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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

Day One

Day One

Mississippian Axes

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!).


Day Two
Day Three

Much to our amazement, 3 days of burning and scraping with simple sea shells, did at least 3 times the work in the same amount of time with no soreness or sleepless nights. We accomplished this by building a ‘Firewall’ using Daub (a mixture of water, grass and Georgia red clay). We then placed the red hot coals from our fire pit directly atop the area of the log to be burned, with our Firewall protecting any areas we didn’t want to burn. I should note that it is very important to achieve a Daub that is wet enough to protect the wood but sticky enough to hold onto the log. We allowed the coals to burn down for an hour or two until they were basically ash, at which time steam rising from the wood would push out of the ash causing these ‘Vents’. The Vents proved to be very useful as they helped us to determine when the coals had burned out. The heat even from the ashes was very intense so in these early experiments we quenched the remaining coals with water, which had an interesting side effect. The rapid change in temperature caused the underlying burned wood to crack in patterns that could be removed very quickly. While I have seen other experiments that didn’t use this step, the residual heat meant the workers had to wait for the wood to cool, or use long handled adzes for removing the char. Since the wet coals are cool enough to be removed with simple shells and most of the historical sources describe shells as the primary tool for removing char, it seems likely that this method was used to some degree.



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.

Day Four
Day Four

Day Five
Day Five
Day Five

Over a few days of removing the char we were able to devise a few methods for scraping the dugout using a shell that were very effective. Once the fire was out and the Daub, and excess ash removed; we were able to remove lots of material very quickly by scraping the underlying cracked coals along the grains of the wood. The material removed in this fashion is similar to the effect of a chain saw, and sends char flying all over. It is amazing how much material could be removed in just 30 seconds or so. Once this rough scraping is complete, you can scrape across the grain to remove even more. The cross grain scraping produces a finer ‘semi-charred’ material and works best when the wood is still warm. The side effect of removing the material in this fashion is that it leaves the underlying log with a sort of ‘fuzzy’ texture with a lot of fibers that catch fire readily on the next burn. On day 6 we began the first experiments in shaping the distinctive ‘Platforms’ that sets these southeastern canoes apart from any other I have seen. While I am happy with the results of using the direct coal method for this so far, it seems likely that some other tools were used in combination with the fire in order to achieve the sculpted shape of these canoes.

Technique One
Technique Two

Coal Shaping

By Day 10, we decided to switch up and do some shaping on the outside of the canoe. Once again we found ourselves looking for creative ways to shape the distinctive ends of the southeastern canoes. Other experiments in recent years have shown how achieving this shape by burning from underneath is nearly impossible, as the excessive heat burns too much too fast. We decided to do this fine shaping by burning downward slowly, giving us more control. The first method we decided to try was to burn ‘channels’ across the wood that would allow the material between to be removed quickly with some sort of hand tool like an axe. My initial experiments with this worked beautifully, achieving a shape reminiscent of the ‘scoop’ shape common to the ends of these canoes in only a few quick strokes of the axe. Unfortunately I have thus far been unable to get a Mississippian style copper axe to attempt this technique but I hope this would achieve similar results. By contrast we tried another method at the other end in which we built a fire directly on the log covering all of the area to be removed. Much to our surprise this seems to naturally produce a somewhat ‘pointed’ end that is much more common to all sorts of dugouts worldwide. Perhaps this tendency to make a point is just a fluke or perhaps it is the reason why ‘pointed’ canoes are so prevalent while the more ‘boxy’ canoes are not. Burning directly on the bottom of the log produced a relatively flat surface on the bottom of the boat, but thus far our methods have not produced the amazingly flat and smooth bilges common to southern boats. These results are consistent with the idea of fire being used as a primary tool supported by other hand tools like adzes and draw knives that could produce the finer shaping we are looking for. Only further experimentation can tell for sure. These experiments are ongoing and some in the near future might reveal other techniques as well so stay tuned for those updates or come visit us Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9 to 5 at Etowah Mounds Historic Site in Cartersville Georgia.

Technique Three
Technique Four

Day Ten
Day Ten

July 2008 -- This project has been temporarily put on hold, but we hope to resume soon.

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