Skeletons waited for Ryan Wheeler in the basement of a prestigious Massachusetts institution. It was November 2012 when the Floridian and archaeologist began pulling out rows of economically built wood filing cabinets, as if Ikea existed a century ago. He found bits of pottery and items that were buried with the dead over the course of centuries. They had been unearthed along with thousands of Native American remains that ended up in the institute’s storage. Wheeler knew none of them should be there.
For Wheeler, 53, the finds were equal parts exciting and overwhelming. He had just begun his job as director of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, located at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Founded in 1901, the Peabody is a venerable institution and among the nation’s major holders of Native American archaeology, dating back more than 10,000 years. Descending into the recesses of the red-brick building, Wheeler discovered many of the collections hadn’t been properly cataloged. He began the daunting task of sifting through every drawer. The institute’s staff of five, along with temporary workers brought on for the task, pulled out each drawer and digitized all of the contents. It felt, he says, like discovering those burial plots all over again.
From the beginning, Wheeler noticed a sizable collection of artifacts from Florida. Having grown up in Lauderhill and having earned three degrees from state universities, he was a Florida boy, and so he gravitated to those drawers first. What he found astounded him and would eventually help uncover an archaeological site that no one knew existed, one that may soon have been paved over for good. It would also start a yearslong effort and a circuitous trip to return native Floridians back to their home soil.