ST. PETERSBURG — One spring day in 2001, a Largo man looking for old bottles on a beach in the Weedon Island Preserve came upon a long, brown line peeking out of the sand.
Intrigued, he started digging with his fingers. It was wood, and as he dug deeper he uncovered the curve of what he thought was the bow of a canoe.
Fourteen years later, the journey of one of Pinellas County's most important archeological treasures is about to come to an official, celebratory end.
Today, preservationists, history buffs and county officials will unveil the 1,100-year-old canoe that Harry Koran stumbled upon that day on the shoreline of Old Tampa Bay. It was an adventure that was by turns exciting, tedious and frustrating, but undoubtedly worth it, said Phyllis Kolianos, an archaeologist who served as a chief preservationist on the project.
"It really was a huge learning experience because no one had ever dealt with a saltwater canoe before," Kolianos said Friday as she stood over the ancient canoe in its new exhibit at the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.
Koran, at the time a Winn-Dixie meat cutter who had an interest in history and archaeology, came to the center after it opened in 2003 to share photos of his find. Kolianos, who was then the center's education manager, knew it was an important find, but four more years would pass before she could get a team of experts to the site. The spot is only accessible by boat, and the team had to time its visit with the extreme low tide.
What they found was extraordinary: the first canoe ever discovered in a saltwater environment in the southeast United States or Caribbean. Dug out of pine and nearly 40 feet long, it was also the longest prehistoric canoe ever discovered. The gunnels have eroded and the stern had broken off, so researchers think the canoe was even longer. But they don't know if it was single hull canoe, an outrigger or part of a catamaran.
Radiocarbon dating put the canoe at about 890 A.D., in the time of the Late Weeden Island culture, when the area teemed with indigenous hunter-gatherers who made colorful pottery.
In 2011, the nonprofit Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research undertook a painstaking yet hasty excavation, racing against the tide to recover the canoe in one trip. The pieces were placed in a specially designed tank, cleansed with freshwater and then soaked in polyethylene glycol, or wax, for solidifying. When the pieces were removed three years later, researchers discovered small holes that had been carved in the canoe, but they don't know what purpose they served. It took a year for the canoe to dry.
"The whole process really was trial and error," said Bob Austin, the other chief preservationist on the project. "We sweated over it, we worried about it, but it came out fine."
The canoe was recently lowered into a custom-made metal display cradle, where it rests on dozens of tiny pads. Informational display boards and a seven-minute video tell its story. The effort cost roughly $70,000 and was funded with major support from the Friends of Weedon Island, the Hough Family Foundation and the Florida Humanities Council.
After today's unveiling, researchers will get back to work buoyed by the success.
Said Kolianos: "There are other things out there that will tell us a lot more about the Weeden Island culture and the people who lived in this area, so we're going to use this as a springboard to do more research."
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News researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.