Florida’s only prehistoric saltwater canoe goes on display

A prehistoric dugout canoe discovered in 2001 on Weedon Island in Tampa Bay, Pinellas County, Florida, has gone on display after 14 years of conscientiousness, dedication and hard work. Ken Pachulski and Harry Koran found a piece of the wood sticking out of the mangrove peat on the shore of the Weedon Island Preserve. Once they realized it was likely part of a boat, they did something you very rarely encounter in this kind of story: they reburied the exposed section and left it alone.

Two years later, the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center opened. Figuring the new center would have the resources and know-how to deal with the artifact, Pachulski and Koran alerted the center’s manager Phyllis Kolianos to their discovery, showing her pictures and video they had shot of the canoe. Kolianos worked with county, state, tribal and federal authorities for eight years to secure the necessary permits for a full excavation.

Meanwhile, the center did everything they could to document and monitor the canoe in situ. A test dig was done to recover some samples to date and identify the wood. The wood was confirmed to be pine, the predominant local timber after which the county is named. Radiocarbon dating found the canoe was built between 690 and 1010 A.D.

In 2011, the comprehensive excavation began. Archaeologists and volunteers unearthed the full surviving length of the canoe, an impressive 40 feet of the estimated 45-foot original length. That makes it the longest prehistoric canoe ever found in Florida. It has a raised bow, an indication that the canoe was used to navigate open water, not just inland rivers and lakes. That gives it another unique claim to fame: it is the only saltwater canoe ever found in Florida. Historians know canoes were used to navigate the coastal areas, but unlike those used on inland bodies of water which are found in still, peaty oxygen-free environments, boats buried in salt water with the tidal currents and ever-shifting sands of the Gulf Coast don’t survive. The mangroves of Weedon Island saved this one canoe for posterity.

There are holes in the side of the canoe and archaeologists found a pine pole from the same period underneath of it. These features may be an indication that the canoe was connected to a twin to make a catamaran which could navigate the open water over long distances. The pole may have had other uses, like as a punting paddle or a docking tool. Evidence inside the canoe shows that it was made with a combination of two techniques: slow-burning coals were used to soften the log’s insides which were then scraped out with stone and shell tools.

The canoe and pole date to the Weeden Island II Period (700 A.D. – 1200 A.D.) of the Weeden Island Culture, a descendant of the Manasota Culture which first settled Florida’s central Gulf coast about 2,500 years ago. Most of what we know about the Weeden Island Culture comes from pottery discovered in burial mounds, village sites and midden piles. This is the only dugout canoe ever discovered from the culture and as such expands our understanding of a little-known people.

In order to remove the canoe, it was cut into 10-foot sections. The pieces were then placed in a tank of polyethylene glycol (PEG) so that the water could be gradually extracted and replaced with the waxy substance. PEG doesn’t dry out like water does, so it will keep the wood supple and free from cracking or shrinking.

“We never wanted the canoe to leave Pinellas County,” said Brent Weisman, a retired University of South Florida archaeology professor and head of the Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research and Education. “That was one of our goals. We didn’t want to send it to Tallahassee or Washington or somewhere else; we wanted it to always stay here. So we built the tank ourselves.”

The canoe stayed in its bath for three years and was allowed to dry for another year before it was ready for display. The four sections have now been reassembled and exhibited in a custom display case at the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.