This Aug. 8, 2012, photo shows Chad Gulseth cleaning a piece of wood from the 17th-century French ship La Belle at the Texas A&M University Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation in Bryan, Texas. The wood has spent months inside a 40-foot-long, 8-feet-wide freeze dryer being used to remove moisture from the wreckage of the ship used by famed explorer La Salle that sank more than 300 years ago off the Texas coast. (AP Photo/Michael Graczyk)
Texas (AP)—More than three centuries ago, a French explorer’s ship sank
in the Gulf of Mexico, taking with it France’s hopes of colonizing a
vast piece of the New World—modern-day Texas.
La Salle in 1685, researchers at Texas A&M University are in
uncharted waters as they try to reconstruct his vessel with a gigantic
freeze-dryer, the first undertaking of its size.
placing the ship—La Belle—in a constant environment of up to 60 degrees
below zero, more than 300 years of moisture will be safely removed from
hundreds of European oak and pine timbers and planks. The freeze-dryer,
located at the old Bryan Air Force base several miles northwest of
College Station, is 40 feet long and 8 feet wide—the biggest such
machine on the continent devoted to archaeology.
will then rebuild the 54 ½-foot vessel, which will become the
centerpiece of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
a historical perspective, it’s “an icon of a small event that
dramatically changed the course of Texas history,” said Jim Bruseth, who
led the Texas Historical Commission effort to recover the remains.
supply ship was built in 1684 and sank two years later in a storm on
Matagorda Bay, about midway between Galveston and Corpus Christi.
La Belle sank, that doomed La Salle’s colony and opened up the door for
Spain to come in and occupy Texas,” Bruseth said. “People can see
firsthand how history can turn on a dime.”
an important piece in ship architecture,” said Peter Fix, conservator
at the school’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation.
Researchers have determined that unlike earlier vessels, the frames on
La Belle were marked specifically by the French craftsmen so the wood
comprising the hull could follow the complex curve of the ship.
“This was the age of Enlightenment when math was coming into more play,” Fix said.
a more than decade-long hunt, Texas Historical Commission
archaeologists found it in 1995 in 12 feet of murky water. Then began
the tedious recovery that involved constructing a dam around the site.
the water was pumped out, teams dug through up to 6 feet of mud in the
Gulf of Mexico seabed to retrieve the nearly intact ship and some
700,000 items, from swords, cannons and ammunition to beads and mirrors
intended for trade. Archaeologists also found one skeleton, believed to
be a crew member or settler among the some 40 people aboard.
ship was then transferred to the Texas A&M lab, where the
water-logged wood has been immersed in a chemical solution to keep it
the ship was being reassembled in a two-stage chemical process, but as
oil prices rose, so did the cost of the key chemical, polyethylene
glycol. They decided the freeze-dry process was more economical and
would shorten the preservation timeframe. So, the hull was disassembled
and the wood was categorized and digitally scanned so that they could
make molds of its original shape.
A New York-based firm that specializes in scientific equipment built the submarine-like freeze dryer.
we were to take any piece of wood, say it’s been in the water for 300
years, and pull it out, it would shrink, crack, warp within a couple of
days,” Fix said. “The physical stress on wood would essentially cause it
to fall apart and crumble and powder into pieces.”
In this Aug. 8, 2012, photo Peter Fix, a conservator, stands outside a 40-foot-long, 8-feet-wide freeze dryer at the Texas A&M University Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation in Bryan, Texas. The freeze-dryer is being used to remove moisture from the wreckage of a 17th-century French ship used by famed explorer La Salle and sank more than 300 years ago off the Texas coast. The ice comes from water removed from the timber of the disassembled shipwreck that’s being subjected to months of controlled environment under temperatures reaching 60 below zero. The freeze-dried wood will be used in reconstruction of the nearly 60-foot ship at a state history museum in Austin. (AP Photo/Michael Graczyk)
But scientists know that at the right temperature and pressure, water can go from being solid to gas and skip the liquid phase.
a slow, controlled process and depending on the thickness of material,
over four to six or seven months, we know that timber has lost most of
its bound water and it’s safe to bring out,” Fix said, noting that
they’re experimenting with smaller pieces to “make sure nothing goes
similar preservation using freeze-dryer technology is planned for a
medieval ship discovered in 2002 in Newport, South Wales. That vessel is
about twice the length of La Belle.
The La Belle rebuilding will start late next year at the Bullock Museum.
can’t wait,” said Bruseth, who is serving as guest curator for the
exhibit. “It’s just fantastic to see this project reach the point where
we’ll actually be reassembling the ship as a permanent installation.”
Cavelier Sieur de La Salle was the first European to travel the
Mississippi River south to the Gulf, claiming all the land along the
Mississippi and its tributaries for France in 1682. In 1685, he sailed
from France with more than 300 colonists aboard four ships, La Belle
among them, to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi.
of the time show he believed the river was closer to Mexico, and his
expedition missed the Mississippi by hundreds of miles.
“They were guessing,” Bruseth said.
team established a colony near Matagorda Bay, but it was ravaged by
disease, rattlesnakes and Indians. Three years later, La Salle led a
handful of survivors inland in search of the Mississippi. The explorer
didn’t make it out of Texas; he was murdered by his own men.
Source: The Associated Press