ST. PETERSBURG — After years of anticipation, experts armed with trowels will begin to unearth a 1,000-year-old mystery this morning that could help shed light on Tampa Bay's rich past.
The find, a 40-foot canoe, has been buried in an undisclosed location at the Weedon Island Preserve since it was first discovered in 2001 by a resident searching for old bottles.
It represents the first prehistoric seagoing vessel discovered in Florida, possibly the Southeast, and helps show the seafaring culture of a people long past.
"It makes the story of these prehistoric people much more visible and tangible to the general public," said Robert Austin, the vice president and principal investigator for Southeastern Archaeological Research Inc.
The pine canoe is known as a dugout because it's carved from a tree trunk. At 40 feet, with a raised bow, it would have been large enough for travel across Tampa Bay for trade purposes.
"It certainly has all the attributes of being able to go the distance," said Phyllis Kolianos, the program coordinator for the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.
Although it has spent years marinating in saltwater and muck, time will be against excavators today as they work to remove the vessel during low tide.
They'll have no more than four hours before water rushes back and makes the site inaccessible.
The work begins early.
Around dawn, crews will motor over to the site and begin to build a sandbag coffer around it that will give them more time to remove the boat.
As the coffer goes up, other workers will start digging the boat out by hand and with small trowels.
Excavators can't use heavy equipment for fear of damaging the hull.
"You don't want to dig into it," Kolianos said.
Once the vessel is uncovered, it will be cut into four sections, each about 10 feet in length. Conservationists opted to cut the vessel and reassemble it later, saying that this would provide the lowest chance of fracturing.
It will then be placed on slings and hoisted onto foam on a boat. From there, it will immediately be transported to a specially crafted tank.
The 12- by 5-foot tank is essential to the conservation process. The canoe will first be cleansed with freshwater. Polyethylene glycol, or wax, will then be mixed in with the water to preserve the canoe and keep it from degrading. It's a long, slow process that will last about two years.
From there, it will be reassembled and put on display.
"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for the people of Tampa Bay to understand the rich cultural resources we actually have in this area," Kolianos said.
All in all, the restoration and display will cost about $30,000.
Archaeologists have found older canoes, but nothing this large or in a saltwater environment. It's surprising that the vessel hasn't degraded in harsh conditions over the past centuries.
"Honestly, it is kind of a mystery to me why it is preserved," Austin said.
The pine dugout dates back to 890 A.D. and is the first "prehistoric" (before 1492) canoe found in Pinellas County. It's nearly double the size of previous finds.
The canoe was first discovered in April 2001 by St. Petersburg resident Harry Koran. Several years later, after the preserve opened its education center, Koran told preserve officials about the find.
It's a large find for the Weedon Island Preserve.
"This kind of puts us on the map again," said Kolianos.
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804.