13 August 2009

New Brunswick Museum to Exhibit Significant Acadian Peninsula Discovery during World Acadian Congress


The earliest and most complete watercraft of Aboriginal origin in New Brunswick, found south of Val Comeau in 2003, will return to the Acadian Peninsula to be exhibited during the World Acadian Congress.  This dugout canoe, discovered by Ella and Jean-Claude Robichaud and now in the collection of the New Brunswick Museum, will be on display at  the Centre Communautaire de Val-Comeau from August 19 to 22.

Val-Comeau Dugout CanoeThe dugout canoe dates from over 500 years ago and was almost certainly made by the Mi’kmaq. When discovered by the Robichauds along the Point-à-Barreau beach, it had survived in good condition partly because it had been underwater.  It was subsequently moved to the New Brunswick Museum, where it has been undergoing conservation treatment to ensure its long-term survival.

Analysis of core samples taken from the canoe by the Dendrochronology Laboratory at Mount Allison University determined that the Eastern white pine from which it was made was felled about 1557. The carving was done with stone axes and adzes. This type of canoe was used on larger rivers and coastal shorelines.

New Brunswick Museum staff, including Curator of New Brunswick Cultural History and Art Peter Larocque, will be on hand during the exhibition to provide information to visitors. Larocque comments that “when a Museum receives an artifact like this, it’s among the most important because it pushes the limits of our knowledge and inspires us to learn more.”

New Brunswick Museum Director and CEO Jane Fullerton commented that “New Brunswick’s provincial museum is delighted to participate in the World Acadian Congress by exhibiting this discovery, which increases our understanding and appreciation of our province’s rich heritage.”


Val-Comeau Dugout Canoe

Maker Unknown (probably Mi’kmaq)
dugout canoe, c. 1557
eastern white pine (Pinus strobus)
481 x 68.5 x 28 cm
Gift of Ella Robichaud and Jean-Claude Robichaud, 2006 (2006.34)
Collection of the New Brunswick Museum, Saint John

This dugout canoe is the earliest and most complete watercraft of Aboriginal origin in New Brunswick.  Its discovery has provided a vast quantity of information that increases our understanding and appreciation of New Brunswick’s rich heritage.

In the summer of 2003, Ella and Jean-Claude Robichaud were walking along the Point-à-Barreau beach just south of Val-Comeau, New Brunswick, when they noticed an unusually large piece of wood.  Closer inspection revealed that it appeared to be a dugout canoe with some carved components such as a well-formed keel at the bow and a raised platform at the stern.  After some initial tests undertaken by Vincent Bourgeois of the Archaeological Services Unit of the Province of New Brunswick and the Wood Science and Technology Centre at the University of New Brunswick, it was determined that the dugout canoe was probably between four and five centuries old and made of eastern white pine.  In October 2006, the canoe was retrieved from the Robichauds’ property and taken to the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John for storage, conservation treatment and eventual display.

In February 2007, Dr. Colin Laroque and Felicia Pickard of the Dendrochronology Laboratory of Mount Allison University took some sample cores from the dugout canoe in order to positively confirm the species of the wood and to establish a possible construction date.  After comparing the growth ring patterns from a number of samples of wood from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, it was determined that the felling date of the tree was most probably about 1557 and that it may have grown closer to the region of Grand Pré, Nova Scotia, than the Val-Comeau area where it was found.  This dating also provided confirmation that the dugout canoe was almost certainly made by the Mi’kmaq.

Some early written descriptions by European explorers and settlers document the production and use of dugout canoes in eastern Canada and the United States.  The making of one of these dugout canoes involved the selection of a large tree and the removal of the outer bark. This caused the tree to die and made it easier to harvest.  The tree was then felled and carved using stone axes and adzes.  This would have been made easier by burning away sections of the trunk as well.  This type of dugout canoe would most likely have been used to transport a variety of supplies and people on larger rivers and coastal shorelines including travel to offshore islands.

Conservation Treatment

Over the past five years, modern science has protected an ancient artifact.  This dugout canoe survived in good condition for over 450 years partly because it was underwater and so it was protected from the damaging effects of light and oxygen. As the wood slowly deteriorated, it soaked up water and this water helped the wood to keep its original shape. Scientists call this condition being waterlogged. If the canoe had completely dried out, the wood would have distorted, cracked and disintegrated as the water evaporated. This is why archaeologists are careful to remember the motto: "if it's wet, keep it wet; if it's dry, keep it dry"!

In order to ensure the dugout canoe’s long-term survival, Conservators Dee Stubbs-Lee from the New Brunswick Museum and Colleen Day from Parks Canada collaborated on a multi-year conservation treatment of the dugout canoe at the New Brunswick Museum. When the dugout canoe arrived at the Museum in November of 2006, a reusable treatment tank was constructed around it. The canoe was then immersed in a solution of tap water, a wax-like polymer called polyethylene glycol and sodium borate. These chemicals strengthen and reinforce the wood cell walls so that when it dries it will not distort and crack. The Conservators gradually increased the concentration of this solution over many months. After almost two years, the canoe was stable enough to be removed from the solution, and in September 2008 it was allowed to begin to slowly air dry.

Once dry, the surface of the canoe will be consolidated with a protective coating, allowing safer handling for research and exhibit. The most fragile areas, along the gunwales, have been partially consolidated in order to minimize the risk of damage during transit. It is expected to take several more months before the wood is dry enough to proceed with the final stages of the conservation treatment: removal of excess polyethylene glycol deposits on the surface, consolidation of the remaining surface areas, and cosmetic infills of areas of loss of original wood.

This was the first major conservation treatment of a waterlogged wooden artifact undertaken by the New Brunswick Museum, by Conservators with technical expertise in the conservation of archaeological wood.

For further information:

Vita Kipping
Community Relations
New Brunswick Museum
Tel: 506-643-2358
Toll-free: 1-888-268-9595
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