead Bodies and Graves.” The bulldozers tore into Grant Mound just in time.
The swimming pool behind the Petherbridge house, dug straight into the mound, lies empty and dry. Wooden stairs descend the bluffs. Something moves across the windows. He-Who-Wears-Human-Heads-as-Earrings emerged once from this mound and might reside, still and again, within, or wander hereabout. Pat Petherbridge’s dismissive response—“nothin’ but a bunch of broken pots”—feels, instead, defensive. Archaeologists would love to ascertain the truth.
Windows are for seeing through from inside. The act of seeing, from the outside, what or who might seek evasion, occurs as an inversion, unnatural, something that should not be.
So certainly is building your place of living atop somebody else’s dead.
Behind any one bone bead discovered, back of any fragment of Timucuan cranium, what human stories can we never know? Behind different wood, anciently charred, lies what difference? A fire in the kitchen the center of the home? Herbal fires, popping with particular medicinal seeds, rising into the face and lungs of the sick woman bound and suspended above thick smoke? The fires that consumed dead priests or shamans? The fires only Timucuan “third genders” were allowed to approach?
Though He-Who-Wears-Human-Heads-as-Earrings might step onto the roof of the next-door house dug into the burial mound the Petherbridge house tops like a tinfoil crown, he also might scurry, like a rat or a bat, across the roofline, to hang upside down and leer in windows, but walks instead down the cul-de-sac to note the brick wall of the lower house leant into the rise of land on which stands the Petherbridge abode and makes faces at himself and sticks out his tongue and crosses his eyes and makes armpit fart sounds and cries. For nobody here respects him.
Where amidst these safely conforming suburban tract houses did Timucuan “third genders” take care of the sick and the dead? Early European chroniclers of Timucuan society all noted “the great number of third gender individuals,” Tamara Shircliff Spike writes in her paper, “Sucking, Blood, and Fire: Timucuan Healing Practices in Spanish Florida.”
French colonial artist Jacques Le Moyne called them “hermaphrodites.” Timucuan third-genders, writes Shircliff Spike, “functioned in more of a nurse-like role, cooking, bathing, and performing basic tasks for the infirm.”
Thirds suffered the humility of shamed genders, the increased susceptibility of sickness since people who occupied the third space had special access to quarantine. Their special skills were loving and caring. They alone had access to the contagious, both living and newly dead. Third-genders worked among shamans, midwifes, and plant-magicians.
They occupied, right here among these pine trees and midden hills and salt marsh, “a hyper-charged environment of the sacred, both pure and polluted. Third gender people also served to prepare the body and transport the dead to the burial place.”
Maybe third-genders should buy up real estate on today’s Sarah Brooke Court off Fort Caroline Road. They could walk these inclines and descend these curves around ancient trees and decide whether, as so must this ancient sacred site, they’re in-between or transcendingly both, re-establish a center of gravity.
Eventually, ultimately, when all is said and done, by and by, in spite of all, at long last, who wouldn’t choose to be double instead of half?