Centuries-old canoe unveiled at Parris Island

mmcnab@islandpacket.comJune 18, 2014 

It had been more than 25 years since Beaufort resident James Cooler last saw the centuries-old canoe he found in the water off Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

On Wednesday, Cooler was on hand when the relic, returned to the depot, was unveiled as an exhibit in the Parris Island Museum.

Cooler, who has walked the shores around Beaufort and the Lowcountry searching for artifacts and history all his life, found the canoe intact in a marsh near the base in 1987. What he saw Wednesday didn't look much like the canoe he had found, as time and the elements had broken it apart.

The canoe, believed to be built sometime in the Mississippian Period between 800 and 1520, is now displayed under glass with sand and dried marsh grass. Oyster shells mask seams where its 18 fragmented remains were stitched together with plastic ties by Lynn Harris, professor at East Carolina University.

Harris and two students who assisted her with the project, Alyssa Reisner and Sonia Valencia, spoke at Wednesday's ceremony.

Valencia said the 21-foot vessel was made of Eastern white pine and was at least 590 years old, likely predating European contact with American Indians.

Cooler said he moved the canoe intact after finding it, covering it with pluff mud and sandbags to keep it safe from waves that could break the ancient craft apart. It was the fifth canoe he had found around Beaufort, but the previous four were broken apart by the currents because they weren't removed from the water or stabilized.

In 1989, the canoe was pulled from the mud by Marines from Parris Island. It underwent a number of treatments over the years in attempts to preserve it, but it broke apart at some point between its removal from the mud and its restoration by Harris last year. Harris and her students reassembled the canoe's fragments and tried to reconstruct it to look as it might have appeared centuries ago.

Harris said the removal process and preservation technology were not as advanced in 1989 as they are now, which likely explains its deterioration. Reisner said during her presentation that many canoes and ancient boats are reburied to preserve them since ones that are pulled from the water and restored are more likely to crumble.

Cooler said he was told last Thursday the canoe he had found years ago would finally be unveiled. He carried articles with him Wednesday from the 1990s that reported his discovery.

Wednesday's unveiling was also a reunion for Harris and Cooler, who hadn't seen each other since they both worked on the S.S. William Lawrence shipwreck in Port Royal Sound in the mid-1990s. Harris, then working for the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, filed the paperwork that added the shipwreck to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

An experienced scuba diver, Cooler dove with the team that studied the shipwreck. Harris said Cooler had an extensive collection of artifacts from the shipwreck when he was asked to join the effort to study the ship.

Cooler has combed the shores from Savannah to Charleston for more than 60 years. He found his first artifact when he was 10 years old, pulling pieces of a sterling silver dining set from sand that is now the site of an Applebees restaurant in Beaufort.

"I pick up everything that's not native," he said. "I clean it, wash it and try to figure out what it is. Beaufort County was sand, pine trees and oak trees. If you find a rock here, someone brought it. There's a gold mine of artifacts under your feet."

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

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