Drought has uncovered what some are calling the most significant archaeological find in Palm Beach County's recent history. Now researchers are in a race against looters and the weather to preserve it.
Since March, state and local archaeologists have been studying and collecting artifacts from various sites around drought-ravaged Lake Okeechobee - places where water has receded from the bank, leaving thousands of acres of mud and muck.
Researchers have found human bone fragments, tools, pottery fragments and pieces of ceremonial jewelry thought to have belonged to the natives who lived near the lake before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
Some prehistoric relics are thought to be as much as 2,000 years old and could provide a better understanding of the complex communities and cultures that once thrived in Palm Beach County and across South Florida, said Palm Beach County Archaeologist Chris Davenport.
Stumbling upon such a rich, previously untapped source of historic artifacts is the kind of find that makes entire careers, said Harvey Oyer, chairman of the nonprofit Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Officials are trying to learn as much as they can and recover as many artifacts as possible before rain refills the lake and washes away what's left.
In the meantime, looters are believed to have struck some areas, leaving behind deep holes in the muck where there might have been historic and valuable objects. Florida Fish and Wildlife officers are investigating a case involving three men and continue to patrol the banks.
"I literally stay up at night wondering whether people are out on the lake looting it," said Davenport, whom the state gave a special permit to legally collect artifacts. "As important as this find is, I almost would like to see the lake fill up because at least then these items will be protected again."
Some of these historical sites were uncovered in 2001, the last time South Florida was in the throes of a drought as severe as this one. Before March, there were three submerged historic sites known to researchers but left largely unstudied. Now, Davenport said, they have identified more than 20 sites, and it's believed that's only the beginning.
"The prehistory of Florida is largely unknown," Oyer said, "not because of a lack of effort by archaeologists, but because these native cultures did not have any writings or temples or structures to speak of. That doesn't mean they weren't sophisticated cultures.
"To find sites so rich in culture is immeasurable."
Davenport agrees, and last week he unveiled some of what he has recovered over the past three months: jewelry called "gorgets" carved from conch shells and typically worn around the neck, knees or elbows in ceremonial dress; a worn, pointed-tip shell that was bound with leather and tied to wood for use as an ancient hammer; fist-sized pieces of carved limestone with holes in the center that added weight to fishing nets; and fractured bits of pottery that offer the most important insights.
One such type of pottery is what Davenport calls a "St. John's checker stamp" and looks like a piece of stone waffle cone. The find is significant, he said, because this variety was first discovered in native communities in northern states, suggesting that the local communities might have had more complex trading routes than previously thought. Or it's pottery that was made here based on what they saw or heard about in other communities. Similarly exotic shells and flint tools have also been found, rarities in South Florida sites.
The drought has also unearthed several shipwrecks and other 20th-century relics such as glass soda bottles, graphite batteries and corroded anchors. Lake water not only protected these sites from thieves and development for hundreds of years, but it also kept relics intact and in good condition, officials said.
"I think they're very unusual, interesting and important sites," said Clifford Brown, an assistant professor of anthropology at Florida Atlantic University.
But in addition to shedding light on the region's unrecorded history, the Lake Okeechobee finds have sparked tension in the local archaeological community. Oyer, whose organization has been denied a chance to study material on site, accuses state and county officials of being too lax in recovering and researching relics. He says a find this important requires more exhaustive study than what's being done.
Davenport "has a minuscule percentage of what's out there," Oyer said. "You know it's old, but that's not enough. You have to understand the context, you have to study the soil, the skeletal remains. This is an opportunity that's being missed every day."
Davenport and state archaeologist Ryan Wheeler say they're making do with what resources they have in the time that remains.
"I'm under incredible pressure to document as much as I can while the lake is low," Davenport said.
"But in the end, we're all after the same thing here, preserving what we have so we can learn about the people and cultures who came before us."