University of South Carolina

USC archaeologist helps Daufuskie dig a dugout

By Peggy Binette,, 803-777-7704

A dugout canoe that may date back to the 18th century has been recovered on Turtle Island, a small island south of Daufuskie Island by University of South Carolina archaeologists and residents of the sea island.

The canoe, hewn from a single log, was discovered this summer by Daufuskie Island resident John Hill on Turtle Island, an area named for the sea turtles that nest there. It was partially protruding from the marsh grass in which it was buried.

“The visible end suggested it was hewn by iron tools,” said Jim Spirek, the state underwater archaeologist with USC’s S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA). “Whether it was built by historic-period Native American Indians influenced by European designs or by Colonial settlers or from a later period is open for speculation at this point.”

Local preservationist and marina owner William “Wick” Scurry has sent a sample of the canoe’s wood for identification and radiocarbon dating. It was most likely made from pine or cypress.

The results will provide a date range of when the tree was cut down and presumably when the canoe would have been hewn. It also will provide some archaeological clues as to who and how it was constructed.

Scurry, Hill, Spirek and Joe Beatty, also with SCIAA, were among those who helped free the canoe that was entombed in the marsh mud. Unfortunately, the grip of the mud was too great, and the canoe split into three pieces.

The canoe, transported by pontoon to the Freeport Marina, currently resides in a tank at Scurry’s restaurant, the Old Daufuskie Crab Company, as Spirek finalizes a conservation plan.

“We need to impregnate the waterlogged canoe with polyethylene glycol called PEG to help bulk the wood cells. Once we have the desired saturation level of PEG, we will slowly air dry the canoe for eventual display in the restaurant,” Spirek said.

Relatively few dugout canoes have been found in lower coastal area of South Carolina, which makes this canoe a significant find, said Spirek. Other canoes recovered from the region include the Parris Island Canoe, a prehistoric dugout canoe recovered from the shore of Parris Island in the 1980s, and a canoe found in the flood plain of the Savannah River a couple of years ago that now resides in the Blue Heron Nature Center in Ridgeland, S.C.

“Research of the Turtle Island Canoe will offer us new insights into the early settlement of the state’s Lowcounty region,” he said.

Spirek said the canoe is an example of a public-private partnership. The canoe is state property, but private initiative is driving its preservation.

“Community involvement with historical projects such as this invests citizens as well as civic and business leaders to protect their local maritime archaeological record, which is part of South Carolina’s overall archaeological record,” Spirek said. “SCIAA helps by providing expertise, in this case experience with canoes. By working together, the local community and the state can preserve and interpret these unique and non-renewable cultural resources for all South Carolinians and visitors to our state.”

SCIAA is part of the College of Arts and Sciences at USC.

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Posted: 10/22/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 10/22/12 @ 1:27 PM | Permalink