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Archaeologists on Water Street project unearth the old so Vinik group can raise up the new

The first shovel turning soil on the $3 billion Water Street Tampa project belongs to archaeologists. The city requires an assessment from them before construction can begin, and they have produced a 71-page report on their work. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published May 28

TAMPA — New insights into the birth of Tampa are emerging alongside all the high-rises that will make up Water Street Tampa.

Project archaeologists have unearthed projectile points, gun flints, old toys and other artifacts, all tracing the lives of Native Americans, U.S. soldiers and one of the city's earliest African-American communities. Some date back 10,000 years.

"This is a huge amount of land to be able look at," said Paul Jones, project manager for Cardno, a global consulting firm with an office in Riverview that is leading archeological and historical assessment work for the $3 billion Water Street Tampa project. "Normally, when we do a survey, we get half a block and we are happy."

On Thursday, the company briefed the Tampa Bay Times on its work.

But neither Cardno, nor the Water Street development team, nor the city of Tampa are ready to talk yet about the most anticipated of their finds — human remains from the rediscovered 1830s-era Fort Brooke Estuary Cemetery north of modern day Channelside Drive.

Water Street Tampa uncovers graves from 1800s and more of city's past

They announced in November that they had found grave shafts, but only after the news leaked. Last week, they wouldn't even talk about why they can't talk.

Still, emails obtained by the Times indicate that plans have already been discussed for dealing with bodies.

"The Oaklawn cemetery is the site of previous reinterments of Ft. Brooke," Eric Prendergast, Cardno's principal project investigator, wrote in a September email to city officials. "So, we believe that it will be the more appropriate final resting place for these individuals."

The email did not mention how many bodies may have been found or whether they were U.S. citizens or Seminole Indians. Seminole remains are returned to the tribe.

Oaklawn is a historic city cemetery in the downtown area, to the north of the Water Street project. Fort Brooke is the military installation established near the mouth of the Hillsborough River in what today is downtown Tampa.

On Thursday, city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman would say only that no remains have been moved "to any of our cemeteries."

Meantime, the archaeology work continues.

There is always potential to find historic relics in downtown Tampa's soil, so the city issues building permits only after an archeological assessment is done, Cardno historian Lucy Jones said.

Long-lost graves found at Water Street Tampa were no surprise

Could DNA link ancient remains in downtown Tampa to the living?

Until Cardno gives a thumbs-up, only an archaeologist's shovel can dig into a parcel within the 50-plus acres where Water Street hotels, office buildings and residential complexes are planned.

Since early 2016, Cardno has been reviewing old documents to identify what artifacts might be expected in each section of the Water Street development.

Their findings were detailed in a 71-page report provided to the city and to developer Strategic Property Partners, formed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and billionaire Bill Gates' Cascade Investment.

Vinik also is part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who in 2017 loaned $12 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.

Speaking about the archaeology team, Strategic Property Partners said in a statement to the Times, "Their objective is to celebrate and honor the city's extensive history with respect and deference to all of the people who helped shape our community."

The earliest evidence of humans in the area was buried four feet down, "the prehistoric level," said Prendergast, the project investigator.

"Everyone came to Tampa for a reason," Lucy Jones said. "They needed water, they needed food and they needed shelter. It is how they accomplished each of those things that we are learning."

The archaeology team found projectile points that survived 9,000 years, northeast of the Nebraska Avenue-Channelside Drive corner, said Paul Jones, the project manager.

Native Americans had a town along the water, researchers have long known, and the team figured it extended farther north into the area that now makes up downtown, Prendergast said.

The projectile points prove that these earliest settlers were living "back in the woods, all over downtown Tampa."

The next inhabitants were the soldiers who manned Fort Brooke.

Romeo, the 'dog king' of Fort Brooke, survived 1839 massacre

Established in 1824 on what today is the southern end of downtown, the military post stretched east along the water from the river.

In front of Amalie Arena, Cardno found horse shoes, pottery, French wine seals and gun flints, all linked to the fort.

And west of where Ferg's Live restaurant and bar stood, before it was closed to make way for Water Street, they unearthed posts that were part of a Fort Brook building's foundation.

Cardno is now combing through the old documents to shed light on what they've discovered.

They were surprised to find artifacts indicating that soldiers were living outside the fort, immediately east of a Selmon Expressway on-ramp that's adjacent to Nebraska Avenue.

"Nobody expected to find anything going on out there," Prendergast said. "They were having fires and sharing meals."

Cardno excavated a trash pit two feet wide and two feet deep containing glass, gun flints, fancy plates, wine bottles and oyster shells.

By analyzing the shells, the archaeologists hope to identify the health of the maritime ecosystem from the era.

The fort was decommissioned 1883 and the land was broken into several parcels.

The area including the trash pit became the Garrison neighborhood, one of the city's earliest African American communities. Urban renewal claimed the district in the 1960s and warehouses were later built there.

Since then, it has drawn little interest among archaeologists, Prendergast said.

"A lot of the time people have just scraped over it to get to Fort Brooke," he said. "We wanted to look at it."

Just inches under the ground, they uncovered toys, soda bottles, perfumes and cosmetics that detail a thriving community with strong local businesses, Prendergast said.

All the Water Street artifacts will one day go on display at the Tampa Bay History Center and other museums.

"In Florida we tend to think of our cities as young," Prendergast said. "But this area is ancient. It has been lived in for 10,000 years continuously and the stories are all in the ground."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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