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Way down upon the Aucilla River


Canoes were and still are to some extent the favored means of transporting people and goods into the most remote areas in Florida. I want to give everyone who reads this article an idea of the time-depth of water transport in the New World and the prospects for extending that record with finds from the Aucilla River and from other rivers in Florida. Of course, no archaeological story begins with the discovery of an artifact; it actually begins when the object is originally created. In the case of canoes, every indication is that American Indians of the Southeast constructed them from single logs, hollowed out by a combination of fire and stone tools-until the introduction of plank-built boats.

Barbara Purdy and Lee Newsom (1991) categorized and described the various types of canoes found in Florida bogs, lakes, and rivers. According to them, there are four principle types of mono-hull canoes, conveniently termed Types one through four. Type one canoes (Figure I) are roughly made. They often have indistinguishable bows and sterns with a fair amount of carbonized wood (charcoal) remaining in the interior. Type two canoes (Figure 2) are made the same way as type one (fire hollowing), but the bow and stern are beveled on the bottom and flattened on the top. They appear to be better finished. Type three canoes (Figure 3) are made in much the same style as the other two, but the bow has a large over hang, which is presumed to help the canoe deal with larger waves and rougher conditions. The final type appears to be made late in the prehistoric period with metal tools. This fourth type is similar to Type two in general shape and configuration. Ages for the canoes range from 5110 radiocarbon years before present (B.P) to several hundred years B.P. (Purdy and Newsom 1991:265-275).

You might ask why you have just been treated to a brief review of mono-hull canoe types in Florida. Well, in 1993 the Aucilla River Project was proceeding with excavation of the paleosol(see "The Bolen Surface", page 8) that dates to 10,000 years ago. We opened up two square meters of the area to the west of our old Test C excavation in anticipation of finding in-place archaeological materials. The two one-by-one meter units were called Test G and H. After having successfully removed the overburden and documented Unit G, we began removing overburden from Unit H. When we were between 50cm and a meter above the Bolenage paleosol the team ran across a large unidentified wooden object. We needed to remove it in order to successfully document the underlying unit so we carefully sawed the object off at the south boundary of the unit. The removed piece was put in a matrix bag (nylon mesh) and set aside for documentation. We proceeded with excavation of the surface.

When the season was over, we transported the cut-off piece back to the Florida Museum of Natural History. I subsequently drew and sampled it for a carbon date. After several weeks in storage at the museum we decided to repatriate the section and we put it back in the same unit from whence it had come. However, the general configuration of the section had already piqued our interest. It looked somewhat like the end of a Type one canoe. It also appeared to have some sort of burning on the upper surface. Our suspicions were raised enough to spur additional work in the same area the following year. In the meantime, a sample was sent to Beta Analytic (they do carbon dating) and they returned a date of Y960 B.P. +80. An additional sample was sent to Lee Newsom, who identified the wood as cypress, a common canoe- building wood in swampy Florida environments during later periods.

May 1994 was designated as "uncover the 'canoe'" month. By this time we all felt moderately comfortable with designating the large wooden object as a canoe. The results of the May 1994 excavation were inconclusive, how ever. Indeed, the additional 2m of the object we uncovered was partially cupped on the upper surface and fully rounded on the lower surface, but the other end of it was nowhere in sight. We were increasingly tantalized. You will find a synopsis of the 1994 excavation in the previous Aucilla River Times.

May 1995 was earmarked for further excavation of the large wooden object. By this time I had determined that the object rested or in-ersected the paleosol on which we had found diagnostic Bolen artifacts and had a distinct southward tilt to it. We would need to be extremely careful as we excavated to the south not to disturb artifacts that might be sand wiched between the log and the surface. Excavation proceeded as it normally does, slow but steady. I was privileged to have a crew that was in tune to the amount of work that needed to be done and the limited amount of time we had to do it. The crew was composed of Paul Aughey, Dave Ball, Grayal Farr, Ed Green, Andy Hemmings, Joe Latvis, Chuck Meide, and myself.

We extended the excavation to the south, removing clay layers above the wooden object up to 2m thick. The wooden object lost its canoe-like appearance as we uncovered it and it took on the shape of a large cypress log, about 50cm in diameter. But that's not the end of the story. As we uncovered further and further south, the "log/canoe"-as we now call it-had a unique feature. The entire log/canoe had a large gap in it approximately 4-m from the end we first uncovered. This gap has been interpreted as either cut, as in worked with human tools, or broken. To make matters even more intriguing, the log/canoe continued on into the as-yet-unexcavated underwater sediment bank. At the point it disappears into the bank, the overburden layers are 2m-3m deep. Any additional work on further uncovering the "log/canoe" will require days of using our six-inch dredge to remove these compacted clays and peats.

While the site lies idle, we took a section out of the log/canoe and sent it to David Stahle at the University of Arkansas. He does tree ring dating on cypress in the Southeast (Taxodium sp.). We are optimistic that we may be able to collect enough wood from this layer to begin constructing a "floating chronology" of tree ring dates for the region. This will require finding and sampling at least ten cypress logs from this same stratum-not an easy feat. But the potential rewards are large. It would be the first tree-ring chronology from this period (10,500-9,500 B.P.) in the region.

The identity of the "log/canoe" is not yet clear, but the great thing about this type of research is that there is no wrong answer to the question "What is it?" If it is a canoe, we have the oldest one in the Americas. If it is a log, our samples begin to build a tree-ring chronology for a critical period of environmental transition in North America. However, until the other end of the "log/canoe" is excavated, this question remains unanswered. Additional excavation of this fascinating part of the Aucilla River Prehistory Project will continue.