Intact, 1,200-Year-Old Canoe Recovered From Wisconsin Lake

The remarkably well-preserved wooden vessel was probably made by the Effigy Moundbuilders, ancestors of the modern Ho-Chunk Nation

The boat most likely survived intact because it was constantly wet and shielded from sunlight at a depth of about 27 feet. Wisconsin Historical Society

Archaeologists in Wisconsin have recovered the oldest intact boat ever found in the state: a dugout wood canoe retrieved from Lake Mendota in Madison. The people who made the 15-foot-long canoe around 800 C.E. were most likely ancestors of the modern Ho-Chunk Nation, reports Barry Adams for the Wisconsin State Journal.

“This is extraordinarily rare,” Amy Rosebrough, an archaeologist with Wisconsin’s Historic Preservation Office, tells the Journal. “We really don’t have anything like this from Wisconsin. We have found pieces of dugouts before in various lakes [but] nothing this intact and nothing intact this old. It’s a fragile piece.”

Tamara Thomsen, a maritime archaeologist at the Wisconsin Historical Society, first spotted the canoe while riding an underwater scooter in the lake in June, write Noah Sheidlower and Justin Lear for CNN. After mistaking the object for a log, she investigated further and discovered that it was a canoe.

Thomsen initially speculated that the boat was made by Boy Scouts in the 1950s, reports Sophie Carson for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But when archaeologists removed a sliver of wood for carbon dating, they realized the true age of the vessel, which was likely built by a group known as the Effigy Moundbuilders.

Canoe inside
The canoe is now being preserved at a special facility. Wisconsin Historical Society

Wisconsin State Archaeologist James Skibo tells CNN that he was surprised to learn how old the canoe actually is.

“I looked at it and it was in such a wonderful state of preservation that I was very suspicious ... because wood typically doesn’t survive that long,” he adds.

Skibo says the boat most likely survived intact because it was constantly wet and shielded from sunlight at a depth of about 27 feet. Currents had moved the vessel from its original resting spot, so the archaeologists knew it would only be a matter of time before algae and other organisms destroyed the wood.

“They said if it’s not brought up, it will disintegrate fairly rapidly,” Rosebrough tells the Journal Sentinel. “So everything went into high gear.”

They said if it’s not brought up, it will disintegrate fairly rapidly.

Divers dredged mud from the canoe and maneuvered it into a large sling to raise it from the water. On November 2, they attached inflatable yellow bags and pumped them full of air, gently raising the vessel to the surface with the help of a crew made up of archaeologists and divers from the Dane County Sheriff’s Office. A boat then pulled it to shore at a speed of about 1 mile per hour. The crew walked the canoe to the beach and used a foam-topped metal ladder to transfer it to land.

Dozens of people gathered to watch the recovery, among them William Quackenbush, tribal historic preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk. 

“When it comes to items of this nature, if it’s going to protect and preserve the history and culture of us in this area, we’re all in support of that,” Quackenbush tells the State Journal. “Looking at the crowd here, there’s a lot of interest in this one little project.”

The Effigy Moundbuilders were Late Woodland people who lived in what’s now Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa between 750 and 1200 C.E., Rosebrough told Elizabeth Dohms-Harter of Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) last year. While earlier groups living in the area built conical or linear mounds, the Effigy Mounds were shaped to look like animals or spirits. Thousands of mound sites have been found in Wisconsin alone, each potentially containing hundreds of different types of mounds.

Southern Wisconsin was particularly rich in such sites. A number of the mounds stand on what’s now the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. But many no longer survive today, as Europeans who settled in the area often destroyed the mounds in the process of building homes, farms and quarries.

Serpent Mound
The Effigy Moundbuilders created thousands of earth sculptures, including Serpent Mound in Ohio. Heironymous Rowe via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

“One of the early explorers called Wisconsin ‘a sculpted land,’ which should give you an idea of how many there were at one point,” Rosebrough explained to WPR. “... The people who built them placed them on the landscape so that they flow right with the lay of the land, so it looks like they really are—if you could tip them up—real animals running up and down the hills and moving toward springs and going along the riverbank.”

For Woodland people like the Effigy Moundbuilders, a typical method for making a dugout canoe was to burn the inside of a tree trunk and use stone tools to remove the charred material.

“Consider cutting down a tree that’s two and a half feet wide with a stone tool, and then hollowing it out and making it float. It must have taken hundreds of hours and a great deal of skill,” Skibo tells CNN. “You get a new appreciation for people that lived in a time when there were no modern-day tools to do this.”

The archaeologists found net sinkers—notched stones used to drag fishing nets down—on board the canoe. They say the discovery could offer new insights into the fishing methods and lifestyle of the Effigy Moundbuilders.

Over the next two years, the canoe will undergo a series of preservation treatments. Eventually, experts hope to display it at a planned Wisconsin Historical Society museum.

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