Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Documenting a Possible Prehistoric Canoe

Ever wonder what happens when you report a potential archaeological site to a local museum or even to the State of Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research


Recently, a local in St. Lucie County (St. Lucian?) was walking along a shoreline he regularly strolled when he noticed something he had not seen before in a particular spot. Recent storms impacted areas along the Indian River Lagoon and uncovered more than just the root-balls of palm trees. Sticking just above the surface of the sand he saw what looked to be the outline of a wooden canoe. He then reported his discovery to Linda Geary at the House of Refuge Museum. In doing so, he helped to preserve an incredibly fragile piece of our shared cultural history.

Figure 1. The possible prehistoric canoe as it was reported.

Dugout canoes were used in many different places around the world at different times. As yet, there is no information about when this technology first made its way to Florida, but the oldest known dugout canoes in the state date to the Middle Archaic Period (6-7 thousand years ago). Florida can even boast the highest number of dugout canoes in the U.S. with over 400 found at over 200 sites documented throughout the state. Dugout canoes are incredibly fragile and should be left in place and covered if you happen to find one. You can learn more about dugouts in Florida, as well as whom to contact should you find one, on the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research's (BAR) Canoe resource page here.

The House of Refuge Museum investigated, took pictures, and took rough measurements, which they sent to BAR (we use a lot of acronyms, huh?). Soon after, BAR contacted the FPAN East Central office to ask for assistance in assessing the possible canoe. We were only too happy to coordinate with local volunteers to document the canoe and collect a few samples for further analysis. Luckily for us, the House of Refuge Museum called their friends at the Southeast Florida Archaeological Society (SEFAS: Heidi Anderson-Thomas and Barbara Schmucker) to come help in documenting the site. On our end, we called on Dr. Kyle Freund at Indian River State College, a longtime partner in FPAN outreach, to assist as well.

Figure 2. The back-fill was hand-sifted to find each tiny pottery sherd. Over 250 were discovered.
We had to be quick as we were working in between the high tides so that we would be able to uncover the canoe, take measurements, and take pictures before it was inundated again. While Dr. Freund and I excavated the interior of the canoe, as well as small portions of the exterior, Linda, Heidi, and Barbara hand-sifted through the back-fill to recover tiny sherds of pottery. While mostly intact, we were unable to identify the actual bow and stern of the canoe, though the extant portions measured over 5 meters. We collected wood and soil samples for BAR to analyze and carefully packaged each one individually to protect them from other contaminants. Lastly, we counted the number of tiny pottery sherds that the volunteers had diligently collected and found over 250 within and immediately next to the canoe. Once done with our work, and with the tide lapping at our heels, we covered the canoe once more and left the site as we had found it.

Figure 3. Dr. Freund excavates an area around the exterior of the canoe to collect a wood sample.

All of that happened because one person took a few moments to report something he thought might be important to folks who work day in and day out to preserve our shared past. Just to recap: He reported the site to the House of Refuge, who reported it to Florida BAR, who asked if we could took a look and assess, so we contacted House of Refuge, who contacted SEFAS, while we contacted Dr. Freund, and we all went to the site one morning rushing to get everything done that we possibly could in between high tides. It's exhausting to think about! But it's that important. When you take the time to report a site, the ball starts rolling and a flurry of amazing volunteers and professionals jump to action to save the past from irrevocable loss.

And we do it for you!

Many thanks to Linda Geary (House of Refuge), Heidi Anderson-Thomas and Barbara Schmucker (SEFAS), Dr. Kyle Freund (IRSC), and Julie Duggins (BAR) for outstanding teamwork across time and space to document this archaeological site.

Figure 4. Orthophoto of excavated canoe.

Text: Kevin Gidusko
Pics: Kevin Gidusko

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