MIAMI – A statewide drought that has bared portions of Lake Okeechobee's bottom has also been a boon to archaeologists, exposing human remains, boats and other finds that could date back hundreds of years.
Thousands of pieces of pottery, five boats and scores of human bone fragments have been discovered as the lake — the second-largest freshwater one in the continental U.S., behind Lake Michigan — reached a historically low level.
It is the first time in years some areas have been exposed, prompting archaeologists to scour the lakebed.
"Right now, it's just a rush to identify things before they go back under water," said Chris Davenport, the archaeologist for Palm Beach County.
More than 17 sites have been identified in Palm Beach County's portion of the lake in the last three months. They are scattered over miles of terrain.
The bone fragments range from a couple inches long to about 6 or 8 inches, Davenport said.
"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.
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 were 500 to 1,000 years old, or possibly older.
Davenport said an examination of the style of pottery found in the lakebed might actually do more to tell of the tribes who lived in the area than the bones themselves because the human remains are so fragmented.
The boats uncovered, however are relatively intact. They include a steam-powered dredge believed to have been used to dig a canal, a steam ship whose remains are scattered across a mile and a half, a wooden motorized canoe, an early 1900s catfishing boat with a large one-cylinder engine and a fifth boat so badly decayed it is hard to determine its purpose.
Wheeler said one of the vessels is 50 to 60 feet long.
Archaeologists have left most of their finds where they were found, though an anchor, bottles, tools and some pottery have been excavated from the massive lake, which is at its lowest level since officials began keeping track in 1932.
On Monday, it was about 8.96 feet deep, about 4 to 5 feet below normal.
The drought has bared a rim around the lake, up to a mile and a half wide at some points.
Davenport said he considers it a once-in-a-lifetime experience to examine the dry lakebed but that with thieves seeking his finds, he's left yearning for rain.
"I'm hoping that the rains come back," he said. "Once it's covered it's protected."