UNB students help unearth 700-year-old canoe

A group of University of New Brunswick anthropology students helped unearth a 700-year old Wabanaki canoe, thought to be the oldest canoe in Maine.

"Even when we were digging it out of the ground, we had almost an audience gathering on the shores, people just being interested," said UNB student Misty McKinney.

Students and professors travelled to the Biddeford area of southern Maine in May as part of a field course.

Gabriel Hrynick, an anthropology professor at UNB, said the field course work gave students the opportunity to work on a dig that is almost unique.

"A canoe, when you excavate it is quite volatile and it takes a fairly large group of people to work on," said Hrynick. 

"So it's an excellent opportunity for the sort of diligent field school students that we've been training during the summer."

Hrynick, who led the archeology field school, said that in addition to digging up the canoe, students spent several weeks learning archeological techniques at Chouacouet, an Indigenous site.

The canoe was identified by Tim Spahr, who works for a citizen-based group in southern Maine called the Cape Porpoise Archaeological Alliance.

The dug-out canoe is made from one large log, unlike the better-known birch bark canoe.

Marianne Haché, a third-year UNB student, said the canoe is in good shape considering how long it's been buried in sand and salt water.

It was "more or less" intact, she said.

Submitted by Alison Ireland

"There's a few pieces that … you had to kind of rig it together to keep it together in order to be able to move it without damaging it further."

The canoe was located on a popular beach near the Maine resort town of Old Orchard Beach, which made quickly excavating the canoe important. 

"Of course everyone was actually very respectful about what was going on," McKinney said. "We had no problems with people trying to intrude on our excavation."

Jordan Gill/CBC

The work required some unorthodox methods of transporting the ancient boat.

"We all have to move at the same pace, so we'd had, like, practice runs making sure that when we lift it up together that we all go at once to minimize the effect of something possibly going wrong," said Haché.

Alison Ireland, another student who assisted with the excavation, said the group wrapped the canoe in tarps and packed it with a lot of pool noodles. There were "way more packing peanuts than I've ever seen at one time," she said.

Ireland said the field work in Maine has inspired her in her quest to become an archeologist.

The trip has not only reinforced archeology as the career she wants to follow, but she now knows where she wants to work.

"I wasn't really sure what part of the world I wanted to work in after graduation, and this really solidified like New England and the Maritimes as where I want to be," said Ireland.

The canoe isn't out of the water yet.

Ireland said it will be submerged in fresh water for a time so any salt that remains from its briny slumber can leach out, before being dipped in epoxy and preserved.

Hrynick said the canoe is in a museum in Kennebunkport, Maine, undergoing restoration.

Discussions are underway with Indigenous communities to determine a final home for the canoe.