When a drought in Alachua County drained Newnans Lake down to a moist bed of mud, local high school students stumbled upon canoes that hadn’t seen the light of day in several millennia.
Ten years later, the world’s largest ancient watercraft discovery is now on display at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“We dug around with our fingers in the sand for these wet chunks of wood, and we kept finding more and more canoes,” said Eastside High School teacher Steve Everett, who led his students to the site that morning in 2000. “It was pure happenstance that we found them. I’d never seen anything like this.”
Eight miles east of Gainesville, archaeologists excavated 101 dugout canoes from the lake, ranging from 500 to 5,000 years old. The canoes varied in size, some as long as 31.2 feet and some a bit shorter.
After several years developing the exhibit, the museum is the first to feature archaeologists’ findings before the exhibit travels across the nation.
“We decided to broaden the story of the canoes at Newnans Lake into this exhibit because we wanted it to travel nationally,” said Darcie MacMahon, head of exhibits at the museum. “It’s an internationally significant and internationally unique find that our very own scientists worked on, and people in the community were really excited and proud about that.”
The exhibit also explores the history of canoe construction, its modern uses and the particularly complex process scientists used to study their findings.
Florida Archaeology Collection Manager Donna Ruhl said the largest canoe discovery before then had only consisted of 12 canoes. She said this time researchers could not move the fragile wood and resorted to carving small shavings from the canoes.
“We only had a short amount of time until the waters returned after the drought,” Ruhl said, “so we needed to work quickly and get as much information as we possibly could.”