Society & Culture

Dugout canoes exhibit, inspired by record archaeological find, comes to St. Augustine

The world’s largest archaeological find – a trove of 101 ancient dugout canoes near Gainesville – inspired the free exhibit opening at St. Augustine’s Government House Oct. 24. The exhibition is sponsored by the University of Florida Historic St. Augustine, the organization charged with the preservation and interpretation of the city’s state-owned historic properties.

At “Dugout Canoes: Paddling through the Americas,” visitors can explore how dugout canoes were used in North, Central and South America and how scientists study and preserve these ancient watercraft. The exhibit replaces “First Colony: Our Spanish Origins,” which was also brought to Government House by UFHSA and occupied the museum’s rotating exhibit space for two years before moving on to Gainesville. “Dugout Canoes” continues through January 2017 at Government House, 48 King Street in St. Augustine. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

“Like St. Augustine itself, this exhibit showcases fascinating aspects of our country’s history and heritage,” said Allen Lastinger, the chairman of UFHSA. “We’re so pleased to share it with the community.”

This interactive display features ancient artifacts, tools and videos as well as model and life-size vessels. Visitors can take a photo in a dugout canoe, find out how these crafts have affected life and travel throughout the Americas, and learn how the tradition is alive and well in Native communities today. All text and videos are presented in English and Spanish.

“Dugout canoes were important for travel, trade, communication, politics and everyday life,” said Darcie MacMahon, exhibits director at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF, where the exhibit originated. “I think people have an inherent fascination with all boats and their history, precisely because they have been so important to our lives for so many thousands of years. We hope visitors will enjoy this look at dugouts – both their ancient history and their importance in peoples’ lives today.”

A severe drought in 2000 caused water levels in Newnans Lake to fall, exposing the prehistoric canoes hidden for centuries. The discovery is the world’s largest-known find of ancient watercraft.

“We wanted to give the story of the Newnans Lake discovery broader context,” MacMahon said. “So we expanded it to tell the story of dugouts in Central and South America as well as North America, both ancient and modern.”

Local residents and high school students were the first to notice the long pieces of wood in the exposed lake bed. They called archaeologists from the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research that led excavation efforts at Newnans Lake, along with researchers from the Florida Museum. No canoes were removed from the site because centuries of changing water levels made the canoes too fragile to move.

Samples were taken from about 50 canoes before the drought ended and the lake’s water levels rose, covering the canoes in mud and water again. Analysis of these samples revealed the canoes were between 500 and 5,000 years old, with a majority made from pine or cypress trees.

“Dugout Canoes: Paddling through the Americas” was produced by the Florida Museum of Natural History with support from the AEC Trust, Lastinger Family Foundation, State of Florida and VisitGainesville.

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UF News Author
Florida Museum of Natural History Photography
October 23, 2015