Peter Fix, watercraft conservator at the Conservation Research Lab, is leading the conservation of a Native American canoe that is at least 600 years old.
Scientists at Texas A&M University are conserving a prehistoric Native American dugout canoe that a couple of explorers discovered jutting from one of the muddy banks bordering the Red River on June 7 in Louisiana.
“There’s something magical about boats, something magnetic, when someone finds a boat, an awful lot of excitement is rapidly generated,” said Peter Fix, watercraft conservator at the Conservation Research Lab, part of the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M, who is heading up the conservation of the canoe. “I’m proud to be part of the canoe’s preservation, it means a lot at the local and regional levels, and we’re happy to partner with Louisiana to help them preserve their cultural patrimony.”
On a boating excursion, Robert Cornett and Jeanna Bradley, residents of Hosston, Louisiana, spotted the hollowed-out tree trunk along a stretch of the river just north of Shreveport that roughly parallels a highway that connects their town to another sleepy village, Belcher, which together serve as home to about 600 residents. The Caddo Indians inhabited those and surrounding lands as far back as the 10
th century, which archeologists have traced through artifacts, but ancestors of the Caddos might have lived there even longer since the area was clearly inhabited at least 10,000 years earlier, said Southwest Regional Archaeologist Chip McGimsey at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Radiocarbon dating determined that the canoe was made between 1300 and 1420 A.D. to be paddled through the reddish-tinted river waters.
“Organic things rot away, so when you have the chance to see something like this, it’s just a spectacular find,” McGimsey said. “We know from historic accounts that Native Americans had hundreds and thousands of organic artifacts made from wood, bone, cloth and basketry, but in this part of the world, those things almost never survive, so we only find the kinds of artifacts made of stone and pottery that persist in a wet or damp climate.”
Around the time this canoe glided over the Red River in what is now northwestern Louisiana, which was most likely the 14
th century, the harsh weather of the Little Ice Age was beginning and a Great Famine was ravaging Europe. The Black Death also was devastating populations in Europe, North Africa and Central Asia, and France and England were in the thick of the Hundred Years’ War. As the end of the century ushered in the Renaissance period, the Caddo Indians and other Native American tribes were still approximately 400 years away from encountering European settlers who would rename their ancient homeland the “New World.”
On that warm, slightly cloudy Wednesday in June, Cornett and Bradley motored along one side of the river for a few hours, stopping periodically to scour the landscape for remnants of the Caddo culture, one of their favorite hobbies, before turning to explore the other side. They made a few prized finds including arrowheads and pieces of pottery before they happened upon the unusual tree trunk protruding from the waterside. Digging the sand away from its moist wooden surface, they realized that their fortunes had taken an even better turn. The canoe, which is in excellent condition with only a top portion of one side missing, turned out to be one of the largest prehistoric watercraft found intact in North America.
“Canoes were used for transportation of goods and people…and they were obviously very important,” said retired Regional Archaeologist Jeffrey Girard with the Louisiana Division of Archaeology. “They didn’t have horses or wheeled vehicles, so overland transport was slow and tedious, whereas movement by rivers, especially the Red, which is a big river, was quick and easy.”
The Caddos likely used hot coals and various tools to char and dig out the center of the tree to make the canoe. Test results confirming the wood type have not yet returned, but the archaeologists and scientists involved suspect it is cypress. Another smaller but similar canoe made of cypress was found in the area in 1983, and cypress is highly resistant to rot, which might help to explain the canoe’s survival. Trees appropriate for canoes require long, straight trunks with few branches, so the only other possibility is yellow pine because those are the two species in the area with those characteristics. Whatever the tree type, the canoe likely was buried in a moist, airless, muddy environment for most of its 600 to 700 years where insects and bacteria could not ravage it. The massive floods last year might have moved the canoe to the sandy bank where it was found, Girard speculated.
Soon after making the discovery, the boaters enlisted help to get necessary approvals and free the enormous canoe from the confines of the riverbank. On June 21, more than two dozen volunteers hurried their efforts to beat Tropical Storm Cindy, which hit the Louisiana coast the next day, to prevent further damage to the canoe. A construction crew built a wooden cradle that helped slide the almost 34-foot-long, 3-foot-deep waterlogged canoe weighing more than 1,000 pounds up the riverbank with trucks and a bulldozer. Wrapped in blankets and plastic, the canoe was crated and transported to Texas A&M by truck, where three forklifts moved it to dollies and the packaging was gingerly removed.
Donny Hamilton, professor and director of the Conservation Research Laboratory, observes an apparatus used for hoisting watercraft.
“Making sure we got it out in one piece without breaking it was a huge concern,” said Donny Hamilton, professor and director of the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M. “We are one of the few places in the U.S. that can conserve it without cutting it in half.”
Because soaking the canoe as quickly as possible upon its arrival was paramount, Fix hired masons to build a custom vat from 70-pound concrete blocks. He and his team would have tackled this project under normal circumstances, but saving the canoe was an emergency and left little time for the laboratory staff to prepare for its arrival. Fix was packing up the 18
th-century Alexandria ship in Virginia when he learned of the project, and the existing vats at the lab either were earmarked for the Alexandria or were already full of wood from other ongoing ship projects.
Wood expands and shrinks when it becomes intermittently wet and dry, which breaks up the integrity of the structure. For this reason, the canoe is being kept wet constantly, either submerged in a vat or soaked with hoses when lifted for cleaning, during the early stages of the conservation process. While water also degrades the integrity of the wood, keeping it waterlogged at first is necessary. The water must be removed slowly and gently to prevent the tension created by uncontrollable evaporation, when the outside of the wood dries and the inside remains wet, which causes the wood to warp, cup and twist, Fix said.
After the team of conservators treats the wood with chemicals to kill the insects and carefully removes dirt and debris with dental picks and probes, they plan to pretreat the canoe with a soluble wax called polyethylene glycol (PEG). The PEG flakes are melted and slowly added to the water in the vat until the compound accounts for approximately 40 percent of the weight of the solution, which the wood absorbs for approximately two years. PEG with a low molecular weight is added first to penetrate the cellular structure of the wood with small molecules. To fill bigger gaps between the wood fiber bundles, PEG with a high molecular weight and large molecules, which stiffens like dried candle wax, is added to give the structure mechanical stability.
Following the chemical pretreatment, the canoe is likely to spend at least six months in Texas A&M’s archaeological freeze dryer, the largest in this hemisphere, if not the world, where the moisture is turned directly from ice to gas, bypassing the liquid state, by a process called sublimation. Artifacts are rolled through a hatch door at the front of the 40-by-8-foot dryer on a railroad-like track. The computer-driven rectangular box freezes its contents to 45 degrees below zero, and a vacuum pulls the moisture to a series of vertical plates cooled to minus 50 or 60 degrees at the back of the unit where the moisture condensates as ice. The plates, which hold a total of 150 kilograms of ice, are defrosted and the process is repeated until all of the moisture is removed from the artifacts. For investigative purposes, the lab is most likely going to produce a 3-D laser scan of the canoe and print an exact 3-D model in a contrasting color to replace the missing portion of the canoe’s side wall.
The majority of the artifacts that the lab conserves become museum exhibits that are interpreted by archeologists rather than put away on a shelf, Hamilton said. While the canoe’s final destination in Louisiana is undetermined, the plan is ultimately to display the archeological gem in that area for present and future generations of residents to enjoy.
“If you look at it just as an object, it’s a phenomenal artifact because of its size, and it’s so well preserved,” McGimsey said. “We almost never find things like this.”