World archeologists admire shipwreck at Bullock museum

AUSTIN (KXAN) – It is one of the greatest shipwreck discoveries off the coast of Texas and soon it will be the centerpiece exhibit at the Bullock State History Museum.

Archeologists from around the world admired it during a sneak peek Friday in Austin as part of their annual international conference.

KXAN was permitted to go along with an exclusive first look at the Wreck of La Belle.

The ship was part of LaSalle’s colonization expedition to Texas, but a storm brought it down in Matagordo Bay in 1686. The 54-foot ship was no match for the gale and all 16 hands were lost.

In 1995, using an old Spanish map and modern technology, such as a magnetometer and super metal detectors, the wreck was found by Dr. Jim Bruseth with the Texas Historical Commission. It was carefully salvaged over the next two years.

“When you find a shipwreck under water, the water at that point preserves the wood,” Dr. Bruseth points out. “You just can’t pull the pieces out and dry them, the wood will warp and disintegrate.”

Thanks to scientists from Texas A&M, the pieces of the ship were first covered in a polyethelene coating, and then freeze dried just as you would do for coffee.

Bruseth explains, “That technique is wonderful for removing water and water logged wood and making the wood stable again.”

There was all kinds of booty found: weapons, tools, trinkets for Indians and the essential building kits to make a new world colony.

When the exhibit opens in October, they will begin to assemble the pieces of the hull in plain view of the public.Once the ship is fully reconstructed, it will be placed in a case for permanent exhibit. That process should take about seven months.

The visiting archeologists were impressed.

Dr. Ian Burrow, with the Hope Research Project in New Jersey, says, “This is significant for everybody, significant in Europe, significant for the rest of us doing historical archeology in North America, and it’s a big deal for Texas.”

It is also a big deal for the Bullock Museum.

“Lovers of maritime treasures travel all over the world. They go to England to see them, they go to Sweden. This puts us in the same world class, as a museum,” Special Projects Director Dave Denny said.

In fact, before the museum was even built, developers knew the La Belle would be coming as the crown jewel exhibit. The museum was thus designed and built with the central atrium in mind as the ship’s final resting place.

Scientists from Texas State University took part in a dive for a sunken shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico earlier in April. The Okeanos robotic submarine got an up-close look at a ship that sank in the early 1800′s. Their search has ended but the Okeanos has other dives planned. You can watch their live stream by clicking here.

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