Buried Treasure

A photo of a canoe recovered from Lake Mendota helps you see history through the eyes of an archaeologist.

Archeologists transfer a recovered canoe

The canoe arrives at the State Archive Preservation Facility. Wisconsin Historical Society

Archaeological finds are rarely in want of attention. After centuries spent in the quiet stillness of the depths of the earth, they often end up under glass cases in museum exhibits, starring in television specials and documentaries, or (ahem) gracing magazine stories.

This is how the world at large comes to know these relics: in their best light and at their most flattering angles. A fortunate few get to share in the moment of discovery. In the case of the canoe pictured in our story, it was a fortunate alumna who stumbled — or swam — upon it at the bottom of Lake Mendota.

Perhaps that’s part of the beauty in our story: you get to see the canoe just as she did, before it was dug up, cleaned off, and preserved. This photograph has never before been published, and it captures a moment that otherwise can’t be shared, the moment in which an archaeologist confirmed that what could have easily been mistaken for a log was actually a vessel lost to time. When the photo was taken, the age of the canoe was still anyone’s guess. For me, the image captures the thrill of discovery and the solemnity of being in the presence of something both familiar and mysterious — something with the potential to make history.

Take an extra moment with the photo. Notice the stones nestled in the far end of the canoe (and then learn what they are in our story). This scene can’t be staged or re-created in a studio. It’s not every day that history reveals itself, but when it does, seize the opportunity to get a good look.

Published in the Fall 2022 issue

Tags: Campus history, Environment, Humanities, Research, Science

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