ST. PETERSBURG — The excavation of a 1,000-year-old canoe began at dawn Tuesday with a long trek through shallow water.
Rain poured. Smelly muck filled with sharp shells covered everything. Flesh-hungry sand gnats did what they do best.
And this was the fun part.
After years of anticipation, paperwork, fundraising and waiting for the tides to ebb just right, a small team of experts were finally ready to pull the prehistoric vessel from its grave at the Weedon Island Preserve.
The digging began early.
Oyster shells and goop were piled up one delicate trowel scoop at a time, revealing the outline of a long, narrow craft. At 40 feet, the vessel would have been large enough to travel across Tampa Bay.
The pine dugout canoe was less than a foot in the ground, but it was snug. Mud and other organic matter kept it from moving. Diggers were careful not to move too fast and rip it apart.
The excavators carefully scooped beneath the canoe, freeing it from the ground.
Once the first 10-foot section was clear, the saw came out. The plan called for slicing the vessel into four sections and reassembling them later, making it less likely to fracture.
Straps were wrapped around the section, and excavators lined up on either side.
"One, two, three," called out Robert Austin, the vice president and principal investigator for Southeastern Archaeological Research. "Perfect."
It stayed intact.
Then it was moved to a nearby boat and delicately placed on a foam pad.
Same for the second 10-foot section.
But the next two sections felt soft as dirt and looked as if they might crumble.
Rather than trying to pick them up with straps, crew members slipped a plastic sheet underneath.
The third section broke into several pieces as soon as it was picked up. The fourth section also cracked.
But none of the wood was lost, so the team hopes to piece it back together.
Once aboard the boat, the pieces were taken to a maintenance shed and placed inside a specially designed preservation tank. There they will remain for two years, mixing with fresh water for cleansing, and polyethylene glycol, or wax, for solidifying.
From there, the parts will be reassembled and put on display.
This was the first time many on the team saw the canoe in person. It was actually the first time they learned of its undisclosed location within the Weedon Island Preserve.
"To touch it was unreal," said George Stovall, a local chiropractor and a leader of a Weedon Island support group. "It was a big day for all of us."
Archaeologists have found older canoes, but nothing this large or in a saltwater environment. Experts said they were surprised the canoe didn't completely degrade in the harsh conditions.
The canoe is believed to date to 890 A.D. and is the oldest canoe ever found in Pinellas County. It's nearly double the size of previous finds.
The canoe was 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.