Short fiction



John W. Cowart

In his De Oraculorum Delectu, Plutarch records that in the reign of The Emperor Tiberius an Egyptian ship’s captain  named Thamus piloted his boat through a violent storm which blew the vessel far out into the Atlantic.
      Contrary winds pushed the ship west for days before Thamus regained control of the helm and made landfall at a coast he called Epirus (location unknown). Desperate for fresh water the sailors entered the mouth of a broad river. As Thamus neared the shore he heard many voices in the forest by the river screaming in grief, wailing and weeping and mourning as they shouted,  'The great god Pan is dead! He’s dead! The great god Pan is dead!'  (
Pan o megas teqnhken.)
        Terrified, Thamus and his crew refused to land but chose to retrace their course to the east. After a brutal voyage the ship landed at Sardis where the sailors spread the news they had heard from the eerie grieving voices in the forest.
       By examining Plutarch’s calendar of events during the reign of Tiberius, from ancient times scholars have dated this incident as having occurred on December 25th in the year One.
          I believe I have located the site of ancient Epirus.

Because of slanderous remarks printed in the popular press, I feel  it is only right that I begin this report with a brief statement of my professional qualifications:

I majored in archaeology at Florida State University graduating in 1974 and I earned my masters from the University of Arizona. I traveled to Germany and received my Doctorate from Tubingen University.

After that, I returned to Florida and for the past six years I have been a field archaeologist for the Florida State Historical Survey Board. During this time, I have acted as a consultant for the St. Augustine Restoration Commission. I have also conducted underwater research in the caves of Wakulla Spring and directed the excavation of the Interstate Highway System in the State of Florida. My mission for the Survey Board is to excavate and preserve historic and prehistoric sites threatened by construction and development as Florida's population expands.

Never before in my career has my professional integrity been called into question.

The Bluegill Mound is located in Mandarin, Florida, a suburb of Jacksonville. Mr. Fred Dubbs, a surveyor working on the Route Planning Commission laying the path for Interstate 295 -- Jacksonville bypass -- brought the mound to my attention. The property on which the mound is located has been in the possession of the Bluegill family since 1912. Before that, this parcel, a 500-acre tract numbered Du58 through Du62 in the University of Florida site survey file, was part of one of the McIntosh indigo plantations; and before that, it was included in the Don Benito land grant from the Spanish Crown. The land was purchased by the Federal government in 1996. In so far as I can determine, no previous owner of the land would have had the educational background necessary to perpetrate a hoax.

On November 12, 1997, I began excavation of the mound with a team of six archaeology students from Jacksonville University. Our first step was to clear the mound of dense undergrowth. The mound was covered with smilax, scrub palmetto and the thickest profusion of wild grape vines I have ever encountered. This may have been a clue to our later discoveries. We also removed four holly trees and numerous small oak trees. A large water oak, approximately 48 inches in diameter, which grew near the summit of the mound, we left standing at that time. There was absolutely no evidence that the mound had been disturbed in recent history.

The cleared mound proved to be an elongated oval eight feet six inches high and thirty-four feet long. The oval was oriented on an east-west axis and the west end was cut away by erosion due to inroads of a salt marsh at that end of the mound.

I decided to run a step trench from the east end of the mound to determine if the contents were of significant value to warrant the labor of removing the large water oak. I drew a base line along the longitudinal axis of the mound and laid out a grid system to pinpoint the exact location of each artifact uncovered. This entire dig was conducted in a totally professional manner; our techniques and procedures can be verified step by step from the extensive field notes compiled by myself and Ms. Rita Wilson, who acted as recorder. I am confident that any intrusion into the mound since it was originally constructed would have left evidence which we would have discovered. There was no such evidence.

With the exception of Dale Green, the team photographer, all the students had worked with me on previous digs in the Duval County area. We rotated the duties so that each student could gain experience in every phase of the work. Two men worked as excavators, another two took the wheelbarrows of dirt to the dump area where one man ran the dirt through a sieve to filter out small articles. I personally charted and recorded the artifacts in the trench while Ms. Wilson recorded beads, potsherds, teeth, etc. recovered by the sieve.

The work proceeded slowly because the ground was interlaced with matted roots from the extensive vegetation which we had removed. At no place in the work did we find this system of roots previously disturbed. This indicates that the primary burial must have remained intact since the original interment. If these remains are proved to be a hoax, then the perpetrators must have been Indians, and they did not cultivate goats.

In Grid E6, under two feet of soil, we uncovered the remains of an intrusive or "basket" burial. These remains included two adult males, three adult females and a child of undetermined sex. The only artifacts associated with these bones were 18 clay beads and the shards of an incomplete bowl (St. John's Check Stamped, Phase III, sand tempered). This pottery dates these remains in the late 16th Century. Such "basket" burials are quite common in Florida. The people who made them were not Mound Builders themselves, but moved into the area at a later time. These people, the Timuquana, still considered the mounds as "sacred ground" although they did not build mounds. Instead, the Timuquana stored the bodies of their deceased in a charnel house in their villages until all the flesh rotted away. All the bones in the charnel house were then gathered into a single basket which was buried in the side of an existing mound.

