BELLE GLADE, Fla. - The epic drought gripping Lake Okeechobee has opened a mud-spattered window into Florida's prehistoric past.
Since March, falling water levels have exposed 21 archaeological sites - for now, the locations a secret to the public. Hundreds of artifacts have been unearthed, including pieces of pottery, shell pendants, candleholders, arrowheads and fishing weights.
Human bones, too.
Archaeological teams from the state and Palm Beach County continue hunting for still more relics before they are lost to the lake again.
"It isn't exactly Indiana Jones," said Briana Delano, a state archaeologist.
And yet, the endeavor evokes just that image.
The journey to the sites starts in an airboat. Outfitted with backpacks, small computers and ATVs, the team - airboat captain, archaeologist, intern and consultant - ventures forth from a small dock. They encounter otters, flamingos and the occasional bald eagle.
Six or seven miles from shore, the lake becomes too shallow for the airboat. They roll the ATVs off the airboat and continue.
By midday, team members say, the sun is blazing. The mosquitoes are relentless. Archaeologist and crew wear high boots to protect their legs from cottonmouths and sawgrass, all the while hoping to avoid confrontations with gators.
For this muddy, mosquito-ridden labor of love, they can thank Boots Boyer.
Almost all his life, Boyer has cherished this great lake, and even as a boy from nearby South Bay, he fished and water-skied and camped at Lake Okeechobee.
One Friday a few months back, just as the sun began to fall, Boyer scoured the lake's southern shoulders - normally under water - for pond apple seeds. He's in the tree business. Boyer was under a canopy of trees and a thick coat of moonvine when he saw what appeared to be a shallow grave for gator and perhaps panther bones and broken brown pots, chunks as big as his hands.
Curious, he drew closer. What he discovered were layers of history: a double-framed, 16-foot, catfish boat from the early 1900s; human bones and 2,000-year-old American Indian pottery and tools.
"Awesome. Just awesome to find this kind of treasure," said Boyer, 36, a grower who specializes in tree restoration. "I had seen bits of pots before, but nothing like this. It didn't take long before I realized I had happened on something significant."
Experts believe the lake was seven- or eight-feet deep in prehistoric times, as compared with the 16-foot depth the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District try to maintain now.
Palm Beach County archaeologist Chris Davenport says there was a large village of indigenous people in the area. They built earthen mounds on the water - little artificial islands - as fishing platforms and burial sites.
"They died off from diseases long before the area was colonized," Davenport said of the early lake dwellers. "We're hoping this will provide some insight."
The discoveries have piqued the interest of the shore-dwellers, many of whom have watched the archaeologists' daily trips with curiosity and bemusement.
Fearing that the sites would be disturbed, leaders of the project have kept their location a secret and refused to let reporters look over their shoulders. And still, within days of Davenport's initial trip, several sites had been pillaged.
At one site alone, someone dug more than 30 gaping holes into the earth. It wasn't clear what, if anything, was stolen.
Since then, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been charged with guarding the sites. Officers now patrol the lake bed from the sky and ground level.
It is illegal in Florida to take any ancient artifact from a historic site. At least three people have been arrested, said Jorge Pino, a conservation commission spokesman.
"Some people have showed up at the site with shovels and pails," Pino said. "Looking is one thing. Stealing is another."
As the airboat captain, Boyer plays a pivotal role in the daily excursions. He is also an unofficial watchdog, patrolling the lake in the boat, rifle in hand, ready to chase away thieves, vandals and the plain curious.
"The lake is so special to me," said Boyer, who earned his nickname lumbering about in his daddy's rubber work boots. "I didn't want to see anything happen to the artifacts."
Palm Beach County is the lead government in the archaeological mission. The state's role, in addition to issuing permits, is to safeguard any human remains and plot their whereabouts.
The state also informs local American Indian tribes when graves are found.
"We like things to stay where they are," said Delano, the state archaeologist who specializes in human remains. "When you excavate a site, you're actually destroying it. What you have on paper becomes your only record."
Davenport and his team are taking GPS readings at each of the sites. When they spot an artifact, they remove only a small sample and bring it to their West Palm Beach office for analysis. They don't dig. The clock is ticking, and they want to get to as many of the sites as possible.
"We have to survey as much as we can before Mother Nature raises the level of the lake again," Davenport said. "It's like a race against time to document what we can with the people that we have. Once the lake level rises, these artifacts will be lost again."