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On September 10, 2017, a storm surge created by Hurricane Irma dislodged a historic canoe from its resting place somewhere in the Indian River. The flood waters deposited it along the side of Indian River Road, just north of Cocoa Village, where it was discovered the next morning by a local resident and photographer, Randy “Shots” Lathrop. Recognizing its potential significance, Mr. Lathrop promptly reported the find to authorities at the Florida Division of Historical Resources who came and retrieved the canoe, taking it back to Tallahassee for a thorough conservation and analysis.

Why Cape Canaveral?

After discovering the City of Cape Canaveral was in the process of constructing a new cultural facility, Staff from the Division of Historical Resources reached out to the City's Cultural Programs Manager and offered the Irma Canoe on indefinite loan for the City to exhibit in the future Culture Arts Preservation and Enrichment (CAPE) Center.

The canoe’s conservation process did not take as long as originally anticipated, and since the City’s Community Artifacts Room could accommodate it, a temporary installation was arranged to showcase the artifact until the CAPE Center is complete.

Research Results

Archaeologists with the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research spent nearly a year working with the canoe, trying to uncover its origins and conserving it for exhibition. The big question on everyone’s mind was, “How old is it?”

The easy answer to that… we don’t know. But why we don’t know makes the puzzle even more intriguing. Several methods of dating were used in an attempt to determine an exact calendar date for the canoe’s construction and/or use but all the results revealed something different.

Radiocarbon Dating

Also known as Carbon-14 dating, this technology can provide an approximate time frame for when an organism died based on how much carbon exists in its remains. The Carbon-14 tests on the Irma Canoe suggest a high probability that the tree used to construct it died between 1640 and 1680, but testing cannot determine when the canoe was actually constructed or when it was last used.

Calendar Year

Probability - Within 5%

1640 - 1680

49.50%

1760 - 1810

37.20%

1930 - Present

8.60%


Dendroarchaeology

Dendroarchaeology can determine when a tree was cut down or used to construct an artifact by analyzing the pattern of growth rings visible in the wood. This process involves a cross-dating system in which wooden artifacts are compared to other samples of the same species and climate that are part of that region’s chronology.

Unfortunately, what makes the Irma Canoe unique also makes analysis of its dendrochronology difficult. The canoe was constructed from Southern red cedar, which is notorious for producing false rings between its annual growth periods. It is the only canoe ever recovered in Florida made from this material, and there are no regional chronologies available for comparison at this time. Further research will be needed before this sample can provide conclusive data.

Portable X-ray Fluorescence

Commonly referred to as XRF, this method can identify the elemental composition of many types of materials and was used to examine trace amounts of blue and red paint found on the Irma Canoe. It provided clues as to how the vessel once looked and revealed a time frame for when it was painted. The high level of titanium identified in the XRF analysis suggests that the blue paint used on the canoe dates back to the early 1900s. But as with the other testing, this method could not confirm the year the canoe was built.

The fact that there is such a mystery surrounding the canoe’s age, makes it all the more fascinating to archaeologists and leaves the door open to new and improved dating technologies as they become available. While we currently can’t state the year the canoe was built, it’s exciting to know that with today’s rapid advancements in technology, we might one day be able to determine its age.

In the meantime, it’s fun to entertain our own hypotheses. What’s yours? Tell us what you think!

View the Irma Canoe

Community Artifacts Room
Cape Canaveral City Hall
100 Polk Avenue
Cape Canaveral, FL 32920

Current Exhibition Hours
Monday – Friday
8:30 PM – 5:00 PM
(Exhibition hours subject to change)


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