Published: 12:31 PM - 05-29-12
ORLANDO, Fla. -- At first, it appeared to be a discovery with sinister implications: Two skulls unearthed by a swimming pool contractor in a Winter Garden, Fla. neighborhood.
Now, the human remains are the focus of an archaeological mystery.
The skulls, about a dozen pottery shards and textiles were discovered in the sand in January - a finding that left a team of anthropologists and archaeologists scrambling to figure out how the items came to rest there.
Experts have learned a lot about the artifacts since they were found, but a key question remains: How did they get there?
"This is definitely a secondary burial site," said Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner Dr. Jan Garavaglia.
Pieces of shredded English-language newspaper, dated March 16, 1978, were found alongside the artifacts and added to the mystery.
"We know that they were not placed in that location until after that date," said Dr. John Schultz, a University of Central Florida anthropology professor who assisted Garavaglia with the remains.
Garavaglia and Schultz examined the skulls a day after they were discovered and knew almost immediately they were not dealing with forensic remains, but something much older.
They contacted Florida's Bureau of Archaeological Research to obtain permission to keep the remains for further study.
The bones held clues about their origin. An extra bone present in the back of one of the craniums is known as the "Inca bone."
The smaller cranium had bits of mummified tissue affixed to it. Both pieces of evidence pointed to South America.
After X-rays were taken, Schultz and Garavaglia determined the skulls belonged to an older man and a child who was about 10 years old.
The textiles -- an intricately woven purse, a sling and a netted carrying bag -- and the pottery are consistent with the Chancay culture of coastal Peru and date back to between 1200 to 1470 A.D., Schultz said.
A discovery like this is rare, said Dr. Daniel Seinfield, with the Bureau of Archaeological Research.
"It's clear that these bones are not from Florida and are not related to the state's native ancient peoples," Seinfield said. "These were placed here by modern people who somehow acquired them."
International antiquities laws have been in place in various countries since the early 1900s, but the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property has made it illegal to purchase or transport human remains and artifacts since 1970.
Before that, tourists were known to purchase human remains and artifacts as vacation souvenirs from other countries.
"People used to collect these (artifacts) as curiosities," Seinfield said. "Today it's highly illegal ... and highly unethical."
The tract of land where the bones were found was once known as Harlem Heights, a former orange grove migrant-worker camp. Over the course of three decades, thousands of white, black, Mexican, Jamaican, Dominican and Haitian pickers came to live in the village of wooden barracks that once stood there.
The area was abandoned in the mid-1980s and later sold to developers.
Initially authorities thought the items could have been used as part of a religious or spiritual ritual, or even buried there by migrant workers who brought their ancestral remains to Central Florida.
For now the remains and artifacts will stay at the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner's Office where Schultz plans to lead a scientific study that will be used in the future as a teaching aid.
Ultimately, Seinfield recommends that they attempt to return the items to Peru.
Until then, Garavaglia said, "We will treat them with dignity."
Edited by Brenda Booth