MANATEE COUNTY -- Fourteen hundred years ago, an indigenous people lived at the mouth of the Manatee River.
They settled in a small village where they fished, harvested, lived and worshipped. The river was good to them. They ate shellfish and small game, and built inland huts and a temple.
The temple was a sacred site where the bodies of tribal leaders were buried. In a religious ritual, they periodically burned the temple and built it again.
Today, the remains of their dead are under a white sand mound that rests in the shade of mansions and holds the history of Manatee County's first settlers.
The Native American burial mound could be in jeopardy, however, as developers eye the historic site, which was put on the market recently by the South Florida Museum.
A three-person executive committee made the decision to sell the mound, although a board of more than 50 people will have to approve any deals.
Board President Jeff King, a Bradenton accountant, said the museum needs the money for new exhibits and has trouble maintaining the 20-foot mound.
Yet critics say the museum is casting aside its commitment to preserving history.
"I'm astonished that they're selling it," said Bill Burger, a local archaeologist who has studied similar sites throughout Southwest Florida. "They have said that the mound doesn't 'fit their mission.' What is their mission if it's not this?"
A wealthy land baron gave the mound property to the museum in 1974; it is valued at $147,500 and the museum's board is looking for $200,000 or more. The one-acre site in northwest Bradenton is now in the vicinity of waterfront mansions, including the home of pro golfer Paul Azinger.
Sometime in the last few weeks, the board rebuffed an overture from a local developer who owns a house adjacent to the mound and plans to build 15 homes to the south. The offer, from developer Bill Manfull, was short of what the museum is looking for.
Museum board members have vowed to make sure the mound is protected. They would like a buyer to make a commitment to saving the mound; a developer could move the mound to another site with the participation of historians, archaeologists and Native American groups.
"We're interested in its preservation," King said last week. "Any possible buyer has to be willing to preserve it."
Manatee County entered the fray when officials last week questioned the potential sale and tried to find a way to save the mound. While the county does not plan to make a bid, Charlie Hunsicker, the conservation lands management director, said officials are exploring grant possibilities to take over the maintenance.
"Our mindset is to preserve it," he said. "So that's how we're pursuing it."
The county already looks after another mound on Emerson Point, while the state takes care of the Madira Bickel Mound in Terra Ceia.
The site in question -- known as the Pillsbury Temple Mound, after famed landowner Asa Pillsbury -- is recognized by state officials, and could be eligible for a 2007 preservation grant, Hunsicker said.
Nearby residents have started to look for state or federal funds as well. ScottBassett, a lawyer who lives in the area, said King has promised not to make a sale until "we fully explore other avenues."
"This area is just incredibly rich in Native American heritage," said Scott Bassett, a lawyer who lives about 100 yards from the site. "We've managed to wipe out 99 percent of the evidence of their existence. Now we're doing the same to the few remaining pieces."
Archaeologists say the Pillsbury Temple Mound was likely active in 600 A.D., and an expedition in the 1960s revealed 147 burials and numerous ceramic artifacts -- including pottery that now is in a South Florida Museum exhibit. The indigenous people who built the temple would have stored the bones of high-ranking leaders there, ritually burning the structure and building it again and again.
"Often times, the temple mound is associated with religious ceremonies," said Richard Estabrook, an archaeologist with the Museum of Science and Industry. "In that regard they would be much like our churches and synagogues."
Inside could be a treasure trove of information, some that sheds light on a culture that died long ago. Little is known about the groups that first lived on the banks of the Manatee River; researchers, in fact, have never settled on a name.
"It's a significant site," Burger said. "It's worth fighting for and preserving."
The Pillsbury Temple Mound is up for sale and could soon be developed. Archaeologists say the site is critical, because it could shed light on one of the oldest civilizations along Florida's west coast.
While little is known about the people who lived here thousands of years ago, researchers have several theories:
The thriving estuaries and woodlands probably made for ample food. The tribes ate clams, mollusks and other shellfish, but also hunted small game and fished in area waterways. Bottlenose dolphins and sea turtles were also staples of the diet.
They lived in "kin groups" of 30 to 40 family members. Inland huts were likely for low-ranking members of a band; the chief lived in the temple built atop the burial mounds.
Spanish conquistadors such as Hernando de Soto documented several names -- such as Caloosa and Tocobaga -- but they are probably misnomers for the groups in Manatee County. Historians say the names could refer to their language, where they lived or even the chief.
Published February 18, 2007 at http://www.heraldtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070218/NEWS/702180308