Marine archaeologist Tamara Thomsen wasn’t working but enjoying a recreational scuba dive last November when she came across the remains of a dugout canoe. It turned out to be 1,200 years old.
“I’ve never seen this under water [before] and I don’t think I’ll ever get to again in my career,” she told press – but six months later she found another canoe, and this one dated back 3,000 years. It was by far the oldest ever found in North America’s Great Lakes region.
That ancient craft has just been raised from Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota by a dive-team, witnessed by descendants of the Native Americans who would once have paddled it. Carved from white oak trees, both canoes had been preserved for centuries in lake sediment, though recent partial exposure had left them in a fragile condition.
Thomsen works for the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) and made her momentous discoveries in the biggest of the state capital Madison’s four lakes. Both canoes lay on a steep slope at a depth of around 8m.
The first, which at first sight she assumed had been built in the 1950s, turned out to contain oval stones now thought to have been net-sinkers used for fishing. After a timber sample had been carbon-dated to around 800 AD, the canoe was raised for conservation.
The second find this May again occurred by chance, while Thomsen was instructing a scuba class near where she had made her first discovery. The WHS archaeologists were so amazed when the results of carbon testing on the second canoe’s timbers dated it to around 1000 BC that they reran the test three times to be certain.
Found without fishing gear, the older canoe dates from the Late Archaic period when Native Americans were hunter-gatherers wandering in groups of up to 60. Although the archaeologists knew that they would have had the tools needed to carve a canoe from a tree trunk, the find provided the first physical proof – and its assured design suggested that, even 3,000 years ago, such vessels were nothing new.
The canoe’s owner would have been an ancestor of the Ho-Chunk Nation (People of the Big Voice) who still inhabit the region. “The recovery of this canoe built by our ancestors gives further physical proof that Native people have occupied Teejop (Four Lakes) for millennia, that our ancestral lands are here and we had a developed society of transportation, trade and commerce,” said Ho-Chunk President Marlon WhiteEagle.
“Every person that harvested and constructed this caašgegu (white oak) into a canoe put a piece of themselves into it. By preserving this canoe, we are honouring those that came before us. We appreciate our partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, working together to preserve part of not only our ancestors’ history but our state’s history.”
Raising Canoe 2
Ho-Chunk Nation and Bad River Tribe representatives stood by on 22 September as a WHS dive-team worked in extremely low visibility, often by touch alone, to raise the canoe, which measured 4.4m but was broken into several pieces. A plastic stretcher and tarpaulin were slid beneath it so that it could be raised using lifting bags and towed ashore.
Both canoes are now undergoing a two-year period of conservation in a tank until they are deemed sturdy enough to be reassembled.
The archaeologists believe it was the practice of owners to sink their canoes in shallow water to preserve them through winters, and that they might have lost them if severe flooding had left them in deeper water.
“Finding an additional historically significant canoe in Lake Mendota is truly incredible and unlocks invaluable research and educational opportunities to explore the technological, cultural and stylistic changes that occurred in dugout canoe design over 3,000 years,” commented WHS state archaeologist Dr James Skibo, and he suggested that further excavations were now needed.
“Since it was located within 100 yards of where the first canoe was found, at the bottom of a drop-off in the lakebed, the find has prompted us to research fluctuating water levels and ancient shorelines to explore the possibility that the canoes were near what are now submerged village sites,” he said.
Also on Divernet: Diver’s Jawbone Find Sparked Archaeological Breakthrough