The importance of the recovery of a 1,100 year old dugout canoe from a Tampa Bay shoreline last week will play on for years to come. Some might say that the challenges we faced during recovery are quintessential to archaeology in Florida. I would agree. But, as a member of the small team of archaeologists, Pinellas County employees, and volunteers who excavated through oyster mud hash to expose and recover the canoe, I observed and was energized by a determined and dedicated effort. The crew outstripped many of those difficulties… muck, bugs, tides, waves, and an out of the way location to name just a few. Here, the lesson I learned is that it takes a team… to recover a nearly 40 foot long dugout canoe.
We met before dawn to take advantage of the last of the seasonal low tides. Those in charge coordinated a few of the remaining details. Geared up and ready, we headed out for a local boat ramp previously selected for launching. The crew dropped two boats in the water (we had three for sand bag deployment the day before but as these things go – mechanical stuff breaks down). The smaller boat that I sat in was first to arrive at the site. The salt, the mud, the air had seen this type of day before. As a weak cold front languished overhead and battered down in spats, the rain helped cool the smear of that recognizable tidal flat smell.
With only one end intact, the dugout canoe measured approximately 38’ (feet) in length overall. Working quickly during a low, low tide that left the shoreline relatively dry, the crew prepared the ancient vessel for recovery. To begin, we uncovered the remains with hand digging, trowel scraping, and shovel shaving. Once exposed, archaeologists sectioned the remains before cradling each in a system of slings and plastic sheeting for transportation across calf deep waters to a quietly waiting deck boat. Experts decided upon a previous visit to the site that sectioning the dugout remains would be the most effective method for recovery.
Many reasons factored into this decision and ultimately led archaeologist Ray McGee and state of Florida conservator James Levy, both responsible for much of the information we know today about Florida dugout canoes, to suggest the idea. This method enabled the crew to transport the canoe in ten foot pieces. With all four canoe sections loaded successfully and the extraction site filled and cleaned up, we headed back to the original point of departure. In archaeology, recovery sets off a number of responsibilities. Especially for waterlogged items, the recovery process becomes stabilized. Its never really finished.
Team members cleaned and placed the canoe remains in a specially and previously-constructed conservation tank. It will be two or more years down the road before the canoe sections are properly consolidated to expose to fresh air. Most of that time the canoe will be submerged in a waxy-water soup. In the meantime, special tours to the tank are being planned to give the visiting public a firsthand look at the canoe and the processes of its conservation. At a point in time, the vessel will be pieced together and go on display at the Weedon Island Preserve Natural and Cultural History Center. The canoe is an integral component of the state of Florida’s archaeological collections.
As a building block of Florida’s prehistoric and maritime past, the vessel’s significance is apparent. In a state with hundreds of recorded prehistoric dugout canoes, the Weedon Island canoe represents one of only two in Florida that have been documented within a saltwater environment. The Friends of Weedon Island spearheaded the effort. Their fundraising and passion for all things Weedon has secured what it takes to be able to take on such a recovery and to ultimately be able to display the canoe for all the public to see and learn from. Archaeologists Phyllis Kolianos and Dr. Bob Austin led the recovery process. Phyllis is director of the Weedon Island Preserve and Center. Through endeavors such as this, she and Bob along with future projects supported by the Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeology, Research, and Education (AWIARE), as well as the Friends group, will continue to enhance our knowledge of Tampa Bay’s prehistoric peoples and the environment within which they thrived.
…submitted by Jeff Moates