MADISON — For the second time in a year, a team of divers emerged Thursday from Lake Mendota with a remarkable piece of history.
Nestled in a corrugated plastic bed and floating on two rafts was a 3,000-year-old canoe — the oldest canoe found in the entire Great Lakes region for 1,000 years, archaeologists from the Wisconsin Historical Society said.
The archaeologist and diver who discovered it, Tamara Thomsen, also found a 1,200-year-old canoe last year in the same lake, less than 100 meters away. A dive team carefully brought him ashore in November, which garnered national and international media coverage.
In either case, Thomsen was not looking for artifacts. She was scuba diving for fun when she saw the first dinghy last year. Then, in May, while teaching a diving course, she spotted the second canoe emerging from the lake’s sediment.
“It’s no joke: I found another canoe,” Thomsen emailed his boss, state archaeologist James Skibo. “That would be a really good joke,” he replied.
The next shock came when the results of carbon dating came back on a slice of wood: it was from around 1000 BC.
“I’ll be absolutely honest, my first reaction was, ‘That can’t be true,'” said land archaeologist Amy Rosebrough.
Once they had confirmation that “it really is that old,” Rosebrough thought, “OK, now what?” The team resumed preparations to lift the fragile piece of wood from the bottom of the lake.
The canoe discovered last year – which at the time was the oldest fully intact canoe found in Wisconsin – dated to the year 800. .
The people who lived along the shores of Lake Mendota are the predecessors of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Several tribesmen on Thursday called the recovery of the canoe a formal acknowledgment of the history they have always known.
“Our oral history goes back thousands and thousands of years,” said Casey Brown, public relations manager for the Ho-Chunk Nation. Now, “there is scientific evidence of the stories we’ve told and just the longevity of our people in this field.”
After:How a 1,200-year-old canoe found last summer in Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota serves as a bridge for tribal relations.
After:Ho-Chunk Nation launches online dictionary to breathe new life into endangered Ho-Chunk language
For Ho-Chunk, a link with the ancestors
The Ho-Chunk Nation was closely involved in the process of bringing the canoe ashore. From a pontoon boat, several tribesmen watched as the dive team lifted it about 25 feet underwater.
While on the pontoon, casino cage manager Kyla Beard saw an eagle flying overhead just as the canoe came up to the surface of the water.
“To be able to be in his presence and think of all the people who came before us is very humbling,” she said.
And as dozens of people gathered to spot the canoe laying on the beach, Skibo invited the members of Ho-Chunk to touch it.
As she bent down to feel the canoe under her hand, Janice Rice, a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison librarian and lecturer on Ho-Chunk topics, also thought of her ancestors.
“It’s a historic moment in our lives where we connect with the historic parts of our lives,” Rice said. “Just think how many people and Ho-Chunk ancestors came through there.”
Ho-Chunk Nation President Marlon WhiteEagle, who helped hoist the canoe into a truck, called the moment “indescribable.”
He looked forward to the opportunity for more people to learn about the culture and history of Ho-Chunk.
“The canoe demonstrates that we had a society that included transportation, trade and commerce, that we were a developed society,” WhiteEagle said.
After:‘People need to know what happened’: Wisconsin tribes and families welcome federal review of Indian boarding school system
After:Wisconsin ‘Trial College’ Equips Indigenous Advocates with Skills to Work in Tribal Courts
The historical use of canoes is no longer a “leap of logic”
The salvaged canoe dates to the Late Archaic period, before the introduction of agriculture and pottery, Rosebrough said.
It also predates the construction of large earthen effigy mounds – built during the Woodlands era – which still dot the landscape around Madison today.
Native Americans at the time were hunter-gatherers and lived a nomadic lifestyle, traveling in groups of 50 to 60 people, Rosebrough said.
Archaeologists have speculated that Native Americans used canoes for thousands of years. They have artifacts of tools they think could be used to carve wooden canoes, Rosebrough said, but “it’s a leap of logic.”
“Now we actually have a canoe,” she said.
The canoe’s sophisticated design suggests it’s not a first attempt – and was likely technology used as early as 3,000 years ago, Rosebrough said.
