Nothing Short of Miraculous

The saga of the North Creek paddle.

By Dr. Donald H. Keith, Chairman, TCI National Museum

Saturday August 17, 1996, 4:30 PM: It is the end of another long day for Bob Gascoine, captain of the sailboat, Aquanaut, moored in “the lagoon,” a deepwater basin at the north end of Grand Turk’s North Creek. It is a safe anchorage and there are no docking fees, but there is one big problem: getting back and forth to the shore. Between Aquanaut and solid land lie 100 yards of muck and a dense tangle of mangroves. Earlier in the day Bob felt the propeller of his dinghy hit something in the narrow channel to shore so he decides to wade out to locate the obstruction and remove it before it can do any damage. He reaches down and finds a branch protruding from the side of the channel. He pulls it out. It looks like a paddle, but not like any paddle he has ever seen. What happens next is best described in his own words:

“I suppose that I stood there ‘gobsmacked’ for a couple of minutes, assessing the chances of it being ‘Indian’ and to have lasted this long in seawater and rate that about a thousand to one! But how could it have possibly been lost in such a calm spot? Certainly not thrown away because it’s complete and in working shape—apart from some propeller damage. It is beautifully made, very slim and fine and first I think it too perfect a finish to be Indian. It is fairly deep (about 20 cm below the sea bed and under sea grass, within a layer of a fibrous form of peat) and it rests on a clam shell. The wood is soft but not weak or rotten but the finish is very smooth and the shape so elegant and graceful that I again have doubts about it being of Indian origin!”

Capt. Bob Gascoine with his Lucayan paddle discovery in 1996

With commendable forethought, Bob replaced the paddle and immediately notified Brian Riggs, manager of the Turks & Caicos National Museum and local authority on the Taino and Lucayan Native Americans who were the first human inhabitants of the Islands. Fortunately, I happened to be on Grand Turk, working at the Museum. I hitched a ride to the site with Museum Director Dr. Barry Dressel, bringing a hastily constructed tray lined with plastic sheet to keep the paddle wet during the trip back to the Museum. We arrived just as Brian and Bob returned to shore with the paddle carefully balanced on a surfboard. There was no question in anyone’s mind that we were looking at a major discovery.
Energized by this wholly unexpected and unique discovery, Brian, Bob, and I sought reference material that would help us identify the paddle. How old was it? Where did it come from? Who made it? Even without resorting to Carbon-14 testing and wood species identification, we could see that its design suggested a connection to the Tainos or Lucayans, the Native Americans who originally inhabited these islands for centuries. The paddle’s distinctive “T” handle and pointed blade looked very much like those being used by Native Americans to propel a dugout canoe in a 1581 illustration. But the identification was not secure until we found a 1913 account by collector Theodoor de Booy who found a nearly identical paddle on a shelf in an unexplored cave on Mores Island, a small cay on the Little Bahama Bank. The report includes a drawing of the paddle which is very similar to the North Creek Paddle. Until Gascoine’s discovery it was the only Lucayan paddle ever found.
While there is a strong generic resemblance between the two paddles, there are also remarkable differences. De Booy states that the Mores Island paddle is made of a single piece of cedar, but he does not state how the wood was identified. The photo, gross measurements, and drawing of the Mores Island paddle indicate that it has a longer shaft and shorter and wider blade than the Grand Turk example. It also possesses carved decoration that ours does not have. The two paddles are remarkably close in overall length, the Grand Turk example being only 5 cm longer than the Mores Island paddle. If one considers the possibility that the point of the latter is much more rounded than the former, possibly indicating wear or breakage, the original overall length of the two paddles may have been much closer. Both paddles have T-handle crosspieces at the top of the shaft, but the Grand Turk example has lost most of the ears on either side of the shaft.
It took a while for our elation to wear off and yield to more sober questions such as, “Now what do we do with it?” After centuries under water it needed special conservation treatments to prevent it from disintegrating in air. Could we conserve it on Grand Turk? If not, where should we take it for treatment? How could something so fragile be transported wet? What about Carbon-14 dating and wood species identification? And what about the place where it was found? What if the paddle is not just an isolated find, but part of a larger site? Shouldn’t we try to organize some kind of test excavation? What will it all cost?

Conservation of wood that has been immersed for centuries is extremely important. Without it, the water evaporates, the wood’s cellular structure collapses, and the object shrinks and distorts beyond recognition. The paddle found at North Creek is only the second such object ever found, so its proper preservation was critical. No pressure! At the time, the Turks & Caicos National Museum had only temporary lab facilities and no conservator. The clear choice was to entrust it to the Ships of Discovery conservation laboratory in the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, a closely allied institution.

