A drought that has bared parts of the bed of Florida’s largest lake has exposed human bone fragments, pottery and even boats — and archaeologists are trying to evaluate the artifacts before water levels rise again.
Archaeologists said there have been no large-scale digs in Lake Okeechobee; most of the finds have been easily spotted along the surface, some by passers-by who called in what they found.
Palm Beach County Archaeologist Chris Davenport said scores of bone fragments ranging from only a few inches to 8 inches long have been spotted in Lake Okeechobee, the second-largest freshwater lake in the continental U.S., behind Lake Michigan.
The lake is at its lowest level since recordkeeping began in 1932, at about 8.96 feet deep on Monday. That’s about 4 to 5 feet below normal, exposing many areas for the first time in years.
“Right now, it’s just a rush to identify things before they go back under water,” said Davenport.
More than 17 sites have been identified in Palm Beach County’s part of the lake in the last three months. They are scattered over miles of terrain. The drought has bared a rim around the lake up to a mile and a half wide at some points.
“It looks like it’s part of one of the American Indian settlements that were there — people that were intentionally interred at some point,” said State Archaeologist Ryan Wheeler.
Native American remains
The state has alerted the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes of the bones, but no decision has been made on their fate. No studies have been done on the human remains, but Wheeler said they likely are 500 to 1,000 years old, or possibly older.
Further examination will be necessary to more accurately pinpoint the bones’ age, though he noted they show extensive wear, he said.
An examination of the style of pottery found in the lake bed might do more to tell of the tribes who lived in the area than the bones themselves, because the human remains are so fragmented, Davenport said. No complete skeletons, skulls or other large fragments have been found.
However, the boats uncovered are relatively intact. They include a steam-powered dredge believed to have been used to dig a canal; the remnants of a steamship scattered across a mile and a half; a wooden, motorized canoe; an early 1900s fishing boat with a large one-cylinder engine; and a fifth boat so badly decayed its purpose has yet to be determined.
Wheeler said one of the vessels is 50 to 60 feet long.
Archaeologists have left most of the discoveries where they were found, though an anchor, bottles, tools and some pottery have been excavated from the huge lake.
It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience to examine the dry lake bed, Davenport said. But with thieves also interested his discoveries, he is yearning for the lake to rise again.
“I’m hoping that the rains come back,” he said. “Once it’s covered, it’s protected.”