LEONARDTOWN – Winds gusted forcefully as the first winter storm of the season rapidly approached the Eastern Shore from the south. The frigid water battering the banks of the Choptank River reminded the shivering volunteers that there was little time to spare.
A waterman pulled alongside them, using his boat to shield the site from the wind as onlookers gathered to watch.
The volunteers were digging for buried treasure.
The bounty was not gold bullion, though. It was an 18th-century canoe. If the group had waited any longer, their prize would have been lost forever, washed out to the bay.
The fruit of that one-day emergency operation seven years ago is nearly ready to go on display. And the “SWAT team” that pulled it from the river still stands ready at a moment’s notice to do it all again.
Ship workers in 1993 discovered the 200-year-old artifact while looking for arrowheads along the shore months earlier. They spotted a small portion of the wooden boat protruding from the sand.
The men summoned Bruce Thompson of the Maryland Historical Trust to investigate. He determined that the single-log canoe was probably used by slaves to travel along the river just around the time of the Civil War. It was a unique artifact of Maryland history. It should be excavated, he said, but it had to be done fast.
“An awful lot of it was exposed and in weakened condition,” said Thompson, assistant state underwater archeologist with the trust. He called more than 30 volunteers for an emergency excavation.
The phrase sounds like an oxymoron in a profession where everything takes time. Yet the need to excavate — often quickly — occurs frequently. Pulling together the resources to save endangered sites, however, is quite rare.
“They’re rare because we don’t have the money to do them,” said state Underwater Archeologist Susan Langley of the trust. A recommendation of a task force commissioned by the governor last year, Langley said, will be to create a fund for performing such operations when the need arises from a storm, construction or some other emergency.
In December 1993, speed was the important thing.
More than 30 volunteers showed up at 3 a.m. to load boats and equipment in time to reach the site during daylight.
“We had all these people there, and they must have moved tons of sand,” said Thompson. Volunteers battled the elements to raise the canoe and keep it in a holding tank to prevent it from disintegrating. It had already begun to crumble at the first contact with air after years underwater.
“It was cold, and when you have the water being blown in against the shoreline, it’s difficult to be able to work in those conditions because the tide may be coming in,” said John G. Lewis, a retired marketing professional and scuba-diving hobbyist who volunteered that day. “You’re getting wet and it’s cold.”
The hard work of the emergency crew paid off. They were able to get the canoe to the Chesapeake Maritime Museum and begin the conservation process.
“The first three days are critical,” said Howard Wellman, lead conservator at the Maryland Archeological Conservation Laboratory, where most state-owned artifacts are stored. “When you first excavate, the decaying process accelerates almost the moment the object is exposed to air.”
After years of soaking in clean water, removing the salt, sand and mud, the canoe was transported to the state lab. Using state-of-the-art conservation techniques, the canoe was prepared for exhibition.
Wellman estimated the process, which included treating the canoe with polyethylene glycol — a chemical that strengthens the bonds of the wood — should be complete in about six months. The pieces were first frozen and then freeze-dried to eliminate water without damaging the artifact.
Estimating the overall cost of the project is difficult, Wellman said, but he guessed it took thousands of dollars to store, clean and treat the canoe. Regardless of whether the canoe ever appeared in a museum, Wellman said the state would have found a way to restore such a rare item. Much of the time was donated, and some of the polyethylene glycol was reused from previous projects.
When the conservation process is complete, Chesapeake Maritime Museum curator Pete Lesher said the museum would like to add the canoe to its collection.
“It would be the earliest boat we can show here,” Lesher said. “What it shows, in my mind, is the origins of indigenous watercraft on the Chesapeake.”
Meanwhile, Thompson keeps his list of volunteers ready in case they have to perform another emergency excavation operation.
“I have several pages of numbers and e-mail addresses now,” he said, “so it’s just a matter of calling as many people as we need, and we go out and do the job.”