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Discovery and Investigations: The Recovery of La Belle

With the waters of Matagorda Bay held back by massive steel cofferdam walls, archeologists uncover the wreck of La Belle from its tomb of muddy sediments. Photograph by Robert Clark.
photo of a floating magnetometer being pulled behind a boat
A floating magnetometer is pulled behind a boat through the waters of Matagorda Bay in an attempt to locate the shipwreck.
photo of divers on the small exploration boat
Divers on the small exploration boat, Anomaly, prepare to probe the muddy bottom of Matagorda Bay to determine the source of a magnetic signal picked up on the magnetometer. Although the bay was less than 12 feet in depth, the waters were "black as midnight" on cloudy days.
photo of the crew, led by then-State Marine Archeologist Barto Arnold, fourth from left
A jubilant crew, led by then-State Marine Archeologist Barto Arnold, shows off the prize brought up from the bay floor: a bronze cannon. Decorated with elegant handles in the shape of leaping dolphins and French insignias, the cannon was the "smoking gun," so to speak-the evidence that convinced searchers that the Belle shipwreck finally had been discovered.

See cannon after cleaning.
photo of divers on the small exploration boat
Construction underway on cofferdam. The first wall of interlocking steel sheet piling has been driven into the floor of the bay.

Gradually we begin to realize that something extraordinary had happened to La Belle. Mud had encapsulated the bottom of the hull, resulting in exceptional preservation. Her cargo was largely intact, still contained in wooden barrels and boxes, many of which were exactly where La Salle and his men had loaded them three hundred years before.
-James Bruseth and Toni Turner in "From a Watery Grave" (Texas A&M Press 2005)

photo of Project Archeologist James Bruseth
Principal Investigator James Bruseth excavates a trader's chest filled with glass beads.
Hundreds of brass hawkbells, a poupular 17th-century trade item, gleam amid the mud in the cargo hold.

In the late 1970s, following years of research in historic archives, archeologists from the Texas Historical Commission began searching for the Belle shipwreck within the murky waters of Matagorda Bay. Historic accounts and maps drawn during 17th-century Spanish expeditions marked this relatively shallow body of water as the location where the ship had gone down in 1686. Using a floating magnetometer sensor —an electronic device that records anomalies in the earth's magnetic field caused by iron objects in the ocean floor —pulled behind the small craft, Anomaly, the archeologists scanned the bay for indications of the shipwreck. Divers, led by then-State Marine Archeologist J. Barto Arnold, checked promising signals here and there. During the 10-week effort, other shipwrecks were located, but not La Belle.

In 1995 Arnold, working with THC Archeology Division head James Bruseth, and armed with improved electronic surveying equipment, returned to the bay for a final attempt to locate the French shipwreck. Over several weeks, areas of unusual magnetism were detected and checked by divers. Small finds were brought to the surface: a belt buckle, bottle glass, rusted metal fragments. They probed one large anomaly, which appeared to be part of a wooden ship, buried in the mud.

There are many shipwrecks off the Texas coast, so this find was not, in itself, particularly unusual. Further, since it was made of wood—a material that typically does not preserve well underwater— it surely could not be very old. But then they found something very puzzling: lead musket balls, which date to at least 150 years old. Also called lead shot, this ammunition was used in flintlock muskets, which were replaced in the mid-19th century with more sophisticated guns. The divers knew they had found something historic, but now they needed something that would help them date it more precisely.

When diver Chuck Meide discovered a heavy, tubular metal object, the archeologists knew their luck had dramatically changed. Lifted carefully to the surface by a crane and barge, the heavily encrusted object was revealed as a beautiful bronze cannon, its handles cast gracefully in the shape of leaping dolphins. A raised inscription in French with the crest of the 17th-century French King Louis XIV and the crossed insignia of Le Compte de Vermadois, Admiral of France from1669 to 1683, decorated the cannon's barrel. The artifact was clearly French, and of the correct time period.

