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Carbon dating to determine age of Cokato Museum’s dugout canoe
Jan. 6, 2014

By Kristen Miller
News Editor

A donated dugout canoe has been a part of the Cokato Museum’s original exhibits since the museum opened in 1976.

Very little information has been available regarding the canoe, however, other than that the donor recovered it from a lake in southern Aitkin County, north of Lake Mille Lacs, said Cokato Museum Director Mike Worcester.

Thanks to a team from Maritime Heritage Minnesota (MHM), a non-profit specializing in nautical archaeology, more will soon be revealed regarding the Cokato Museum’s dugout canoe, such as age and to what tribal nation it is associated.

“It will allow us to be more accurate with the information we share with our patrons,” Worcester commented. The best estimate has been 300 years old, he noted.

The Cokato Museum canoe is one artifact MHM is studying as part of the Minnesota Dugout Canoe Project by founders and operators Ann Merriman and Christopher Olson.

“There was a time when radiocarbon testing was so expensive, it just didn’t justify it,” Worcester said, which was why the museum never sought have the canoe sampled for dating.

The Minnesota Dugout Canoe Project was designed by MHM to document and take very small wood samples from the known dugout canoes in Minnesota. It’s being funded by a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant, part of the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund of the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment.

The documentation data will be used to compare the attributes of each artifact with the others included in the study.

There are seven Native American dugout canoes, and one historic dugout canoe/boat being documented and sampled for this project in which the wood samples will undergo Accelerated Mass Spectrometry (ASM) carbon 14 dating.

“I was surprised there were so few out there,” Worcester said.

A dugout canoe was found at the bottom of Big Swan Lake, north of Dassel, in the mid-1950s and is currently on display at the McLeod County Historical Museum. Carbon testing discovered that this particular canoe was built between 1030 and 1220 AD.

Results determining the age of the Cokato Museum canoe are expected by the end of January at the latest.

“From a stability standpoint, the canoe is in very good condition and is not currently at risk of further degradation,” Merriman noted. “Even though the canoe has not undergone any formal conservation processes, she is stable and in good shape,” she added. MHM cannot determine the age until the carbon 14 dating tests are completed.

How the testing works

MHM staff drill a 5/32-inch hole using a hand-powered drill bit near the bottom of the canoe that is out of sight.

Inside that hole, a smaller 1/8-inch hole is drilled to obtain a sample that has not been exposed to any element.

The sterile shavings from the 1/8-inch hole are wrapped in foil and placed in a clean plastic bag. The samples are then sent to the lab and put through the ASM process.

“The Cokato Museum dugout canoe is missing her gunwales (the tops of the hull sides), but some of the sides of the canoe have survived,” Merriman explained.

More about the researchers

The husband-and-wife team are dedicated to the preservation, documentation, and conservation of Minnesota’s finite maritime and nautical archaeological resources within a not-for-profit paradigm.

They are licensed nautical archaeologists, meaning they locate and document submerged cultural resources – wrecks and other maritime sites.

They use sonar to locate anomalies that are then investigate by SCUBA diving in order to determine if they are a wreck or another resource.

They have conducted surveys of the Headwaters Mississippi River in Aitkin County, a portion of the Minnesota River, Lake Minnetonka, White Bear Lake, and Lake Waconia.

They have been diving on anomalies in Lake Minnetonka; before their work began, there were six recognized wrecks in the lake and they have located 22 more wrecks and five other maritime sites.

They also located three wrecks in White Bear Lake, but have yet to confirm their types; and have been assessing and documenting three wrecks in the Headwaters Mississippi River in Aitkin, one of which they discovered in September 2012.

“We are not treasure hunters, we are not looters, we do not take artifacts from wrecks,” Merriman affirmed. “We assess and document Minnesota’s maritime history and nautical archaeological resources.”

During the winter months, they complete reports from their field work and conduct projects like the Minnesota Dugout Canoe Project that do not require diving.

“We have also digitized the 62 known log books from the USS Essex, a National Register of Historic Places property in Duluth, and are in the process of editing and transcribing them. All of MHM’s reports are available free of charge through links at their website, www.maritimeheritagemn.org.

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