First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 109

SPOTLIGHT SPOTLIGHT: KEY MARCO CAT Unknown Calusa artist, ca. 700–1450 CE, incised hardwood, likely buttonwood, approximately 6 in., collection of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, A240915. By Mariah L. Ashbacher and America Meredith S UBTROPICAL KEY MARCO, south of Naples, Florida, was one of the Ten Thousand Islands, a group of small barrier islands and mangrove islets situated just off the Gulf Coast of South Florida. What was once the Key Marco site is now Marco Island, Sadly, its mounds have been leveled and built upon. In 1895 Colonel Charles Day Durnford, a retired British officer, discovered several artifacts belonging to the Indigenous people of the Key Marco area centuries earlier. 1 Shortly after Col. Durnford unearthed the Marco artifacts, he met the Smithsonian anthropologist Frank H. Cushing (1857–1900), known for his studies with the Zuni, who trav- eled to Marco to examine the site himself. In 1896, Cushing led the Pepper-Hearst Expedition to Marco Island and disin- terred “one of the most spectacular assemblages of artifacts in the history of North American archaeology,” as Austin J. Bell, curator of collections for the Marco Island Historical Society, notes. 2 An estimated 90 percent of material culture in precontact Native settlements was perishable. Textiles, feathers, baskets, hide, and wood—these materials almost always returned to the earth, especially in wet climates such as coastal southwest opposite The Key Marco Cat is one of the finest pieces of pre- Columbian Native American art ever discovered in North America. Image courtesy of Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution (A240915), and the Marco Island Historical Society, Marco Island, Florida. Florida. In those early days of archaeology, the technology to preserve organic objects that had spent centuries submerged did not exist. Cushing reported that less than half of the objects members of the expe- dition pulled from the muddy swamps survived deterioration for more than a few days. 3 Only rare fragments allow us to speculate what the once vast corpus of precontact woodcarvings may have looked like. Yet, miraculously, a cache of elegant woodcarvings—at once stylized and representational—were preserved through the centuries in the muck of a Florida swamp. The oxygen-deprived depths of the swamp saved the graceful figurines, ambassadors from ancient cultures to spark the imagination of present and future generations. These are the Key Marco artifacts, and none is more alluring than the mysterious Key Marco Cat. The six-inch feline-human effigy, believed to date from approximately 700 to 1450 CE, kneels with its legs curled under, resting back on its haunches. The figure’s arms are taut, pushing its shoul- ders rounded up and forward, with hands modestly resting on its thighs. Carvings on each side of the figure, from the shoulders to the back of the body, form a spiral, possibly indicating the kind of sinewy musculature observed in a Florida panther. On its back, a long sleek feline tail has been carved in relief against the spinal column, extending upward to the back of its head. The cat’s vast round eyes stare out in a hypnotic, watchful gaze, and its rounded ears stand alert with the rest of the graceful feline features, delicately and expertly incised, terminating in a pert nose and pursed mouth. Scholars believe that the cat’s carver was from the Calusa people, possibly Muspa, a Calusa subtribe known to inhabit the area at least since the 16th-century arrival of the Spanish. “In addition to the Key Marco Cat,” writes Ben Brotemarkle, director of the Florida Historical Society, “Cushing’s team exca- vated vibrantly colored ceremonial masks and other carved objects, identifying the Calusa as one of the most artistic tribes to inhabit Florida prior to European contact.” 4 Archaeologists consider the Key Marco Cat to be stylistically distinct from woodcarvings from other regions of North America. The elegant feline-human figure was carved from an unidentified tropical hardwood, likely using shell scrapers and shark teeth, and then seasoned with protective layers of animal fat. Since Cushing’s excavations were a joint effort between the Smithsonian and the University of Pennsylvania, artifacts were split between the two institutions. Some were eventually transferred to the National Museum of Natural History and the Florida Museum of Natural History. Durnford’s initial finds were donated to the British Museum in July 1895, and today they are located in the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the British Museum. 5 The Key Marco Cat will be on display at the Marco Island Historical Society until April 2021. Related artifacts can be seen in the museum’s permanent exhibition, Paradise Found: 6,000 Years of People on Marco Island, but the reunion with this very special cat represents the first time these objects have been together in the more than 120 years since their discovery. 1. Colonel Durnford was in the Key Marco area when he made his initial discoveries. He detailed his account in an article “The Discovery of Aboriginal Netting Rope and Wood Implements in a Mud Deposit in Western Florida,” in the American Naturalist (November 1895). See also Annette L. Snapp, “The Durnford Collection,” The Florida Anthropologist 49, no. 4 (December 1996): 267–73. 2. Austin J. Bell and the Marco Island Historical Society, Marco Island (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2017), 10. 3. J. Alden Mason, “Primitive Wooden Masks from Key Marco, Florida,” Archaeology 4, no. 1 (March 1951): 4–5, web. 4. Ben Brotemarkle, “Florida Frontiers: Key Marco Cat provides clue to Calusa tribe,” Florida Today (January 12, 2015), web. 5. Snapp, “The Durnford Collection,” 263. SPRING 2019 | 107