Origins of giant coral art is unknown
The two giant carved heads in Diane Tyma’s living room — boulder size, weighing about 200 pounds each — are an enigma wrapped in mystery. The coral boulders each feature a face. On “Specimen A,” as Tyma calls it, one of the eyeballs looks like a perfect sphere of brain coral. The other carved coral head features a prominent brow.
No one knows whether these are ancient artifacts or modern day garden art.
They were unearthed in the yard at the corner of Aviation Boulevard and Dolphin Drive in 2000 during a landscaping project involving a backhoe. The discovery of the first was a bit of an “Oh, gee” moment. But when the second one popped out of the ground, it was “whoa.” The owners of the property, who were readying it for sale, called Diane’s husband, Tom.
“He went over and looked at it and came home and told me about them. He said, “I kind of want them,” Diane said, smiling. In the end, the Tymas struck a deal. One Tahitian black pearl necklace — at the time the Tymas owned a jewelry store on Duck Key, All That Glitters — for the two coral heads. Ever since, Diane has been searching for an answer. She’s called in historians, artisans and tried to spark the interest of more than one archaeologist.
“I think this is a real Indian artifact from the Tequesta Taino tribe. They lived here in the Keys. These don’t look phony to me,” she said of the two pieces now mounted on coral and marble pedestals in her home.
The tribe, ultimately overrun by the Calusa Indians, had a presence in South Florida and the Keys from the third century BCE through 1794, when a Dutch cartographer noted the tribe on a map of this area. Unfortunately, there’s no way to date the art.
According to archaeologist Dr. William Keegan of the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History, dating this type of artifact is very difficult.
“Of course, there’s carbon in coral, but that doesn’t tell us when the art was made,” Keegan said. “The most common way we test something like this is by examining the organic material in the artifact, an organism that may have died when the art was being created.”
And, because it wasn’t discovered during a controlled archaeological dig, it isn’t possible to date it from other materials found nearby. Keegan said he’s compared them to known Taino artifacts and the heads are definitely one-of-a-kind.
“All we can do is base our conclusions on the information that we have,” he said, “And the style isn’t quite right.”
Keys historian and author Jerry Wilkinson is also intrigued by the heads. He said he will continue to work on authenticating the coral art, mentioned in the forward of his latest manuscript, which he said could have an Indian origin.
“I’m not giving up. There’s a first for everything, and these heads may be the first of their kind discovered in the Keys,” Wilkinson said. “We may not get the answer for two or three months. Or, it may be two or three decades. But we have to generate interest and get it out there.”
Diane certainly isn’t giving up. She has an entire folder of well-thumbed documents relating to the mystery, including a 2000 email from Chief Ortiz from the Taino tribal affairs office. Ortiz wrote that after examining the photo, it appears to be Tekesta Taino origin. He said it resembled the image of “one of the four grandfathers of humanity, the Caracaracoels.” Ortiz also noted the face seemed badly weathered.