Florida Book Awards, Bronze Medal for Florida Nonfiction
Secrets of an iconic artifact
“An outstanding book on one of North America’s most iconic artifacts. We follow the Cat from its origins as a tree in a forest a few centuries ago to its manufacture and use by Native Americans in Florida to its rediscovery by archaeologists in 1896 and its continuing odyssey.”—Torben C. Rick, curator of North American Archaeology, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
“Painstakingly researched and cleverly written, this comprehensive exploration will appeal to historians, researchers, and those who, like so many, have simply been captivated by the Cat’s powerful mystique.”—Laura Lott, president and CEO, American Alliance of Museums
“Mysterious, iconic, and compelling, the Key Marco Cat defies facile characterization. In this well-researched book, Bell reveals stories of its nine lives that are sure to surprise and entertain. Does any cat really give up its secrets? Austin lets us in on some of them, and the result is a delight.”—William H. Marquardt, curator emeritus, Florida Museum of Natural History
“The Key Marco site and the Cat have been known throughout the world since 1896. This book alerts all Floridians to the state’s heritage that has been lost because of various destructive projects such as roadbuilding, phosphate mining, housing and business development, and peat mining.”—Barbara A. Purdy, coauthor of How to Do Archaeology the Right Way, second edition
Excavated from a waterlogged archaeological site on the shores of subtropical Florida by legendary anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing in 1896, the Key Marco Cat has become a modern icon of heritage, history, and local identity. This book takes readers into the deep past of the artifact and the Native American society in which it was created.
Austin Bell explores nine periods in the life of the six-inch-high wooden carving, beginning with how it was sculpted with shell and shark-tooth tools and what it may have represented to the ancient Calusa—perhaps a human-panther god. Preserved in the muck for centuries on Marco Island and discovered in pristine condition due to its oxygen-free environment, the Cat has since traveled more than 12,000 miles and has been viewed by millions of people. It is one of the Smithsonian Institution’s most irreplaceable items. In this fascinating account, Bell traces the clues to the Cat’s mysterious origins that have emerged in its later lives.
Captivating readers with the miracle and beauty of this rare example of pre-Columbian art, Bell marvels at how an object originally understood to hold cosmological power has indeed transformed the people and places around it. The Nine Lives of Florida’s Famous Key Marco Cat is the story of a timeless masterpiece of staggering simplicity that has prevailed over impossibly long odds.
Austin J. Bell is curator of collections for the Marco Island Historical Society and a consulting scholar at the Penn Museum. He is the author of Marco Island.
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