In Grid Es3, we uncovered the skeleton of an adult female, approximately 20-years old. Her's was a typical burial of the Florida Mound Builders. Apparently, each mound was begun around the palm log crypt of some chief, shaman or other important individual who would be the primary burial. A small mound would be raised over his crypt. As other individuals in the tribe would die, their bodies would be placed on the original mound in a flexed position and covered with dirt mixed with iron hematite to give the earth immediately around the body a red coloration, possibly signifying blood or life. Then the grave was covered with a thick layer of oyster shells to protect the body from animals and then more dirt was added to smooth out the contours of the mound. The skeleton in Es3 had been buried in this manner.

Her funeral offerings included two small bowls (Deptford series-shell stamped) and six flint arrowheads. A polished soap-stone pendant lay above the sternum. All the bones were badly broken up by the inroads of the roots. After the mound was fully excavated, we found it contained twenty-one individuals buried in this secondary fashion. All were young females approximately the same age. Later findings show that, other than the primary burial, there were no males or children buried in this mound, but fetal remains indicate that six of these females were pregnant at the time of death. In the light of later discoveries, these fetal remains bear further investigation. At the time we uncovered this first complete skeleton in Es3, we had detected nothing at all out of the ordinary about this mound.

The first indication that this mound contained unique remains occurred in grid Nw-18, at a depth of five feet below the present-day ground surface. There we uncovered a rough slab of coquina rock. This slab (6'X2'4"X3") lay in a horizontal position supported by four vertical slabs of the same material thus forming the first rock crypt found in the state of Florida. At first, I thought this was of Spanish construction because the Spanish made extensive use of coquina in their building programs. However, no object of European origin was uncovered during the entire excavation. Unless the skeleton in the primary burial came from Greece, I believe that the crypt was constructed by Native Florida Indians.

When we had removed enough sand to see that a rock crypt was involved, I decided to enlarge the trench, and starting at the present day surface, began to systematically level the entire mound.

The five slabs comprising the crypt were nor joined with mortar. They appeared to be natural slabs of unworked stone. At the northwest corner of the crypt, the stones did not touch and we found that it was not completely filled with sand.

Survey Board staff photographer Dale Green mounted a camera and fiber-optic light system on a periscope affair, and with this equipment, he was able to photograph the inside of the crypt before we removed the top slab. His photographs revealed the hollow chamber to be about two feet high with a smooth floor covered with sand washed in through the spaces between the stones of the coquina structure. The photographs also revealed a large effigy urn (Weeden Island- incised) partially buried in the silt and laying in such a position in the SE quadrant that it would have undoubtedly been broken as we removed the top slab if we had not been aware of the urn's location. Mr. Green has published a monograph on his periscope camera in Antiques Technology (Vol. IV #3. 1998). This technique should prove invaluable in examining ancient tombs before they are opened.

By rigging a block and tackle system from an overhanging oak branch we removed the top slab of coquina. We also removed the long side-slab at the south end to facilitate excavating the crypt. By this procedure, we recovered the effigy urn intact.

From this point on, I did the actual digging myself using small hand trowels and brushes. The rain-washed silt covered the floor of the crypt to a depth of 18 inches. Starting at the open south end of the crypt, I cut away vertical layers of sand down to virgin soil.

The first bones I uncovered were the humerus, radius and ulna of a left arm. The individual was stretched out on his back with his head to the east. From the small size of these bones, I first thought it was a young boy's burial. Among the bones of the left hand was a primitive wind instrument consisting of a graduated series of short vertical flutes bound together with the mouth-pieces in an even row. The pipes of the flutes were carved of polished soapstone and they were bound together with hammered copper bands.

I uncovered the ribs and found eight fresh-water pearls in the thoracic cavity. There were also twenty copper beads and by carefully removing the sand in the rib cage and charting the position of each bead, I was able to reconstruct the necklace as it must have been when it was originally strung.

As I worked down towards the hips, I realized for the first time that the bone structure was peculiar; the pelvic girdle seemed twisted and the upper ball joints of the femurs were set at an angle to the side. In the center of the pelvic girdle was a tapering curved shaft of bone fifteen inches long with smooth nobs at each end. It was a baculum (penis bone) such as is found in mink, dogs, goats, and whales.

At this point only the mid-section of the skeleton was uncovered and I coated the revealed bones with a mixture of cellulose acetate in sute to prevent their deterioration.

Near the left shoulder of the skeleton, I uncovered a shallow bowl (Weeden Island- cord marked) filled with oyster shells and peach pits, apparently the remains of a votive offering. Then I uncovered the skull itself. It was cracked in two places, probably the result of tree roots. However, the flicking of my brush revealed that growing from the temporal bones were the castings of two back-curving eight-inch corrugated horns.

And, when I removed the sand covering the unfamiliar bone structure below the pelvis, I found that his legs ended in small hooves.


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