ST. PETERSBURG — A 40-foot canoe unearthed at the Weedon Island Preserve is the first prehistoric seagoing vessel discovered in Florida and likely was used by the area's first inhabitants more than 1,000 years ago.
"This is a very important historical find. We don't know of anything like it in Florida," said Phyllis E. Kolianos, environmental education coordinator for the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.
Archaeologists have found older canoes, but nothing this large or in a saltwater environment.
The discovery lends credence to the theory that the Tampa Bay area was once a center for maritime commerce.
"I believe that this may have been the heart of a huge trade network," said Hermann Trappman, a local artist who specializes in depictions of prehistoric life on the shores of Tampa Bay. "I am surprised that this is the first one they've found. There were probably hundreds of canoes here at one time."
In April 2001, St. Petersburg resident Harry Koran was strolling long the beach looking for old bottles when he noticed a strange line in the sand.
"I was amazed at how straight it was," he said. "At first I thought it was an old pipe." Koran got down on his knees and dug with his hands. "I knew it was wood," he said. "I could feel the curve of the hull."
Several years later, after the preserve opened its education center, Koran met Kolianis at a archaeology seminar. He told her of his find. Authorities took pictures then covered up the canoe.
"This is very delicate work," Kolianos said. "The safest place for it was in the ground until we could put a plan in place to do a detailed and thorough examination."
Before European colonization, the Tampa Bay estuary had the richest natural resources in Florida. These early inhabitants, known as the Weeden Island Culture, lived on a seemingly endless supply of oysters and mullet.
"They were happy, well-fed and had time on their hands to do other things, like build canoes and trade," Trappman said.
Pinellas County officials are not revealing the exact location of the canoe for fear of vandals and souvenir hunters. Kolianos and fellow preserve staff members returned to the site in December and once again dug up a section of the canoe that had since been vandalized. Additional photographs and a sample of the wood were taken.
A wood sample was sent to the Florida Museum of Natural History's Donna Ruhl, who specializes in such matters. In April, Weedon Island officials learned that the canoe was made of pine, which is typical of prehistoric dugouts, and it dated back to 890 A.D.
The early Tampa Bay residents were known for their simple, yet sophisticated pottery, often adorned with checked stamped patterns.
Officials are thrilled with the discovery, the latest of several major finds.
In the summer of 2000, a major drought exposed 87 dugout canoes at Newnan's Lake east of Gainesville. The freshwater canoes, ranging from 14 to 28 feet in length, were found to be between 500 to 5,000 years old.
In the 1960s, a canoe was discovered buried in the sand of Dog Island, off Carabelle on the Florida Panhandle. In 1983, the 18-foot long canoe was excavated and found to be more than 1,000 years old, but because of its relatively small size, the canoe was thought to be a coastal, not seagoing.
The Weedon Island canoe is also significant because it is the first "prehistoric" (before 1492) canoe found in Pinellas County. More important, however, is its size, which is nearly double that of previous finds.
In addition to the canoe, the preserve's staff also found a large pole, dating from the same era, that was probably used to help roll the boat in and out of the water.
The next step depends on several factors.
To preserve the canoe, it must be placed in a large tank and soaked in a mixture of water and polyethylene glycol, or wax.
"You heat up the water and that allows the wax to get in there and bond with the wood cells," said James Levy the Historic Conservator at the Bureau of Archeological Research in Tallahassee. "It is a long, slow process."
"We don't have a tank that big," he said. "If they want to preserve that canoe, they better have a plan in place before they take it out of the ground."
Pinellas County does not have funds in its current budget to excavate and preserve the canoe, says Kolianos. Such an undertaking would require additional staff.
"Preserving a canoe is an expensive process," said the state's Levy.
But the canoe has its champions. When informed of the find, St. Petersburg mayor and historian Rick Baker immediately pledged his backing.
"This is a true community treasure," he said. "We have to do whatever we can that this canoe is preserved, protected and stays in St. Petersburg."