By Jane J. Lee
A team of researchers excavating a 19th-century shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico—the deepest wreck currently under excavation in U.S. waters—has found more than they had hoped for, including two other ships that appear to have been sunk at the same time.
Artifacts such as eyeglasses, navigational equipment, and telescopes indicate that no one made it off the copper-clad ship—dubbed the "Monterey Shipwreck," noted James Delgado, director of maritime heritage with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Office of Marine Sanctuaries.
"If you were in the midst of abandoning ship and getting into a lifeboat [and trying to] navigate your way home, you would grab your navigational instruments, your telescope. Those were all lying there," he said.
"You look at all of that and it hits you—nobody made it off this ship alive because all of their stuff is there."
The physical connection of interacting with artifacts was something that touched all of us, said Frederick Hanselmann, an underwater archaeologist with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos. The Center organized the expedition and provided much of the funding.
We read about history in school, Hanselmann said, but what makes archaeology so special is that the history—in the form of artifacts—is tangible.
The Shell Oil Company initially discovered the wreck about 170 miles (274 kilometers) southeast of Galveston, Texas, in 2011 during a survey of potential drilling sites. The downed vessel had come to rest in 4,300 feet (1,300 meters) of water.
By law, Shell was required to notify the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) about the find.
When NOAA sent a ship to take a look in 2012, weather concerns allowed researchers to spend only a little over two hours perusing the wreck.
The current expedition allowed team members more time to map and examine the downed ship. Experts hope closer examination will give them a better window into maritime trade in the Gulf of Mexico during the early 1800s.
A Dynamic Place
We know a good deal about what happened on land during this time period in U.S. history, said Jack Irion, an archaeologist with BOEM and one of the expedition's lead scientists, in an interview last week.
"You have the end of the Spanish Empire on the continental U.S.," said Delgado. Nations in the Caribbean were winning their independence, and the Texas Revolution, the Mexican War, and the War of 1812 were also key events on land, he added.
"But there's less known about the maritime history," Irion said. The Gulf of Mexico during the early 1800s was a fairly dangerous place, he noted.
Piracy, smuggling, and slavery were lucrative enterprises, and business was booming in the region.
This well-preserved ship could give researchers and historians a solid glimpse into potential trade routes in the area, as well as ports of call, Irion said.
One especially interesting find was the navigator's working slate on the Monterey wreck. This slate would have held the ship's last commands and movements—written in pencil—before it went down, explained Delgado.
The expedition found the slate, along with two books, in a corner of the wreck. One of the books appears to be a ledger and could be the ship's actual logbook, he said.
The team brought the slate back, along with 59 other artifacts, and it's possible that those last commands could still be on there, said Chris Horrell, an archeologist with the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). "You can never anticipate what you're going to find underwater."
Researchers left the logbook since it was very fragile and they didn't have the equipment required to keep it intact while in transit.
After the expedition finished with the Monterey shipwreck, they headed over to investigate two additional sonar targets previously identified by Shell, also in 2011.
Less than five miles away, the two targets turned out to be shipwrecks—one copper-clad and the other a corroded wooden ship.
"We think all three vessels were sailing together," said Delgado. They were found in the same area and had the same kinds of bottles and octants, a navigational tool.
"It's not a random thing to have them so close [to each other]," he explained. "It wasn't as if—at separate periods in time—these folks hit a bad road out in the ocean and ended up in the same area.
"[And] all of them appear to have been sunk violently," Delgado added.
The stern of the second copper-clad target appeared to have struck the seafloor with enough force to break the hull and send stone ballast and bottles to the back end of the ship, he noted.
The impact seems to have shattered that vessel's rudder. "[And] there's an anchor that appears to have been violently displaced and slid halfway back."
Whether researchers can go back to the site for further study remains unclear. "We're still processing artifacts and data," NOAA's Delgado said.
The items they've recovered must now make their way to conservation research laboratories at Texas A&M University at College Station, said Amy Borgens, state marine archeologist for Texas.
Preservation processes could take anywhere from one to three years, she said, depending on an artifact's complexity. "The most complex artifacts are the muskets," Borgen noted.
"The muskets are made of wood, they have iron barrels and brass fittings, and each of those are treated separately in conservation."
But the expedition does have plans for education and outreach activities. They have partnered with a nonprofit educational organization called Explore Ocean to develop school curricula based on their findings.
Experts from three federal agencies, two state agencies, three universities, and three nonprofit organizations were involved in this effort. And such a multidisciplinary approach enabled researchers to do things like map the Monterey wreck in unprecedented detail.
"The photo mosaic maps of all three wrecks are to a new standard never before seen in U.S. maritime deep water archeology," Delgado said in an email. "In the words of a longtime colleague, deep water archeology in the Gulf will never be the same."