Subsequent dives revealed other evidence confirming the find: ceramic vessels; brass bells and pins intended as trade items for the Indians; wooden barrel staves; and the hilt of a sword. After 17 years of searching, the archeologists knew they had finally found La Belle. To their further astonishment, they were to discover that a large portion of the ship's hull was preserved intact—a small miracle, given that the wreck was located in an area of active oil exploration and only a few hundred yards from a busy shipping channel used by boats and barges.

Excavating in "Dark Water"

The amazing discovery triggered months of debate over how to salvage the shipwreck. Archeologists and engineers were concerned not only about how to excavate the fragile remains but how to protect them from looters once word spread about the find. Moreover, the perishable remains, having been encased in sediment underwater for some 300 years, would need immediate conservation once exposed to the air to prevent deterioration. An additional concern was the murkiness of the bay water. Although the wreck was submerged only 12 feet or so beneath the surface, visibility was poor, particularly on cloudy days. Even experienced archeologists could miss small items when excavating in what they call "dark water."

For all these reasons, it was decided that the ship would be excavated in its entirety within a specially designed metal cofferdam. The enormous building in the bay would effectively hold back the waters while archeologists carefully dug the shipwreck. This would enable the crew to excavate the site within a single season and thus constantly safeguard the remains. Although nautical archeologists were prepared for the effort, it became evident that traditional field archeologists trained on dry land were required. Once the water was pumped out, the operation would effectively become a terrestrial excavation. But it was to be the first time this type of excavation was attempted in the Americas, and it came with a complex set of problems.

In addition to conceptualizing and designing the unusual building, money had to be raised to actually construct it. In an extraordinary outpouring of support, Texas foundations, companies and citizens pitched in to back the effort. The cofferdam was to become a reality.

Nearly six months were spent building the enormous structure. Two concentric walls of interlocking steel sheet piling, each measuring roughly 57 feet long and 3 feet wide, were driven 40 feet down into the bed of the bay to encircle the shipwreck. Sand—tons of it—was then poured into the 33-foot gap between the pilings to form the wall of the coffer dam, a composite barrier intended to keep the seawater out. Once the building had been drained, however, a steady flow of leaks began. Sump pumps were set up in the bottom of the cofferdam to constantly drain water out and keep the work area reasonably dry. Screening stations and a small office were set up on the cofferdam wall. The whole structure was then covered over with a roof to provide shelter for the crews and protect the exposed wreck. The cofferdam was complete.

Something Extraordinary

Excavations began in September 1996 and stretched over nearly eight month—a period that encompassed the Gulf Coast's volatile hurricane season. With THC archeologist James Bruseth serving as Principal Investigator and Mike Davis overseeing day-to-day operations as project archeologist, crews of 20 people worked seven days a week to excavate the hull and its contents. The early results of their work, however, did not look promising, and there was concern that the few artifacts they were finding might not justify the money and time spent on the complicated cofferdam construction. But as they dug further, more and more artifacts began to appear—lead shot , beads, and fragments of rope that surprisingly had been preserved in the sediments.

As Bruseth and Toni Turner later recounted in their book, From a Watery Grave, "Gradually we begin to realize that something extraordinary had happened to La Belle. Mud had encapsulated the bottom of the hull, resulting in exceptional preservation. Her cargo was largely intact, still contained in wooden barrels and boxes, many of which were exactly where La Salle and his men had loaded them three hundred years before. We now suspected that what we were going to find would be extremely significant to North American archaeology."

Map of Matagorda Bay showing areas surveyed with magnetometer in 1995
Map of Matagorda Bay showing areas surveyed with magnetometer in 1995. Illustration by Roland Pantermuehl.
Contour map of magnetic anomalies
Contour map of magnetic anomalies pinpointing the position of La Belle shipwreck in Matagorda Bay.

