Share & Connect
Researchers at Texas A&M University are reconstructing the ancient ship La Belle in an effort that has never been attempted at this scale.
The French ship was part of Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s plan to colonize Texas. La Salle gave up the expedition when the ship, one of four he used while exploring the territory, sank in present-day Matagorda Bay. This left Spain free to swoop in and claim Texas. More than 300 years old, the La Belle marks a missed opportunity in history.
The La Belle was first discovered in 1995, buried under 12 feet of water. Excavation work has taken place since: a dam was meticulously constructed around the ship, water was pumped out and workers from the Texas Historical Commission dug through six feet of mud to get to the bottom of the ship. But the reward was high: the 55-foot ship was almost completely intact and several artifacts like cannons, swords, trading beads and the skeleton of a crew member were discovered.
All are on their way to being carefully restored. The ship was disassembled and moved to Bryan Air Force Base in Texas, where a freeze-drying process removed all moisture from the discovered wood. Then, the wood was placed in a chemical solution in a Texas A&M lab, which preserved its solid shape and allowed researchers to make molds of the original wood.
Peter Fix, conservator at the school’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation, explained that the wood would break down without these steps, “If 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. The physical stress on wood would essentially cause it to fall apart and crumble and powder into pieces.”
He added, “It’s 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.”
When the ship is completely rebuilt, it will become the central attraction for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas. Jim Bruseth, who led the excavation, said, “It’s just fantastic to see this project reach the point where we’ll actually be reassembling the ship as a permanent installation.”
Putting together the pieces of the ship’s remains will give historians a clue to how France envisioned the new world. The Texas Historical Commission hopes that the find will demonstrate methods of survival for explorers.
If successful, researchers will use the same process in restoring for a much longer medieval ship discovered in 2002 in Newport, South Wales.