Impregnating the paddle with sugar for conservation purposes

Satisfactory conservation of waterlogged wood has challenged underwater archaeology for a century. The conservators at Ships of Discovery spent 18 months researching and testing various treatments in order to select the one most appropriate for the paddle’s size, shape and wood type. Mr. Worth Carlin, our research chemist, considered a variety of methods. The most common ones include impregnation with polyethylene glycol (PEG), or acetone-rosin and freeze drying, but we were stunned when he decided to use sugar as the bulking agent. Sugar? Really? “Yes,” he explained, “The chemistry of sugar is more like the chemistry of wood than that of other treatments.” Consider maple syrup. It comes out of the tree as sap—you could think of it as tree blood. Boil it down and what do you have? Sugar. So all we’re doing is putting the sugar back in the wood.
Easier said than done! Replacing seawater with a saturated solution of sugar is a slow process. As the water in the paddle’s cells comes out, it dilutes the sugar solution, requiring constant monitoring of the sugar concentration and frequent weighing of the paddle in air and in the solution to determine when the wood has reached its sugar saturation point. This took 100 days. Then came the most important part: very slow drying over many months. In order to monitor the process we weighed the paddle and took width and thickness measurements at 14 locations along its length every week. This allowed us to detect even the smallest changes in dimensions as the waterlogged paddle dried. In the end we were pleased with the results. The paddle was somewhat lighter in color, but no distortion or warping had occurred and its dimensions were probably very close to what they had been centuries ago before waterlogging.
Even before the conservation treatments started, tiny samples of the paddle were removed and sent to specialists for wood species identification and radiocarbon dating. The species proved to be somewhat hard to pin down, but it was tentatively identified as belonging to the citrus family by Dr. Lee Newsome of the Center for Archaeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University. The radiocarbon dating was performed by Beta Analytic in Miami. The calibrated radiocarbon date revealed that there is a 95% probability that the paddle was carved between AD 995 and 1235, and a 68% probability that it was carved between AD 1020 and 1180.

Test excavation
Intriguingly, the paddle was found in the North Creek just offshore of a Taino Indian site called GT-3. Discovered in 1993, this site produced the oldest radiocarbon date for human habitation anywhere in the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos Islands. We could not help but wonder if there were other discoveries to be found in the creek. North Creek is really an arm of the sea landlocked on all sides except to the north, where it was connected to the sea in the past. The northern end of the creek is surrounded by mangroves and is distinctly shallower except for the deep pocket where Capt. Gascoine moored Aquanaut. Throughout recorded history the lagoon was closed with only a shallow, narrow stream connecting it to the sea and allowing tidal flow back and forth. However, a channel wide and deep enough to admit small craft was dredged to the sea in the 1970s. Undoubtedly this has changed the physical and biological nature of the lagoon, but the changes have not been documented or monitored. The fact that the channel is filling in would seem to indicate that natural processes favor a closed rather than open lagoon.
Between January 22 and 25, 2000, the Turks & Caicos National Museum and Ships of Discovery cooperated to conduct a test excavation of the area where the paddle was found. My colleague Juan Rodriguez and I were joined by Dr. John Bratten from the University of West Florida, and Andrew Lydecker of Pan American Maritime Archaeology. The objective of the test was to gain familiarity with the special requirements of working in the North Creek environment, to determine if the sub-surface sediments were stratified and if so to collect samples for analysis, and to begin the process of mapping the area for further study.
Grand Turk may be world-famous for its gin-clear water and magnificent wall dives, but it is safe to say that the stinking, anoxic, murky, jellyfish-infested, mosquito-ridden shallows of North Creek will never make it into the tourist brochures. Record low temperatures, overcast skies, rain, and brisk north winds conspired to make the four-day effort something none of the participants will ever forget. We certainly achieved the goal of familiarizing ourselves with the difficulties of working in North Creek’s very special environment!
The first task was to relocate the place where the paddle was found in 1996 and mark off a two meter X one meter test unit that we would try to excavate just as we would on land, keeping nice, vertical profiles in the walls so we could determine if the sediments formed distinct layers. Although we were working in water that was occasionally only inches deep and were never fully submerged, we needed full wet suits and scuba gear to see what we were doing as the excavation deepened. The unit was only large enough for one person at a time so we worked in relays. The location of the unit also took advantage of the proximity of Capt. Gascoine’s small boat channel, which allowed personnel to move back and forth between the unit and shore. During excavation of the first unit it became apparent that although the loose upper sediments could be removed quite readily without resorting to digging tools, removal of the underlying peat and clay layers required a lot more effort. Dealing with the peat layer, where the paddle was found, was particularly frustrating because it is composed almost entirely of organic matter. Roots, sticks and limbs all looked like potential paddle shafts or other artifacts in the murky water, and everything was intermingled and tangled together. It was, as Juan sagely observed, like looking for a needle in a stack of needles. At the end of four days we realized that in order to undertake a fair test of the area’s archaeological potential we would need to go back to the drawing board and come up with an entirely different approach.


