Texas State excavates centuries-old Gulf of Mexico shipwreck

Posted by Jayme Blaschke
University News Service
July 23, 2013

Researchers from The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, in partnership with the Ocean Exploration Trust, are excavating a rare shipwreck off the Texas coast that could date back nearly 200 years.

The wreck site lies at a perilous depth of 4,300 feet, not far from the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Sonar data indicates a sharp hull-formed outline measuring approximately 84 feet long by 26 feet wide, with indications of what are possibly the remains of two masts. This tantalizing discovery is one of the more significant shipwreck sites discovered in the Gulf of Mexico to date because of its amazing degree of preservation from a critical period in history in which new nations were forming at the end of Colonial era and the Gulf was opening to global trade.

"We’ve journeyed 170 miles off the coast of Texas to explore this unique shipwreck," explained Texas State's Frederick Hanselmann, lead investigator of the excavation. "We will spend five days conducting operations around the clock to map and document the wreck in exacting detail, to excavate target areas of artifacts, and bring them to the surface for in-depth study that will provide diagnostic information and allow us to discover the vessel’s age, function, nationality, and identity."

The site was discovered in April of 2012 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship Okeanos Explorer during an exploration mission focusing on deep water hard-bottom habitat, naturally occurring gas seeps and potential shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico. Because of the extreme depth, researchers are using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to map the site and recover artifacts for further study. The shipwreck appears to be an undisturbed wooden hulled, copper-clad sailing vessel dating to the early 19th century containing artillery, firearms, navigation instruments, cooking and food storage items, medicines and personal artifacts.

"Through careful study and analysis of the artifacts excavated, not only do we learn more about the ship itself, but we are able to understand more about the crew, their activities and the bigger picture of maritime activity in the Gulf of Mexico region," Hanselmann said. "We recovered an octant, liquor bottles, a ceramic jar called a 'cantaro' used in the Yucatan, possible Spanish majolica, a decanter, a demijohn, and other miscellaneous ceramics and bottles, and we are also developing a strategy to recover some of the muskets and swords.

"This site has such an amazing rate of preservation that these artifacts are in astoundingly wonderful condition and they truly provide a physical connection with our shared past," he said.

The excavation and recovery is a major collaboration between The Meadows Center, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the Texas Historical Commission, the University of Rhode Island and the Ocean Exploration Trust. The expedition will be working out of National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence Robert Ballard’s E/V Nautilus to uncover the mysteries of the shipwreck.

A live video feed of the excavation is available through Nautilus Live and Exploration Now at www.nautiluslive.org and www.explorationnow.org. The research team will hold a press conference Thursday, July 25 at Moody Gardens in Galveston to discuss the excavation and their discoveries. For further information, contact Kevin Baumann at (512) 466-5477.