Lead Forensics

3D scan reveals details of 1,200-year-old Wisconsin canoe

Jun 9, 2022 | 3D Scanning, Artifacts, Museums & Collections, News

3D scanning is helping archaeologists better understand a 1,200-year-old, 15-foot dugout canoe recovered in 2021 from the waters of Lake Mendota, Wisconsin and part of the ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

From the scans detailed 3D renderings have been created that will preserve the boat’s legacy and allow researchers to study the craft while it undergoes a multiyear preservation process.

The canoe’s journey from the depths of Lake Mendota to the digital world began in June 2021, when a Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) maritime archaeologist discovered it in 27 feet of water about 100 yards offshore.

Worried that the canoe would deteriorate rapidly as it emerged from the sediment, the WHS put together a team of rescue divers and underwater archaeologists who retrieved the priceless dugout canoe in November 2021.

The fragile canoe is one of about three dozen ever found in Wisconsin and is the only one discovered with associated artefacts. The historical society team was able to discern a few important facts about the canoe from preliminary examinations. Carbon-14 dating revealed its age, suggesting that it was created and used by the effigy mound builders who inhabited the Madison area a millennium ago.

Its position far offshore and a hole in the canoe suggest it sunk; in contrast, many other canoes have been discovered near shore, where they were purposefully buried underwater for winter storage. Seven net sinkers found in the boat also suggest that it was a work canoe, used for a type of fishing previously only documented among cultures living along the shores of the Great Lakes.

The high-resolution scan of the canoe took place at the historical society’s preservation facility in late March 2022. Crew members first carefully lifted the craft from its custom soaking tank and moved it to an examination table for scanning.

During the 3D scanning process, the scanner projects a laser pattern onto the surface and uses two cameras to measure how the laser pattern deforms as it moves over the surface features. Small reflective circular stickers are placed on the surface to track the scanner’s overall location and orientation relative to the surface. This information is used to reconstruct the 3D shape of the surface in real time on a computer screen. After scanning sophisticated software was used to create a digital 3D model of the canoe that can be spun around, zoomed in on and manipulated in many ways.

There are future plans to 3D-print a replica of the canoe, and potentially even produce life-size replicas of the canoe that visitors could sit in when the WHS’ new History Center opens.

See the full story on the University of Wisconsin–Madison website.

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The PES Scanning blog provides information and news on the scanning and engineering services we offer. The blog also includes views from our team and information about projects we’ve been working on.