Oldest Watercraft Found in South Carolina Undergoes Conservation | Warren Lasch Conservation Center

Content courtesy of Warren Lasch Conservation Center. Visit their Instagram page and website for more info!

In recent months, conservators and archaeologists at the WLCC have been working with Native communities across South Carolina to conserve a 4,000-year-old dugout canoe discovered in the Cooper River. Leaders from the Wassamasaw Indian Nation, the Waccamaw Indian People, the Catawba Indian Nation, the Yamassee Indian Nation, the Pine Hill Indian Tribe, the Piedmont American Indian Association – Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation, and the Eastern Cherokee, Southern Iroquois, and United Tribes of South Carolina visited the WLCC laboratory in North Charleston in May 2021 to view the canoe and consult on a conservation plan. The WLCC recognizes the rights of the Native Peoples of South Carolina “to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions” (as defined in Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). As such, the Cooper River Canoe Project centers the opinions, values, and knowledge of the Natives People of South Carolina. 

The canoe dates to the Late Archaic Period, a period known for the construction of shell rings and the fabrication of pottery. The people of the Late Archaic relied heavily on marine and river fish, as well as shellfish, for their diet, living in camps along rivers and in coastal areas. Dugout canoes were important forms of transportation, made using controlled fires to both fell the trees and hollow out the interior. Charing from the making of this canoe is still visible on its interior surface. 

This canoe was found in the Cooper River and is fully waterlogged, meaning that water has infiltrated all the cells of the wood. After 4,000 years, the wood is comparable to a water-soaked sponge and is extremely fragile. It has been stored in fresh water since its discovery. If it were to be dried out now before conservation treatment, the wood of the canoe would collapse and crumble to pieces. To preserve it, conservators will soak the canoe in a solution of polyethylene glycol. This waxy material will take the place of the water in the wood cells, supporting the wood and preventing it from collapsing when it comes time to dry out the canoe. Eventually, the canoe will be placed on public view according to the wishes of the Natives People of South Carolina. 

This project has been made possible through funding provided by: South Carolina Humanities, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Garvey Family Trust Fund, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The Warren Lasch Conservation Center is located on the traditional lands of the Etiwan, Kiawah, Sewee, and Wando Peoples. The author would like to express gratitude for the opportunity to live and work on these lands.

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