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Key Questions

Unlocking Florida’s Ancient Past

Closed on February 5, 2024

Included with Museum Admission

Student interns examining artifacts in a lab.

What was shore life like in Florida thousands of years ago? Ancient artifacts preserved for centuries in the muck off Florida’s southwest coast continue to reveal secrets nearly 125 years after they were recovered.

Curated by three Penn undergraduate students, this small exhibition showcases an exceptional collection of the objects recovered in 1896 from an archaeological site in Key Marco, Florida. The site’s waterlogged conditions resulted in remarkable artifact preservation, causing their excavator Frank Hamilton Cushing to exclaim, “the discoveries I am now daily making are unparalleled in the annals of American archaeology!”

From wooden masks and bowls to fishing nets and shell tools, these objects provide clues to understanding the daily life of people who lived thousands of years ago. Highlighting the wood, pigment, and other organic materials that usually decay, this exhibit probes what we know about this amazing site, uses archaeological science to add new insights, and emphasizes the questions that still remain.

What's On View

A conch shell with holes in it, that was used as a tool.


Image 367331A

Shell Tool

Small crushing bowl with pestle.

#40201A, 40201B

Image 367335A

Wooden Mortar and Pestle

Large deep highly finished feasting trencher.


Image 367337A

Wooden Vessel

Human mask originally painted with turtle face designs. Slightly injured when found. Much shrunken.


Image 367345A

Wooden Mask with Pigment

Meet the Student Curators

Each year, the Penn Museum’s student exhibition program selects three undergraduate interns to collaborate with staff, expand their research with faculty, and create an accessible experience for Museum visitors, all while strengthening their skill sets for future careers.

Anna Hoppel in the field. Qi Liu in the field. Sydney Kahn in the field.

Anna Hoppel is a senior from Philadelphia in the PAFA/Penn BFA program, majoring in Fine Arts with a minor in Art History. Her passion is interdisciplinary research that combines art and archaeology, which she has explored in courses at the Penn Museum, work as a research assistant, and experience excavating with the Bat Archaeological Project in Oman. She is most interested in how organic materials from Key Marco show the importance of the local environment for sustaining everyday life.

Qi Liu is a junior student from Beijing, China, double-majoring in anthropology and art history. She is interested in the conservation of archaeological materials, which has led her to excavations in Azerbaijan, Oman, and Natchez, Mississippi. The Key Marco collection intrigues her as a site with extraordinary preservation conditions, and she is enthralled by the new interpretive possibilities that these well-preserved organic materials provide.

Sydney Kahn is a junior from Woodstock, Georgia majoring in Anthropology with a minor in Creative Writing. Since taking a fascinating introductory archaeology course, she has pursued her interests by working in the zooarchaeology lab and spending a summer on an excavation in Azerbaijan, and hopes to continue with museum work after graduation. She is most excited about the exhibit's focus on encouraging visitors and curators to ask questions together.