Scanning Underwater

The wreck of the Belle was discovered during a magnetometer survey conducted by the Texas Historical Commission. A magnetometer is an electronic device that measures the strength of the earth's magnetic field. It is towed behind the survey boat and the data are collected on a computer during the survey. Iron and steel objects will cause a distortion of the magnetic field and that distortion is called an anomaly.

Read more

Cutaway view of cofferdam showing elements of construction
Cutaway view of cofferdam showing elements of construction. The walls, while not completely watertight, provided a barrier against bay water from entering the site. Small steady leaks were handled by constantly running sump pumps. Archeologists maintained a small office atop the walls form which they managed the complex project. Illustration by Clif Bosler, courtesy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
photo of project archeologist Mike Davis
A storm moves into Matagorda Bay, an eery reminder of the disastrous weather event that wrecked La Belle more than 300 years before. Archeologists assigned to overnight duty on the cofferdam spent harrowing hours riding out similar storms.
photo of wooden boxes filled with trade goods
Wooden boxes filled with trade goods for the native peoples were remarkably preserved in the ship's compartments. All items were tagged with labels indicating a specific lot number and provenience, then carefully documented in photos, drawings and notes.
photo of the excavation
Crewmembers hang on a plank over one of the muddy units to excavate a fragile area.
photo of an excavator hauling buckets to the screens
Buckets of sediments dug from the units are placed in a container, ready to be hoisted to the screening stations above.
photo of excavators screening
High atop the cofferdam wall, screeners carefully trowel through the buckets of mud to find small items missed in the excavations. Dozens of volunteers, such as this group, were rotated through the crews to help.
Balancing on a plank, former THC Executive Director Curtis Tunnel carefully inspects one of the trader's chests filled with thousands of small objects.
Project Archeologist Mike Davis and Layne Headrick lift an intact wooden chest that they have jacketed in plaster and braced with wood planks out of the excavation area. These protective measures allowed the chest and similar containers to be excavated in the laboratory rather inside the cofferdam.
photo of the electronic total data stations used to record measurements
Electronic total data stations were used to record measurements on large items, including each of the timbers in the ship's hull, shown exposed at right. Such instrument measurements are typically faster to take, more accurate, and are downloaded directly into a computer.
photo of Toni Carrel, left, of Ships of Discovery in Corpus Christi, Texas
Toni Carrel of Ships of Discovery in Corpus Christi, Texas, served as co-project archeologist and consulted on many phases of the excavation. Here she works with K. Taylor, right, documenting the ship's hull.
Pumping water out of the cofferdam. Seawater leaking through the walls was a continual problem, made worse by thunderstorms.
Timbers removed from the hull were placed in special storage tanks until they could be transported to the Texas A&M Conservation Research Laboratory.

As in most dry-land excavations, the archeologists conducted their work within a grid of numbered units that allowed them to document the provenience, or location, of artifacts and features. Buckets of sediment dug from each level were transported via lifts to the screening stations atop the cofferdam walls. Large items, such as clusters of artifacts or barrels, were plotted in place with an electronic total data station and electronic field notebook that downloaded readings to computers. Frequently, the large items were then encased in plaster, removed, and readied for transport to the Texas A&M Research Conservation Laboratory, where they could be more carefully examined.

A critical concern was protecting the artifacts as they were uncovered. The silty sands of Matagorda Bay had encapsulated the hull in a virtually oxygen-free environment that preserved many perishable items such as rope and wood. Once exposed to the air, however, these fragile items would quickly deteriorate. Hoses were brought in so that the artifacts and hull itself could be continuously sprayed with water.

The bow compartment of the ship brought another surprising discovery. As excavators dug through the mud, a coil of rope began to emerge. Entangled within it was human bone. As they carefully removed the rope, they realized it held a complete skeleton, still articulated and remarkably preserved. As Bruseth later noted, it was one thing to find a shipwreck with cargo for a colony. To find the remains of one the colonists was something extraordinary! (See Skeleton of a French Sailor to learn more about the remains.

