A Rare Find
August 15, 2011 | 2:07 am UTC

Unearthed ancient cypress from the Ice Age provides South Carolina woodworkers with a one-of-a-kind material.


Artisan Philip A. Greene of Wood Song Canoes in Round O, SC, used ancient cypress for the hull and ancient kauri for the trim on this $155,000 canoe. Called “Eversong,” the canoe is 17 feet 9 inches long, 31 inches wide and weighs 73 pounds.

When woodworker L.P. Rogers of Florence, SC, takes a saw to wood that grew during the last Ice Age, “It’s a thrill, I can tell you that,” he says, “just the idea of cutting into wood that old.”

How old is the wood discovered in 2003 in a South Caroline sand mine and now being used for scientific, educational and limited commercial purposes? It ranges between 25,000 and 52,000 years old, up to the limit that radiocarbon dating can measure, and some is likely older.

“It is some of the oldest well-preserved wood ever found,” says Dr. David Stahle of the Geosciences Department at the University of Arkansas.

The discovery came by accident, when outdoorsman and hobbyist woodworker Steve Lane was strolling a friend’s land near the Lynches River in Florence County. He came upon a stack of logs beside a sand mine and realized that, while they appeared to be in good shape, they were a species he had never seen before. A chat with the sand miners, who said they had brought it up from 40 feet deep, told him he was on to something special.

He submitted samples to University of Wisconsin scientists, who said they had nothing to compare it with, but it appeared to be an extinct species of bald cypress. It is dark-colored, woodworker Rogers says, “kind of like some of the cypress my grandfather pulled out from a river in Georgetown County (SC) years ago. He called it black cypress.”

It’s likely that she has the country’s only kitchen countertops made from trees that grew in the Ice Age, says Debra Lane, CFO of Ancient Cypress LLC. Photo by Debra Lane.

University of Georgia scientists applied radiocarbon dating to determine the age, but the oldest logs exceed that method’s capabilities. New Zealand scientists, who use a different dating method, have been asked to study the logs. Debra Lane, Steve Lane’s sister and CFO of Ancient Cypress LLC, the company formed to recover them, says she will not be surprised to find that some are much older than 52,000 years. New Zealand, she says, is home to the only other workable wood of comparable age, the Ancient Kauri.

On her visits to local schools to display samples of the unique wood, she tells children that the ancient cypress comes from before the time of Christ and is older than the pyramids by thousands of years.

“These logs stood when saber-toothed tigers roamed the Earth, when woolly mammoths roamed the Earth,” she tells them. Modern humans were only then beginning to appear in the Old World, some scientists believe.

“Something 50,000-years-old that these children can touch — that just blows their minds,” she says.

It blew Rogers’ mind, too. A retired woodworking instructor at Turbeville Correctional Center, he is one of a select group of woodworkers chosen to work with the cypress.

The 80 logs unearthed so far go up to 100 feet in length and 6 feet in diameter.

Mike McNeilly (left) and Berkley Feagin, son of Ancient Cypress CFO Debra Lane, perform as the Ancient Cypress Guitar Duo, playing instruments that McNeilly fashioned from ancient cypress. Here, they stand next to a log at the sand mine where the wood was discovered.

“The oldest we saw,” says Rogers, “was about 1,500 years old (when it died). The grain is a lot closer together (than in modern cypress). They were really slow-growing trees.

“On the cross-section of these trees, you can see a pattern,” he adds. For a 10- to 20-year period, the rings are close together, separated by about 1/64th of an inch. Then, for the space of two to three years, which Rogers figures indicates a wet season, they stretch to about 1/8 inch apart. “You can see that pattern every 15 to 20 years,” Rogers says.

Logs are not being actively mined now, but Debra Lane says that sand mine dredgers hit one occasionally, so she knows there are more down there. They will be recovered when Ancient Cypress LLC (www.ancientcypress.com) sees a need for them.

Researcher Stahle and his University of Arkansas cohorts are using the logs to trace 50,000 years of climate change.

Rogers, who has made a bed, tables, lamps, bowls and a carved seal for a governor’s-office podium, is contemplating making jewelry. Other woodworkers have made musical instruments, canoes, turkey calls and baskets. Debra Lane used it in her kitchen countertops; she, her son and her brother left it a natural color and finished it by applying sealer.

The wood must be air-dried as soon as it comes out of the sand-mine water, Rogers says. Kiln drying, he says, “doesn’t work at all. It’s been so wet for so long, it just curls up.

“But if you strap it down and dry it, it will air dry until the water runs out of it,” he adds. “It will get down to 10 to 12 percent moisture content. When it gets down to that, you take the bands off and it is real stable.”

Though it is lightweight, Rogers says, “It’s good wood to work with.”

However, he says that he had a little trouble carving the female figure symbolizing Hope when he made the state seal to go on the podium for South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s office.

“The wood is rather soft, relatively speaking,” Rogers says. “The lady on the seal, I had to replace her little nose. I was trying to put the detail in and knocked it off.”
The podium was made by woodworker Bill Huston of Kennebunkport, ME.

Philip A. Greene, who makes collector’s-item canoes at his Wood Song Canoes in Round O, SC, combined the ancient cypress with ancient kauri in one $155,000 canoe. “I thought it would be a good combination, using the world’s two oldest woods,” he says. “The kauri is more of a reddish golden color, where the cypress tends to be like a dark tan.”

He found only a couple inches of soft spots in the cypress, and those he saturated with CA (cyanoacrylate adhesive) glue, he says. “Other than that, it was beautiful,” he says after 1,500 hours of work on the canoe.

Some people might think, “It’s too pretty to put in the water. The wood is too old. It will be too fragile,” he says. “But that’s not true. It is completely functional.”

Greene does admit, however, that this “epitome of collector’s items” is like a Rolls-Royce. If you owned one, you might take it for a drive on Sunday, he says, but you wouldn’t leave it in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

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