Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A Long Delayed Return Home


The celebration of the homecoming of the world-famous Key Marco Cat has begun. Believed to have been carved by the Calusa Indians 500-to-1,500 years ago, the six-inch wooden statuette has returned to Marco for the first time since its 1896 discovery.

It and other Pre-Columbian artifacts unearthed during that archeological dig recently went on display at the Marco Island Historical Museum. The artifacts are on loan to the Marco Island Historical Society from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The events marking the artifacts’ return kicked-off in early January with a historically based play that tells the story of the expedition that discovered them.

Entitled “Voyage of the Silver Spray 1895-96, Digging up the part to discover the future!,” the original work was performed by the MIHS Historical Re-enactors theatrical troupe. The playwright is MIHS member Betsy Perdichizzi. She based the piece on two books authored by the anthropology PhD student who first unpacked the barrels containing the expedition’s findings in 1996, Marion Gilliland.

The cast recreated the roles of seven of the expedition’s 13 members, voicing dialog culled from their personal letters, diaries and documents which were published in Gilliland’s books.

“I began working on it last summer,” said Perdichizzi of the play which ran for two performances. “It took all summer just to compile the script and adapt it for the stage. Then we chose the cast and with seven people, it was a big cast for us. They, in turn, took home this prose script and converted it into language, without losing the flowery speech of yesterday. It was inspired by the arrival of the Key Marco Cat for 2½ years.”


The cast of “Voyage of the Silver Spray 1895-96, Digging up the part to discover the future!”: Bonnie Bozzo as Major Powell, left, Cindi Kramer as Maggie Collier, Judy Daye as Emily McGill Cushing, Durrell Buzzini as Frank Hamilton Cushing, Evelyn Case as Marion Gilliland,  Jory Westberry as George Gause and Caroline Rosenfeld as Wells Sawyer. To the rear is videographer Bill Hughes.


The play recounts the expedition’s beginnings in a chance meeting at the University of Pennsylvania office, where famed anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing first became aware of artifacts left behind by the Calusa. Inspired, he then formed the group that ultimately journeyed south to the then isolated and primitive island to conduct a thorough investigation for antiquities.

Cushing was joined by an official photographer and artist, Wells Moses Sawyer, chief excavator George Gause, and a collection of sailors and other crew. They rendezvoused in Tarpon Springs before departing for Marco in February of 1896 for the history making, five-week expedition. Their conveyance was a borrowed sponge boat dubbed “The Silver Spray.”

The three men were among the seven characters represented on-stage at the History Museum’s Rose History Auditorium. So were Gilliland, Cushing’s wife Emily and Maggie Collier who with her husband, Capt. Bill Collier, owned the then Marco Lodge, now the Olde Marco Inn, near where the excavation work took place. A Major Powell, who was Cushing and Sawyer’s boss at the Federal Bureau of Ethnology, today’s Smithsonian Institute, was also portrayed.  

“Voyage of the Silver Spray 1895-96, Digging up the part to discover the future!” provided a snapshot of the party’s individual thoughts and goals, their daily living conditions and the dig’s challenges, Calusa history and customs, and the historical significance of the relics they discovered.

Photos by Don Manley | Betsy Perdichizzi addresses the audience.

In the play, Cushing tells Sawyer “of a secret place that was even richer than where they were digging and it’s never been found,” noted Perdichizzi, post-performance. “It’s still here someplace on this island, under some building. A number of anthropologists and archeologists have come down and dug here and dug there and never found anything like Cushing found and he died before he could come back.”  

As MIHS Executive Director Pat Rutledge informed the audience before the curtain rose on the two-act play, “We’re about to travel back in time to 1896 when some very important treasures reappeared on Marco Island.”

Those “very important treasures” include a ceremonial mask, an alligator figurehead, painted human figure and a sea turtle figurehead all discovered beneath the roughly two feet of muck the expedition combed through while fighting the heat, rain, mosquitoes, sand flies and swampy conditions.

After being crated in barrels and shipped back to back to Washington, D.C., the rich trove of artifacts remained unopened after an associate falsely accused Cushing of having faked one of the items. The resulting controversy became public knowledge and cast a pall over the expedition. Frank Hamilton Cushing passed away in 2000 without ever making a hope for return trip to Marco for a second expedition.

The items remained in their crates until Gilliland, a Penn PhD student, opened the crates in 1996, for the first time in a century. In her books she helps dispel any rumors of fraud.

Carved from a native hardwood, the Key Marco Cat has been described as one of the finest pieces of Pre-Columbian Native American art ever discovered in North America. It and several other pieces from the dig are in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.

A public opening reception for the Key Marco Artifacts Exhibit is set for 9 AM to 4 PM on January 26 at the museum. It will include a ribbon cutting, live music, family-friendly activities and a performance of music of the Calusa by composer and musician Kat Epple and Anthropology Band.

The event will also serve as a grand reopening of the museum’s “Paradise Found: 6,000 Years of People on Marco Island” permanent exhibit. More than $350,000 in improvements to the exhibit were completed in December. The major enhancements to the existing displays, numerous additions to the immersive Calusa Village and major improvements to the display cases slated to house the Key Marco artifacts.

The Marco Island Historical Society is located at 180 S. Heathwood Drive. For more information about the exhibit and the opening reception, visit themihs.org or call 239-252-1440.

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