North Creek paddle

Lucayan paddle found on Grand Turk on display at National Museum

While the conservation was still going on, Juan and I began considering how the paddle could be displayed to best effect. We designed a simple exhibit presenting the paddle lying horizontally on a rippled bed of sand to give it a beach context. Colored Plexiglas inserts would show what the missing parts of the “T” handle looked like. The cabinet on which the paddle and its base rested was sealed by a custom-formed Plexiglas cover. Hidden beneath the paddle base was a tray of silica-gel, a chemical that draws moisture from the air inside the case to maintain constant relative humidity, in spite of daily fluctuations within the Museum.
We knew we could build the exhibit case on Grand Turk in the Museum’s Science Building. All that remained was to get the paddle there safely. Shipping such a unique and fragile artifact as cargo was out of the question, so we built a sturdy foam-lined box with Plexiglas sides so the contents could be seen clearly without opening it and set out to hand-carry it from Texas to Grand Turk. If you want to complicate your air travel plans, try talking the ticket agent into accepting your five-foot long box with a “paddly-speary thing” inside as a carry-on. If you are successful with that one, remember that you still have three flights and airports to get through and who knows how many security checks, flight attendants, and customs officers to convince! (Fortunately for us, this was shortly before 9/11 when people were still reasonable.) Suffice it to say that the paddle made it safely back to Grand Turk where Juan and I set to work assembling the exhibit case.
As we were completing the rippled sand bed on which the paddle would rest, it occurred to us that something was missing: the exhibit was too sterile, there was no human connection. Then an inspiration occurred. The missing Taino connection could be represented by a “water filled” footprint in the sand. As luck would have it, Jane Minty, first mate on the good ship Aquanaut, happened by just then, providing a perfect print size as well as a kind of permanent, personal recognition of the essential role in the paddle saga played by Capt. Gascoine and his crew.
The North Creek Paddle is one of the Museum’s most prized artifacts, and one of only two ever found. It is a source of pride for the Turks & Caicos Islands and validation of my long-standing contention that there is a tremendous amount of history yet to be discovered in these Islands. There is something else we can take pride in: The fact that the paddle now lies safe in the TCNM is nothing short of miraculous. Its initial discovery was pure happenstance. Discoverer Capt. Gascoine’s actions were exemplary. He recognized it for what it was, put it back, made note of where it had been found, and contacted the Museum. If there had been no Museum, the paddle would probably have been lost. The Museum staff extracted the paddle and made sure it was kept submerged and protected until it could be transported to a proper conservation lab. The lab performed dating and wood species identification tests as well as conserving the artifact. Finally, the paddle was returned and placed on exhibit in the Museum’s Lucayan Gallery.
Contrast this series of events with the fates of many other rare and wonderful artifacts that were found in the Islands before there was a Turks & Caicos National Museum. The lucky ones, like the duhos from the Caicos Islands and the Easter Island figurines from the slave ship Trouvadore were sold to major museums such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian where they are being properly taken care of. Not so fortunate were the cannons stolen from the Molasses Reef Wreck before archaeologists received permission to excavate it, the Lucayan artifacts stolen from the Victoria Library, and the inscription-bearing stones stolen from Sapodilla Hill.
When discoverers do the right thing we all win. When they don’t, we all lose.

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Robin Korotki
Apr 9, 2013 14:05

I am trying to get in touch with Capt. Bob. I dove with him on his sailboat the Cloudesly Shovell in the Bahamas Banks with the spotted dolphins for 3 summers and then dove with him and my husband in Grand Turk 20plus years ago. I will be passing through Grand Turk on a cruise with my family on either July 1 or 2 on the Carnival Pride and would love to see him. Robin

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