Ahoy, Mateys! Florida Construction Workers Have Dug Up a 19th-Century Shipwreck

Representatives of an archaeology firm were on hand in case of any unexpected discoveries.

The lower hull of a fishing boat was discovered by construction workers in Florida. Courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation, District Two

Florida construction workers made a surprising find while working on a $42 million drainage project in the city of St. Augustine this past week: the remains of a wooden fishing boat dating back to the mid to late 1800s.

While the discovery was unexpected, the Florida Department of Transportation was prepared. They had members of the archaeology firm Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH) on hand during the infrastructure work, since similar discoveries have been made during previous projects.

“We believe the vessel to be a small single-masted, shallow-draft sailing craft of the 19th century that was likely used to extract fish and shellfish from coastal waterways and directly offshore,” James Delgado, the senior vice president at SEARCH who led the project, told The Guardian.

Aerial shot of shipwreck discovery in Florida

An aerial shot of the excavation site. Photo: Daniel Fiore (SEARCH, Inc.) & Florida Department of Transportation, District Two.

“We believe the vessel may have sunk unexpectedly and, over time, was silted in,” he added. “That is why it was preserved so well — it was encapsulated in soil and mud, so there was no air contact for it to decay. It’s truly an incredible find.”

Leather shoes and 19th-century coins were also found on the site, which was buried eight feet underground. The crew used controlled water pressure to remove mud and dirt in order to excavate the boat over a five-day period, ultimately yielding the ship’s lower hull, the bottom of which likely measured between 24 and 28 feet long.

It’s believed that the boat was left on the banks of a local river or bay as it neared the end of its functional life, and that sediment and silt washed over it before modern infrastructure was built on top of the former waterway.

The near-fully intact vessel remained wet throughout the excavation process to help preserve it. Credit: Florida Department of Transportation, District Two.

The near-fully intact vessel was kept wet throughout the excavation process in order to help preserve it. Photo: Florida Department of Transportation, District Two.

“With every project we undertake, the Florida Department of Transportation is sensitive to the unique needs of the communities we serve, including the potential presence of historical sites and artifacts within construction sites,” Greg Evans, the Florida secretary overseeing the area, District 2, told the Guardian.

“It was more than just the vessel itself,” Delgado said of the importance of the discovery. “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.”

One question remains: what will become of this heretofore unknown boat?

“A permanent home for this incredible find is still unknown,” a local official told Artnet News via email. “However, the Florida Department of Transportation will coordinate with the City of St. Augustine and SEARCH to find a location which is fitting for such a wonderful piece of history.”

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