Logistical Challenges

Overseeing operations—from ferrying crews to and from the site daily to keeping the pumps running—was not unlike running a small city, with each day bringing new logistical challenges. The cofferdam lay in the middle of the bay, some 15 miles from the nearest town of Palacios. Each day the crews traveled to the site by boat, a trip of an hour and fifteen minutes. While some crew members dug, others screened the sediments. Still others had the critical tasks of keeping the four sump pumps running. Several crew were were put in charge of overseeing the dozens of volunteers and visitors who hoped to help or at least watch the extraordinary operation taking place in the middle of the bay. As word of the discovery spread further afield, media representatives descended on the small coastal town, and local boat operators were pressed into tour service to help ferry reporters and other visitors out to the shipwreck.

While excavations continued in the cofferdam, other operations were underway on shore. A field laboratory was set up in a warehouse in the small fishing village of Palacios. Here artifacts were readied for transport to the laboratory at Texas A&M University, where the ship remains would be fully cleaned and preserved. Shipments were carefully packaged and loaded biweekly onto trucks headed for College Station.

Removing the Hull

After all the mud had been dug away, and each artifact removed, archeologists faced the last major operation—removing the hull. A critical factor in this process was keeping the wooden timbers bathed in water throughout. Once exposed to the air, the timbers would rapidly begin to deteriorate. The only course of action that would allow for this special care would be to disassemble the hull, timber by timber, a painstaking process that could take an additional three to four months. Few archeologists had the expertise in ship excavations—or ship dismantling—to attempt such a process. Canadian archeologist Peter Waddell was brought in to train the workers in the myriad procedures: how to properly use the specialized tools, accurately label hundreds of hull pieces, and carefully separate the timbers. As each timber was removed, it was immediately placed in a plastic-lined vat of water.

photo of project archeologist Mike Davis
Water is sprayed over a fragile wooden barrel to keep the wood moist as it is exposed to the air. The screen lying underneath catches tiny artifacts, such as brass pins or glass beads, that might be lodged in the mud covering the object.
photo of the crew spraying down the hull
Crew member David Johnson sketches the intact cargo. His detailed drawings of each compartment provided a record of how the ship and its contents appeared as level after level of sediments were removed during excavations.
photo of the crew spraying down the hull
Having been buried in sediment for more than 300 years, the exposed hull and cargo had to be periodically sprayed with water to keep the fragile wood from drying out.
photo of archeologists excavating and documenting the wreck
Working within one-meter grid squares, archeologists excavated and documented the wreck in drawings and measurements. Here a crewmember plots the location of one of the hull's timbers.
After the hull was completely measured and mapped, each timber was labeled with an orange tag.
photo of crew moves one of the heavy timbers disassembled from the hull to the water vat area
The crew moves one of the heavy timbers disassembled from the hull to the water vat area.

By dismantling the ship in pieces, rather than attempting to remove it intact, the archeologists were able to discern hundreds of unusual markings carved on each timber. Carved by the shipwrights, the marks were a Roman numeral code denoting the correct order of construction and sequence for each timber in the ship's framework. It became apparent to the crew that they were dealing with a ship made from a 17th-century ship kit, a phenomenon that guided the removal and later reassembly of the hull. As they worked, the crew also uncovered a number of rigging elements and large quantities of the ship's sails. The fragile sail cloth, however, dissolved into pieces when attempts were made to remove it.

The cofferdam excavations proved to be an extraordinary success. In addition to the recovery of the ship's hull, more than one million artifacts were found, most contained in casks and wooden boxes that had been secured in the cargo holds. Fully 40% of the hull along with its contents was preserved. For a first-hand look at what the archeologists encountered in La Belle's cargo holds, see Explore the Shipwreck.

Map of the ship's hull, showing various types of cargo and containers. Graphic by Roland Pantermuehl, Texas Historical Commission.