The Wisconsin Historical Society’s new museum planned for Capitol Square may need its own wing for ancient canoes.
In a remarkable discovery, archaeologists on Thursday pulled another dugout canoe from Lake Mendota, only this one is much older and in a more fragile state than one found last year.
Estimated by radiocarbon, or carbon-14, dating to be 3,000 years old, the canoe, made by ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation, was discovered in May in 24 feet of water off the Shorewood Hills shoreline by Tamara Thomsen, who owns Diversions Scuba and is an archaeologist for the historical society. The boat was about 300 yards from where, in June 2021, Thomsen found a 1,200-year-old canoe that at the time was the most intact, oldest boat ever found in Wisconsin.
Her latest find in the 9,781-acre lake is believed to be the oldest boat ever found in the Great Lakes region and a stunning find for Thomsen, who has scoured the lake’s bottom for years. Finding intact dugout canoes so close together has Thomsen and others schooled in history grappling for words about the unexpected and astonishing discovery.
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“This one predates agriculture, predates pottery. This one predates all of Wisconsin’s (effigy) mounds,” said Amy Rosebrough, an archaeologist since 1992, the past 20 years with the historical society. “I don’t have words for what this is right now. I can’t really think of much that competes with this. I really can’t. I mean Wisconsin has incredible archaeology, but this is stellar.”
A crowd of about 75 people gathered at Spring Harbor Beach as a stiff wind out of the northwest made the 54-degree air temperature seem much colder on the first day of fall, while at the same time creating whitecaps that required two boats to serve as wind blocks as the canoe was towed to shore by a research vessel. The event drew media, local residents, politicians, historians and perhaps most importantly, representatives from the Ho-Chunk Nation. They took to a pontoon boat to watch the canoe be floated to the surface and placed in a PVC cradle that was placed on top of a queen-size air mattress.
When the canoe reached the beach, some of the tribal members were asked to reach out and briefly touch the artifact, something that hasn’t happened for 3,000 years. Likely used for fishing, the canoe ultimately was abandoned on what might have been the shoreline but was eventually buried in sediment on what is now a sloping drop-off as lake levels rose by as much as 16 feet, according to researchers. The lake is now 83 feet deep, a trophy fishery, lined with homes that breach $2 million and a playground for water sports enthusiasts.
And now, there is no doubt, its bottom is also a historic site.
“The hands that made this, those are our ancestors,” said Marlon WhiteEagle, president of the Ho-Chunk Nation, headquartered in Black River Falls. “It’s significant. It’s a great find. It gives more physical proof that this is our ancestral land.”
But it will be more than two years before either of the dugout canoes will be ready for display in a museum.
The canoe raised Thursday was placed in an enclosed snowmobile and ATV trailer and taken to the State Archive Preservation Facility on Madison’s Near East Side. That’s where it was photographed, scanned and then placed in the same vat of purified water and UV sterilization as the 1,200-year-old canoe found in 2021. Supply chain issues have delayed treating the first canoe with polyethylene glycol, but in the next month or so, both will get the same treatment, designed to pull water out of the wood and preserve the canoes for proper display. Both are expected to have prominent positions in a new $120 million, 100,000-square-foot history museum scheduled to open in 2026 at the corner of State and Mifflin streets.
“When we found the canoe last year, I thought it was a one-off,” said State Archaeologist James Skibo, who helped raise the 3,000-year-old canoe Thursday in the 70-degree water. “It’s not like anyone can go out there and find canoes because the water is so murky most of the time. Tammy just has an eagle eye for them.”
Thomsen was on a recreational dive with a partner in June 2021 when she noticed what appeared to be a log sticking out of the sediment in 27 feet of water. It turned out to be a 15-foot-long dugout canoe made in about 800 AD.
Through the years, Thomsen has harvested from the lake’s depths old soda and beer bottles, and taken photos of submerged cars, ice shacks and more modern boats that have sunk. But in May, while giving a diving lesson to a student, her curiosity was again piqued when she noticed an exposed end of what turned out to be, after sweeping away more sediment, another dugout canoe. She halted the dive lesson, “put on her archaeologist hat,” and went back to her home on the lake to retrieve an underwater camera and measuring tape.
She also made a call to Skibo, who was doing a program at Aztalan State Park near Lake Mills. He thought it was a joke, Thomsen recalled Thursday, still wearing her dive suit after helping to bring the canoe ashore.
“It was for real,” Thomsen said. “It’s really hard to imagine that, like, we’re closer to that 1,200-year-old canoe now, in present time, than that canoe is to the 3,000-year-old canoe that’s now in the trailer.”
When she found the canoe in May, Thomsen harvested a small piece of wood so that it could be radiocarbon-dated. A lab at the University of California-Davis conducted two tests on the sample, each revealing it was from around 1126 BC. Still unconvinced that the canoe could be that old, Skibo, wanting to triple check, had the sample sent to another lab for another test. It, too, confirmed the historic age.
“When we got the date of 1000 BC, I about fell over,” Skibo said. “I thought AD 800 was a long time for wood to be preserved. The fact that it’s preserved for 3,000 years is kind of a miraculous preservation event.”
The canoe likely survived that long because only until recently it was completely covered in sediment. Had it not been found by Thomsen, the canoe likely would have disintegrated in a year or two, Skibo said.
Even so, the canoe is in rough shape and in multiple pieces. Thomsen said she has been assured by experts that the canoe can be reassembled, but is still blown away at its fragility. She normally works on shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and deals with 150-year-old wood that may be a bit spongy.
“Twelve-hundred-year-old wood we said last year felt like a bagel. It had a hard outer shell that’s soft in the middle,” Thomsen said. “This one feels like wet cardboard. At least we were able to find all of the pieces and excavate all of the pieces out, but it’s cracked and broken. Our conservator said that’s not a problem … we should be able to put it back together.”
The Ho-Chunk is one of two First Nations of Wisconsin with an oral history that places their origin in Wisconsin at Red Banks near what is now Green Bay. The Ho-Chunk Nation’s 10 million acres of ancestral land is located between the Mississippi and Rock rivers, but over the years the tribe was forced from much of its native lands. Today there are about 8,000 tribal members around the world, many of whom live in Sauk and Jackson counties, where the Nation is the largest employer in each of those counties.
The Ho-Chunk also owns land in 12 other Wisconsin counties, including Dane County, where it owns a casino on Madison’s Southeast Side. Members of the tribe, however, have lived here for thousands of years and their existence may span three ice ages, according to the tribe’s website.
And now another canoe is bringing more awareness to that long and storied history.
“We often look at our cultural resource component as something that’s a living, breathing thing that has a life if its own,” said Bill Quackenbush, the Ho-Chunk’s tribal historic preservation officer. “To be able to reconnect with it isn’t so much a spiritual thing, but it’s a way and an ability for us to retain part of our culture and history and having the knowledge that our ancestors have plied these very same waters for thousands of year.”
“I don’t have words for what this is right now. I can’t really think of much that competes with this. I really can’t.”
Amy Rosebrough, an archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society