Ortona is an enormous 500 acre+ town site and ceremonial complex, located on the Caloosahatchee River, west of Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida. 1 It is located on the southern edge of Glades County. The modern name for the site is Italian and was given by early real estate speculators. Archaeologists currently do not know what the citizens of this community called it.
Ortona’s primary period of occupation was 300 AD- 150 AD, but (probably) Calusa People continued to occupy the site up until the 1600s. 1 The period of greatest growth was between 500 AD – 800 AD, after which Wakata (to the east) became the dominant town of the densely populated Lake Okeechobee Basin. Ortona contains mounds and earthworks in forms that predate by 300-500 years similar architecture elsewhere.
The Caloosahatchee River is a large river that flows about a hundred miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico near Fort Myers. Early wooden dugout canoes were used in Florida to travel the Everglades, the many lakes and along rivers. The waters would allow you to travel on a river to Lake Okeechobee. From the lake you can select another river to continue your journey. It was a natural transportation hub. Trade from the east coast could cross the lake, go west on the Caloosahatchee to the gulf, and return. To the north the Gulf coastline has more rivers that go inland hundreds of miles. Such travel would be an efficient way for ideas and cultural values to spread.
Around 900 AD southern Florida became dominated by a unified province composed of the Wakata-Mayami people around Lake Okeechobee, the Tequesta People on the southeastern Atlantic Coast and the ancestors of the Calusa on the southwestern Gulf Coast. 1 At this time the people of southern Florida all started producing the same style of unadorned, utilitarian pottery, while 500 miles to the north, a trading center was established on the Ocmulgee River in what is now Macon, GA.
The primary style of pottery produced at Ocmulgee also lacked decorative treatment. Ocmulgee’s Plain Redware pottery was almost identical to the Maya Plain Redware, which is endemic in the suburbs of Maya towns and cities, where the commoners lived. 2
Some unknown event caused the abandonment of the Lake Okeechobee towns around 1150 AD. 1 This is roughly the same period that the earliest Caribbean Arawak community sites are found in northeastern Florida. The many platform mound complexes in the St. Johns River Lake Country were at least temporarily abandoned as the number of newcomer (Timucua) villages increased. Also, that this same time, construction ceased at the acropolis at Ocmulgee Mounds. The abandonment of the Lake Okeechobee towns may have nothing to do with the movement of human populations, however. The culprit could have been as simple and catastrophic as a direct hit by a Category Five hurricane.
The period from c. 1150 AD to 1700 AD is labeled Belle Glade V in this reports nomenclature. The Calusas became dominant in southern Florida after the large towns around Lake Okeechobee were abandoned. 1 At virtually the same time, the acropolis of Ocmulgee was abandoned. By this time, Ocmulgee had grown to a Maya-style conurbation stretching about twelve miles along the river. Its real name was probably Waka. Ocmulgee will be discussed in a forthcoming mini-series.
- Carr, Robert S., Dicke, David & Mason, Marilyn. “Archaeological investigations at the Ortona Earthworks and Mound.” The Florida Anthropologist, Vol. 48, No. 4. December 1995.
- Thornton, Richard. Ancient Roots III: The Indigenous Peoples and Architecture of the Ocmulgee-Altamaha River Basin. Raleigh: Lulu Publishing. 2008; p.95.