Mystery canoe uncovered after Hurricane Irma getting its own exhibit

Canoe won't be a mystery forever, Cape Canaveral staff historian says

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist
Randy Lathrop

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Remember the canoe that washed ashore during Hurricane Irma last year from the Indian River? The wooden boat, which possibly dates back to the 1600s, is getting its own exhibit in Cape Canaveral, however, the most fascinating part of the old vessel is what researchers still don't know about it.

Last September, photographer Randy Lathrop, of Cocoa, was biking near the Indian River when he spotted the 700-pound canoe among debris scattered by Hurricane Irma. Officials from the Florida Department of State’s Bureau of Archeological Research in the Division of Historical Resources collected the canoe and preserved it while archeologists tried to find out where and when it came from.

A year later, the "Irma canoe," which went viral on social media, made the front page of the Wall Street Journal and was featured in the Smithsonian magazine, is still a mystery, but it's finally getting a formal place of recognition.

The city of Cape Canaveral town hall, on Polk Avenue, will open an Irma canoe exhibit on Sept. 28 in the Community Artifacts Room.

Lathrop, as well as archeologists from Paleo West Archeology, will be at the exhibit's grand opening at 4 p.m. After a brief presentation, visitors can few the intriguing Irma canoe from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Curious visitors may ask when they see the ancient-looking vessel: "How old is it?" The answer is complicated, explained Cape Canaveral cultural programs manager and staff historian Molly Thomas.

Researchers using radiocarbon to date the canoe's wood were not sure of the exact date the canoe was built, because the results came up with three possible time periods for its creation date.

Their carbon-14 analysis shows there is a 50 percent chance the canoe was made from a tree that died between 1640 and 1680, but it still doesn't indicate when the canoe was built or when it was used, Thomas said.

"What we do know for certain is that it's historical, meaning that it was made after European contact, and that is evident by the presence of metal tool marks," Thomas said.

Next, a graduate student form the University of Tennessee tried to date the southern red cypress tree the canoe was constructed from, but there wasn't a large enough sampling of those trees in Florida to get an accurate time range, and even then, it would have only  indicated when the tree stopped growing, Thomas said.

Using another process called X-ray fluorescence, researchers found paint on the vessel dating back to the early 1900s. However, Thomas said the paint could have been applied after the Irma canoe was constructed. Also, two types of nails found on the canoe indicated time periods. One nail type, which was square, was used prior to 1900, and another type was used after 1890. But again, the nails could have been added long after the canoe was made, said Thomas.

Researchers may have to wait on new technology to determine the canoe's origin story.

"The fact that there is such a mystery surrounding its age, makes it all the more fascinating to archeologists and it leaves the door open to new and improved dating technologies as they become available," Thomas said in an email to News 6. "While we don’t have the answer to 'How old is it?' right now, it’s exciting to know that with how fast technology moves, it won’t be a mystery forever."  

The Irma Canoe will remain at the Cape Canaveral town hall building until the city's first fine arts institution opens after 2020.

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