By Michael Moore Jr., Staff Writer-HeraldTribune.com, January 9, 2020
The excavation costs $100,000 and is being paid for by the City of Bradenton ahead of the Bradenton Riverwalk expansion.
A historic preservation group and local archaeologists spent Manatee County’s 165th birthday digging into its past.
They’ll spend the next few weeks doing the same until Jan. 31, when the excavation at Manatee Mineral Springs Park is set to end. Until then, that’s where you’ll find New College of Florida anthropology professor Uzi Baram and field director Sherry Svekis of the preservation society Reflections of Manatee — directly in the path of the expanding construction for Bradenton Riverwalk.
But before the Riverwalk expansion changes the landscape of the park, Baram, Svekis and their team of archaeologists have a 30-day window to unearth Manatee history dating back to the 1700s — an opportunity that doesn’t come every day and one that Baram is thankful for.
“Most archaeology is done under tremendous constraints, so you walk into a project like this knowing that you have a limited amount of time, but I’m very pleased with how things are going so far,” said Baram, the director of the New College Public Archaeology Lab, who is supervising the project.
The $100,000 excavation, which is being paid for by the City of Bradenton so they can preserve its history before the looming expansion, has already unearthed 10 boxes worth of artifacts in the week and a half of digging, according to Svekis. Some of the items have included ceramics, clay tobacco pipes, glass bottles, buttons, cotton, nails and spikes. Evidence suggests that the park was home to both Native Americans and early Manatee settlers at one point.
Baram hopes that by finding little pieces of their history, he can help preserve their stories.
“We want things people can relate to so they can imagine the people who come before us — it’s about saving the lives of those who have passed. The hope as an educator is that we can inspire people to want to learn more about the past,” said Baram.
He and his team are resurrecting the often forgotten story of the Angola freedom seekers — a group of former slaves who sought a new life and created a community of their own that stretched from Manatee River down to Sarasota Bay and may have included around 700 people before it was destroyed in 1821.
Baram hopes that by unearthing artifacts that tell the stories of these people, we can put ourselves in their shoes and glean some kind of insight from it.
“We live in challenging times, but not uniquely challenging times. It’s helpful to realize that people were living here that faced tremendous challenges and succeeded. The Angola story is proof of that. They struggled for their freedom and they found it here on the shores of the Manatee River,” said Baram.
A few years after the Angola community dissolved, with many of its members settling in the Red Bay area of the Bahamas, Josiah Gates and his family came to settle along the Manatee River with his family in 1842 in a party led by surveyor Sam Reid. Manatee County would then be established on Jan. 9, 1855 — 165 years ago on Thursday.
“You can stand here and look at the river and realize that not only are you seeing the same thing that they saw, but looking at these tools can help you imagine what Josiah Gates and his family, what the Angolans, what the Native Americans all saw and felt,” said Baram.
Baram, Svekis and the team will be sharing their findings at an open house on Jan. 20 at the Reflections of Manatee visitor center. Supervised tours are also planned.
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