Florida road crew unearths unusual find from 1800s in highway

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Road crews found an intact, centuries-old shipwreck embedded in a Florida highway during routine construction work earlier this month.

The 20-foot-long artifact, believed to date back to the 1800s, was buried under about eight to 10 feet of sediment near the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine and was so well persevered that crews found a left leather boot.

“We believe the vessel may have sank unexpectedly and, over time, was silted in,” Florida Department of Transportation District 2 Secretary Greg Evans said.

“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.”

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Picture of shipwreck found in a Florida highway

A shipwreck was found during road work in Florida.  (SEARCH, Inc/Florida Department of Transportation)

Construction was temporarily paused as the Florida Department of Transportation works with SEARCH, a global leader in archeology that has completed over 4,500 commercial and government projects in 48 U.S. states and 36 other countries. 

The ship’s origin is still a mystery, and it will likely take time to uncover the vessel’s tales.

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SEARCH’s Dr. James Delgado, who led the excavation and recovery, said in a statement that they believe the vessel “was a small single-masted, shallow-draft sailing craft of the 19th century.”

Florida shipwreck found intact in a highway during construction work

Remarkably intact ship found in a Florida highway during construction is estimated to date back to the 1800s. (SEARCH, Inc/Florida Department of Transportation)

“It was likely used to extract fish and shellfish from coastal waterways and directly offshore,” Delgado said.

“With a dedicated team, including support from the local community and the on-site construction team, we were able to extract the vessel in order to allow the important work on the community’s infrastructure to continue.”

SEARCH archeologists work in a 8 to 10 foot hole to preserve the vessel

The vessel was found eight to 10 feet under the Florida highway.  (SEARCH, Inc/Florida Department of Transportation)

In an interview with Newsweek, Ian Pawn, an archeologist at the Florida Department of Transportation, detailed some of the artifacts that were amazingly still intact. 

On top of the ship, they found leather shoes, coins (one dates to 1869), coconut halves “that were likely used as cups” and a portion of an oil-fired lantern, Pawn said.

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Brid's eye view from a drone showing the worksite

Drone shot of the site where archeologists are working in Florida to preserve the shipwreck. (SEARCH, Inc/Florida Department of Transportation)

SEARCH archeologists have to race against the clock to preserve the vessel before the elements dry the wood, and the ship and its hidden treasures decay. 

“The boat was disassembled, plank by plank, and removed, with great care to keep each portion wet,” Pawn said, according to Newsweek. 

Several artifacts, including this leather boot, were found atop the hidden vessel

Several artifacts, including this leather boot, were found atop the hidden vessel. (SEARCH, Inc/Florida Department of Transportation)

“The pieces will be observed in wet storage to stabilize as we determine future preservation effort. We will be working closely with archeologists and the City of St. Augustine to find a permanent home for this unique find.”

Evans, of the Florida Department of Transportation, thanked SEARCH’s “careful efforts to preserve this vessel.”

Artifacts, like this piece of a lantern, were found atop the vessel in a Florida highway.

Artifacts, like this piece of a lantern, were found atop the vessel in a Florida highway. (SEARCH, Inc/Florida Department of Transportation)

Crews keeping the wood wet to prevent the elements from drying the wood

Crews have to keep the wood wet, or the elements will dry it and speed up the decaying process. (SEARCH, Inc/Florida Department of Transportation)

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“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,” Evans said in a statement.

“We look forward to learning more about its significance to the region.”



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