Archaeologists will study the two canoes at Lake Mendota to compare their possible purposes. The 800 AD canoe was found with fishing tools. The eldest was not. Could it have been used for travel? Or to harvest wild rice on the water?
For Rosebrough, a specialist in the first indigenous communities of Wisconsin, the discovery of the canoe is the most important of his career.
“It’s number 1,” she said. “I’ve never done anything like this.”
What else could be in Lake Mendota?
Archaeologists believe the canoes, both made of white oak and remarkably well preserved in lake sediments, may be evidence of an earlier shoreline.
It is believed that the communities would have deliberately sunk their canoes in shallow water just offshore in the fall to preserve them through the winter, and return there in the spring. But Skibo thinks the depth at which the two canoes were found – around 25 feet lower, both along a steep drop in the lake bed – could indicate periods of drought and flooding.
In the case of this canoe, it is possible that when residents returned to the site in the spring, it was deep under water.
So, could there be the remains of an entire flooded village at the bottom of Lake Mendota?
This is Skibo’s current theory. He wants to do further research.
Additionally, spear and dart points from the same period have been found along the shoreline of Lake Mendota. The artifacts were smooth, as if they had tumbled in water for a long time. But there would have been no reason for people to store hunting gear in the water, Rosebrough said.
The question on everyone’s mind on Thursday was: what else is out there?
Thomsen, the avid diver, is thrilled to find out.
“We haven’t done a systematic search in this area. Can you imagine if we actually do, what we’re going to find?” she says.
After:A larger, more interactive Wisconsin Historical Museum is set to open in 2026
Crews worked in low visibility to float the dinghy to the surface
Tribal members, Historical Society staff, curious neighbors and other onlookers gathered to watch a boat tow the canoe, floating on a raft, to Madison’s Spring Harbor beach.
Neighbor Doris Dubielzig was “stunned” when she learned the object she was looking at in the sand was 3,000 years old.
Speaking softly and with admiration in her voice, Dubielzig said she remembered the Shehecheyanu, a “Jewish prayer of gratitude for living to this day.”
“It’s just amazing,” she said.
The canoe itself is in a series of parts. Underwater, the dive team slipped a plastic bed underneath, then placed a tarp underneath. The crew strapped airbags to the tarp and pumped in air Thursday morning, allowing the entire craft to float to the surface.
On Thursday, divers could only see 6 inches ahead of them, Skibo said. On the previous days, when the crews were working on preparing the canoe, there was no visibility. They did everything by touch.
The canoe currently has the consistency of wet cardboard, Thomsen said. As the archaeologists did with the previous canoe, it will rest for two years in a vat of chemicals intended to replace the water in the cells of the wood with a kind of preservative.
A restorer they’ve hired will be able to put it back together once it’s preserved, Thomsen said.
Another spectator, Susan Lauffer, said the canoe’s recovery was “glorious” and “breathtaking” to behold.
Lauffer is a retired professor of ancient history, archeology and anthropology and focuses primarily on Europe and the Middle East. She was excited about the momentous find in her own Madison neighborhood.
“It has been fascinating for me to learn what life was like here thousands of years ago,” she said.
‘A part of you in this canoe’
For the Ho-Chunks, the canoe is a physical reminder of their rich history and culture.
Casey Brown, the public relations manager, built his own canoe with a friend during the pandemic.
His friend told him to touch it and he realized, “There’s a part of you in that canoe.
When he touched the Mendota Lake canoe, he felt a strong connection to his ancestors from millennia past.
“My grandfathers, my grandmothers touched the same canoe. It’s incredibly powerful to know that they were doing the same thing that I did with the canoe that I built,” Brown said.
Three thousand years in the future, he says, “someone is going to touch this, and I’m not going to know them and they’re not going to know me, and we’re still going to have this connection, this object that we’ve invested ourselves in. creation.”
Ultimately, when the canoe begins its new life as an educational tool, Brown hopes those who see it will realize the true depth of Indigenous history contained within the oak tree.
“We are here and we stay here,” he said. “We are here for the long haul.”