Check out the latest posting - July 7, 2007
Some years back a new way of looking at our ancient past arose in the archeological community. Instead of looking at our ancestor’s tools and methodology and assuming the modern way superior, we started experimenting with stone tools, friction fires and other basic yet ingenious technology that brought humanity out from the caves in the first place. Much to the surprise of many, these tools and techniques were often on par if not superior to methods used today. It was with this in mind that I undertook the Dugout Project at the Etowah Mounds in Cartersville Georgia. My goal in this project was to experiment with a variety of techniques for using fire as a tool to determine what worked and what did not and then to determine how such techniques might have been used in ancient times. I should note that some of the methods I have used in this project come from my own imagination and not necessarily from any historical source. And while I admit that some of the ideas contained here are my interpretations, I would encourage other proponents of experimental archeology to take such deductive leaps, as this is the only way for us to re-discover those tools and techniques that have been lost to the annuls of history.
The Project Begins
One of the first things discussed when I came on at the Etowah Mounds was the idea of creating a dugout canoe in the traditional fashion. While modern means might have been easier (or so I thought), I insisted on using burning and scraping as the primary means for creating the canoe. Of course, our first hurdle was to obtain a proper log to 'dig' the canoe from. Etowah is one of the Great Mississippian cities of the Southeast so I wanted to make a canoe in the style of the river vessels of the Deep South. This also offered some interesting challenges, as the unusual shape of southeastern canoes has been difficult to replicate in the modern age, and I had a theory as to the method used to shape the 'platforms' on either end of the vessel. These boats are most often made from Cypress, Pine and Poplar. These trees are common in the south and often have large straight sections that are relatively free from knots, which makes for easy digging. I also wanted a tree that was already dead, not only because green wood is wet and prone to cracking, but because I wanted this project to have as little ecological impact as possible. This proved to be harder than we originally thought and many of our associates spent the next several months looking for such a log. Ironically, after Hurricane Katrina, the rising water delivered a giant poplar tree to the riverbank at the edge of the Etowah Mounds Historic site. This tree had lain beneath the Etowah for decades, preserved by the cold water, and was perfect for making one of the 25-30 foot canoes I had read about in my studies. It landed in a nice shady spot by the river (and it weighed 30K lbs+) so we decided to leave it basically where it lay while we dug our canoe. I was worried that if we took too long the rapid drying might cause the wood to crack so before any of the real work began we cut the top and some of the rotten wood off of the log using modern tools. Since this was my first dugout, and there were some time constraints; burning from top to bottom on a log that weighs 15 tons or more was not really an option on this project (although I would like to try it on a smaller scale in the future).
I knew copper tools had existed here in North America for thousands of years, which begged the question 'if there was copper technology that far back why did the burning and scraping method continue to be the predominant method right up until the first settlers arrived from Europe?' Before the first burn I decided to experiment with a European style Adze (a sideways axe) that was used for making dugouts by the Louis and Clarke expedition in the early 1800's. This was so that I could have a legitimate comparison of European tools versus the tools of the Southeastern Indians. I used the Adze to dig a trench down the middle of the log, 20 feet long, about 3 inches wide and only an inch deep. This backbreaking work took me 3 agonizing days (ouch!).
The Direct Coal Method while effective seems to have a flaw in that the more dense areas of the log around knots do not burn at the same rate as the more even wood. We have recently begun experimenting with fires built atop the direct coals in an effort to pull excess heat away from the wood; this seems to offer a more even burn.