1,200-Year-Old Canoe Recovered from Lake Mendota in Wisconsin

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Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologists recovered a historic dugout canoe, which may be oldest completely intact water vessel known in Wisconsin, from the bottom of Lake Mendota in Madison. Carbon dating indicates that the vessel is approximately 1,200 years old and was in use around A.D. 800.

The canoe recovery team including Wisconsin Historical Society archaeologists and divers from the Dane County Sheriff's office lifting canoe from Lake Mendota.

“The canoe is a remarkable artifact, made from a single tree, that connects us to the people living in this region 1,200 years ago," said Christian Overland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director & CEO for the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologists recovered a historic dugout wood canoe from the bottom of Lake Mendota on Tuesday, November 2, 2021, just a few months after learning of its existence in June 2021. Carbon dating indicates that the vessel is approximately 1,200 years old and was in use around A.D. 800, centuries before European arrival.

“The dugout canoe found in Lake Mendota is a significant artifact of the continuum of canoe culture in the Western Great Lakes region,” said Christian Overland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director & CEO for the Wisconsin Historical Society. “By taking action to preserve this canoe we are protecting a piece of history for future generations. The canoe is a remarkable artifact, made from a single tree, that connects us to the people living in this region 1,200 years ago. As the Society prepares to open a new history museum in 2026, we are excited about the new possibilities it offers to share Native American stories and culture through the present day.”

Excavation of the area around the canoe began in late October 2021, and maritime archaeologists recovered artifacts from the site early on in their process. Net sinkers, rocks that were flattened by hand tooling, were recovered from within the canoe, indicating the vessel may have been used for fishing. The canoe was raised from a depth of about 30 feet with the assistance of the Dane County Sherriff’s dive team.

“Recovering the canoe from Lake Mendota required a carefully coordinated team effort,” said Jim Skibo, state archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society. “After many hours in and out of the field preparing for a successful recovery, I could not be prouder of the work accomplished by the divers, archaeologists, and supporting staff involved with this project.”

The recovery team used floatation bags to raise the canoe to the lake’s surface, and by 1:30 p.m. on November 2, the artifact was removed from the water via a nearby beach. The canoe was transported to Wisconsin’s State Archive Preservation Facility and placed into a custom-built storage vat containing water and a bio-deterrent to protect the canoe from physical deterioration. Over time, a chemical solution will be added to the vat which will eventually replace the water in the cellular structure of the wood. The preservation process is estimated to take approximately 3 years.

About Wisconsin Historical Society
The Wisconsin Historical Society, founded in 1846, ranks as one of the largest, most active and most diversified state historical societies in the nation. As both a state agency and a private membership organization, its mission is to help people connect to the past by collecting, preserving and sharing stories. The Wisconsin Historical Society serves millions of people every year through a wide range of sites, programs and services. For more information, visit http://www.wisconsinhistory.org.

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Kendall Poltzer
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