The discovery and the way in which it was found has excited researchers, as extremely advanced laser technology was able to penetrate through the surface of Florida’s Gulf coast to discover an ancient settlement that predates colonial America. In the new paper, archaeologists from the University of Florida explained how they used drone-mounted lasers to gather an incredible amount of data in order to digitally map what was once a thriving community.
Terry E Barbour, a doctoral candidate from the university and Professor Ken Sassaman, used aerial drones with light detection and ranging Lidar sensors.
In doing this the researchers were able to create detailed 3D maps of the surface of Raleigh Island.
Archaeological objects were first spotted on the island in 1990, though technology was not advanced enough to explore on the scale required.
Then, in 2010, a subsequent exploration of the area revealed the presence of a settlement dating from 900 to 1200 CE.
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Before colonial times America was split into a number of tribes
The presence of Lidar scanning technology enabled the researchers to uncover previously unknown architectural details.
Dense foliage meant that previous land-based surveys were difficult to assess.
The drone-mounted Lidar swept across the region with ease and was able to shoot 16 users over the area.
This “enabled penetration through gaps,” in the thick forest.
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Professor Sassaman, unable to contain his excitement, told the Guardian: “This technology is unbelievable.”
The settlements discovered comprised of 35 residential areas “enclosed by edges of oyster shell” that tower up to 12ft tall, the researchers said.
As part of test excavations, field researchers dug down 3ft to assess the depth of the archaeological deposits.
Ten of these field studies were carried out before conclusions were made.
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The university where the drones’ findings were studied sits not too far to the east of Raleigh Islan
The islands are fairly impenetrable and covered in dense forestry
There is “abundant evidence” according to the researchers, that beads made from large marine mollusks were produced in these settlements.
This in itself was enough to excite the scientists, proving humans had once thrived in the area.
Adding to this, stone tools were found strewn in region that would have been used to make the beads, Professor Sassaman said.
While the shell beads were not used as a means of money, they were a form of “ritual wealth” among inland chiefdoms and social and political interactions.
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Chiefdoms would have associated these pieces with clout related to their name and tribe, he said.
Professor Sassaman said: “The discovery of possible bead production may provide information on past societies in eastern North America – and how beads were integral to social capital.”
The importance of these beads and the material they were made out of is easily identifiable when moving to the continents inland.
In regions such as the lower midwest, for example, sizeable sea mollusks were imported to create such pieces that signified social standing.
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Chiefs of the era would have requested that craftspeople turn them into beads and other valuable objects, the paper said.
The Tocobaga Indians lived in small villages along the west coast of Florida, in the Tampa Bay region from 900 to the 1500s.
Around 1528, Pánfilo de Narváez, a Spanish explorer, arrived in the Tampa Bay area, bringing with him and his fleet a range of disease and violence that ended in the demise of the native tribe over the next 100 years.