Construction workers with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) in St. Augustine, Florida, recently uncovered the remarkably well-preserved remains of a wooden fishing boat dating back to the mid to late 1800s. The vessel, believed to be a small single-masted, shallow-draft sailing craft, was found buried eight feet underground near the Bridge of Lions in downtown St. Augustine.
The FDOT was well-prepared for such a discovery, having enlisted the services of the archaeology firm Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH) due to similar occurrences in previous projects.
James Delgado, the senior vice president at the archaeology firm Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH), led the excavation and described the find as “truly incredible.” The boat’s excellent preservation resulted from sinking unexpectedly and becoming silted in, preventing decay by limiting air contact.
The vessel’s excavation, conducted over a meticulous five-day period, revealed its lower hull, estimated to have measured between 24 and 28 feet long in its prime. Alongside the boat, artifacts such as 19th-century coins, leather shoes, the base of a kerosene lamp, and two coconut shells likely used as drinking cups were discovered. Greg Evans, the Florida Department of Transportation District Two secretary, emphasized the importance of preserving historical sites during construction projects, expressing gratitude to SEARCH for their meticulous efforts.
The discovery holds historical significance, providing insights into the lives of everyday people in the 1800s. Delgado reflected on the broader context, stating, “It was more than just the vessel itself. It was this reminder of everyday people. What it speaks to is the reality of life for so many people, then as well as now. You get up, you go to work, and you make a living to put food on the table. You work hard.”
St. Augustine, known as the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States, founded in 1565, boasts a rich historical legacy. The city’s archaeological significance prompted FDOT to engage SEARCH, a maritime archaeology program, for any potential discoveries during construction. Sam Turner, a principal investigator and maritime archaeologist for SEARCH, was on-site when the shipwreck’s wood was first exposed, initiating the excavation process.
The ship’s remains, measuring 19 feet in length, shed light on its original size of around 28 feet. The vessel, believed to be a small single-masted, shallow-draft sailing craft, was likely used for extracting fish and shellfish from coastal waterways and offshore areas. The discovery included various artifacts that suggest the boat was still in use when it sank unexpectedly.
The FDOT’s commitment to preserving historical sites was underscored by Greg Evans, who highlighted the encapsulation of the ship in soil and mud, preventing air contact and contributing to its exceptional preservation. The cooperation between construction crews, archaeologists, and community stakeholders was crucial in transitioning the site from an archaeological dig back to a construction zone.
SEARCH, known for having the nation’s largest maritime archaeology team, played a pivotal role in the excavation. James Delgado, the senior vice president, and exploration sector leader for SEARCH’s station in Washington, DC, detailed the careful process of exposing the fragile wood using water, gentle troweling, and gloved hands. The next steps involve stabilizing the vessel before determining its future preservation efforts.
Ian Pawn, the FDOT District 2 cultural resources manager, emphasized the need for quick action in preserving the well-preserved wood, acknowledging that wood drying will begin the decaying process.”
As the ship, potentially abandoned near the end of its working life, awaits relocation to a permanent home.