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1,200-year-old canoe recovered from bottom of Lake Mendota

A team pulls the canoe out of Lake Mendota.
Wisconsin Historical Society
A team pulls the canoe out of Lake Mendota.

James Skibo has touched artifacts from 2,000 B.C.

He’s been part of major archaeology projects halfway across the world.

Yet pulling a 1,200-year-old canoe from the bottom of Lake Mendota was one of his most emotional excavations.

“So many of our discoveries made today are made by ourselves in the lab or in a small team. I’ve never been part of something when it was a public that made it sort of, quite a bit different. Everybody on our team was overwhelmed by that,” said Skibo.

Skibo’s name may sound familiar voice to WXPR listeners. Skibo, a former WXPR contributor, is now the Wisconsin State Archaeologist.

Dozens of people waited on the shores of Lake Mendota in Madison for four hours while divers went to bottom to carefully dig out the canoe.

Skibo said no one’s ever recovered a canoe from this deep before.

“It was not without its danger. We had 5 or 6 divers down there at a time. With not much visibility. They did a remarkable job bringing it up,” he said.

It was then dragged to shore at one mile per hour.

“And when we pulled it out, I was kind of overcome by how people reacted. It was emotional so of moment, people were excited,” said Skibo.

There’s a lot of to be excited about.

Wisconsin Historical Society

Finding a canoe of this age and this well preserved is extremely rare.

It was first discovered this summer by Wisconsin Historical Society archaeologist Tammy Thomsen who had been scuba diving for fun in the lake.

“She saw a piece of wood sticking out which had been unusual. She went down, she uncovered it with her hands and she said, ‘my goodness, this looks like a canoe,’” said Skibo.

When Skibo began his job as the State Archaeologist, he kept hearing about it about in different conversations.

“Finally, I said tell me more about this canoe in the bottom of the lake,” he said.

He was certainly intrigued.

From the descriptions, it was a hand dugout canoe. The question became how old was it?

“You know was it made by Boy Scouts in the 1950s, which Boy Scouts have been want to do, canoes as projects. Or is it something that’s ancient. There’s only one way to find out,” he said.

A team dove back down to get a small sample to radiocarbon date.

Wisconsin Historical Society state archaeologist Jim Skibo speaks with divers.
Wisconsin Historical Society
Wisconsin Historical Society state archaeologist Jim Skibo speaks with divers.

It turns out the canoe was from 800 A.D. around the times the effigy mounds were being built around Lake Mendota.

Skibo says it’s been buried under the surface of the lake bottom all this time.

They had to bring it up now that it was uncovered or it would quickly deteriorate.

“Now it’s undergoing two and a half years of lying in state in a large vat, undergoing preservation,” said Skibo.

This canoe is a significant piece of Native American history. Skibo says it’s impossible to know who was in the canoe, but he says it was likely members Ho-Chunk Nation.

It was one of the oldest ever found. It’s the oldest, most well-preserved canoes found in the state. It was also found with seven net sinkers.

“[They] are kind of hand sized flat stones, some of which have notching on the sides to take on cordage at the bottom of the net. It’s the kind of net where you have floats on top, weights on the bottom and then the fish are captured,” said Skibo.

Skibo said the canoe tells archaeologist a lot about subsistence, craftsmanship, and transportation among indigenous people during that time period.

Tribal partners have been involved in canoe extraction since it was decided to bring to the surface.

And Skibo says it will be key part in telling their story.

“It’s a good way for the decent populations, the Ho-Chunk and others to help them, to be a part of their story, and to have them tell their story about canoes, canoe making, transportation, and fishing,” he said.

Skibo hopes the canoe will eventually be the centerpiece for the new Wisconsin State Historical Society museum which will be complete in 2026.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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