SAFETY HARBOR — University of South Florida archaeologists are searching for the buried remnants of one of Tampa Bay’s most historic landmarks, the native town of Tocobaga.
The ruins of Tocobaga lie in Pinellas County’s Philippe Park, at a site known to archaeologists as Safety Harbor after the nearby city.
Some residents of the bay area may recognize the name “Tocobaga” only as a locally made variety of craft beer; others may be aware of the history of the Native chief Tocobaga and his town of the same name, where Pedro Menédez de Avilés, the first Governor of Spanish Florida, established a short-lived mission and fort in the 1560s.
Some of the site’s ruins are obvious; the mound where chief Tocobaga’s house was located 500 years ago still stands, offering a dramatic view of the bay for visitors to the park. Other ruins of Tocobaga are more subtle, obscured by developments associated with the plantation of the legendary settler Odet Phillipe in the 1800s and the creation of the county park in the 1940s. Today, picnic shelters and parking lots cover much of the former town of Tocobaga.
Now, USF archaeologists are bringing the buried ruins of Tocobaga to light. Using ground-penetrating radar and other technologies in combination with small-scale excavations, the USF team hopes to identify and map the buried remnants of the native town of Tocobaga, as well as Philippes’s plantation and even past park developments.
This is not the first archaeology completed at the Safety Harbor site. In the 1920s, archaeologists with the Smithsonian Institution completely excavated a burial mound at the site but their report of the work is only a few pages long. In the 1940s, archaeologists with the state of Florida completed small excavations in the “temple” mound and village.
“Archaeology has progressed a great deal in the 75 years since the last professional excavations at the Safety Harbor site, but unfortunately our understanding of the Tocobaga has not,” said USF Professor of Anthropology Tom Pluckhahn, Ph.D., in a press release.
Looking at a map of the GPR results, Pluckhahn can point to areas of higher radar reflection; some clearly indicate buried utility lines and other park-related infrastructure but excavations indicate that others represent areas where Native Americans left behind piles of food remains — especially the shells of oysters, clams, and conchs.
In addition to these shells, the team has recovered the bones of fish, turtles, and deer eaten by the Tocobogans, as well as hundreds of fragments of Native pottery and stone arrow points. They have also recovered bits of European pottery, bricks, and nails — probable remnants of the houses of Philippe, his slaves, and his descendants.
The results of the research will be presented in a report for the county as well as in academic journals. Pluckhahn also hopes it can be incorporated into new a interpretation of the site for the public, either in Philippe Park or at the Safety Harbor Museum or both.
“The Safety Harbor site is recognized as National Historic Landmark, one of less than 50 in Florida,” he said. “We need to do more to increase both academic and public understanding of this important site.”
Pluckhahn received special permission and permits for this project. Any unauthorized digging for and removal of archaeological artifacts from public lands is a violation of various state and local ordinances, and violators are subject to fines and possible jail.