Bradenton excavation reveals more about Angola lifestyle

‘Layers of history’ give researchers a peek at how Angola settlers lived in Bradenton


A month-long excavation beneath the Manatee Mineral Springs Park is revealing forgotten details about an early 19th century settlement along the Manatee River.

For the past few weeks, archaeologists with New College and the University of South Florida have picked the site apart, looking for any hints into the lives of freedom-seeking slaves. It’s the same area where nearly 700 escaped slaves found refuge at a settlement called Angola before fleeing south to the Bahamas.

“The Manatee Mineral Springs is a place that Angolan-American settlers considered a special place. Within Bradenton, there are legends and stories that tie back to here,” said Uzi Baram, who led a team of archaeologists on the site. “We knew there was going to be lots of potential here. Over this month, that hope has really been redeemed.”

In a recent open house tour, Baram said they had already gathered several boxes of artifacts. Since then, the excavation has uncovered a host of interesting finds such as dog remains stored in a wooden box, a pit filled with glass bottles and four posts that may indicate a building used by Angolan settlers.

Archaeologists went layer by layer to reveal the artifacts. Baram noted that many of the findings aren’t actually from the Angolan era of the early 1800s.

“These trenches are the work we’ve done to remove the soil and reveal the layers of history,” Baram said. “There’s multiple strata that we’ve uncovered, that we’ve recovered materials from, that are helping us understand people who’ve lived here from the present 20th century, into the late 19th century, the mid 19th century — which is the Village of Manatee, the beginnings of Bradenton. Under that is a thin part that’s part of the Angola community that was here just at the beginning of the 19th century.”

Reflections of Manatee, a local historical group, is heavily involved in the project, which was funded with a $100,000 grant from the city of Bradenton. Sherry Svekis, vice president of the organization, said the excavation has been 15 years in the making.

“It’s been really, really gratifying,” she said. “I’m so excited to get back to the lab and interpret what these things are.”

Many of the findings don’t mean much as standalone objects, but when researchers consider how they may have been used by the community, it provides a historical snapshot of the Angolan lifestyle.

“We talk about small things forgotten,” Svekis explained. “Those are the things that really tell us. Finding buttons and pieces of pottery and marbles are the little things that tell us about how people lived.”

“We found the skeleton of a dog that was buried in a wooden box. It’s too early to know what period of time that was buried, but that says something about the people and what they cared about — that it was not just about crops or growing livestock, but they had pets. They had an animal that was very important to them in their lives,” she added.

Each discovery is personal for Daphney Towns, who organizes the Back to Angola Festival. A Bahamian descendant of Angola, the artifacts are likely her ancestors’ belongings. In an interview with the Bradenton Herald, she said many of the artifacts relate to traditions and pastimes from her own childhood.

“I’m like ‘Oh my God! I played marbles all my life. Give me that marble!’ These are all the things we saw people doing in our community,” Towns said. “This is so real. This is about us.”

Towns says she hopes to incorporate the archaeology team’s findings into school lessons in the Bahamas.

There are still a few more days of work before the excavation team wraps up the project on Friday. After that, each of the artifacts will be cleaned and analyzed at the New College of Florida Public Archaeology Lab, where Baram is tasked with putting together a report over the next nine to 12 months.

“Things like the pieces of ceramic help us with dating and function, but then we can lay out how that all gets stitched together,” Baram said. “That image of a puzzle of 1,000 pieces — we’ll never have all the pieces, but of the pieces we have, let’s tell that story and the meaning of it.”

Depending on the findings, certain items and information may be displayed at the Reflections of Manatee Visitor Center.

The site will be soon be used for an eastern expansion of the Riverwalk, which city officials plan to begin this summer. Svekis said she hopes many of the historical aspects of the park can be built into the design of the new recreational area.

Reflections of Manatee has posted this for educational purposes with many thanks to Ryan Callihan. Ryan is the Bradenton Herald’s County Reporter, covering local government and politics. On the weekends, he also covers breaking news. Ryan is a graduate of USF St. Petersburg.