By Danny Valentine - Tampa Bay
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."