University archaeologist helps find ancient timepiece in shipwreck excavation

Assistant News Editor
Fritz Hanselmann, chief underwater archaeologist, shows photos of chronometer found in the Gulf of Mexico expeditions.

A team of researchers, including a marine archaeologist from Texas State’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, recently discovered an ancient timepiece that could date back to the early 1800s.

Fritz Hanselmann, chief underwater archaeologist for The Meadows Center, said Texas State became involved in the excavation a couple of years ago. Last July, the team sampled one shipwreck in Monterrey and discovered two additional shipwrecks in the same site, he said. The team believes the shipwrecks, which lie 4,500 feet deep in the ocean, are from the early 1800s. They do not know what country the ships are from yet, Hanselmann said.

“We just barely started scratching the surface on what this all is last year with the 2013 expedition,” Hanselmann said.

The expedition partnership in the Gulf of Mexico among The Meadows Center, the Office of Ocean Exploration and Research in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the Texas Historical Commission and the Maryland Historical Trust led to the latest discovery by NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer ship, according to an April 24 University News Service release.

The exploration team went back to the Monterrey shipwrecks site two weeks ago with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), Hanselmann said. The team’s recent exploration led to the discovery of a chronometer, an ancient timepiece for ships at sea, on April 17 at the third shipwreck.

“We could barely make out what it was from because it was mostly buried,” Hanselmann said. “All we could see were the numerals and the hands.”

Hanselmann said the chronometer is now on their list of artifacts to recover when they go back to the site in 2015.

“The chronometer was big—that was the big discovery of these dives,” Hanselmann said.

The discovery of the chronometer is another reminder that “the shipwrecks are, in a way, time capsules,” said James Delgado, director of NOAA’s maritime heritage program. It is also a reminder that meaningful discoveries are going to continue to provide insight into the past in the deep ocean, he said.

The shipwrecks have captured the interests of many people and focused attention on the oceans, Delgado said.

“They’re also incredible, absolutely incredible, oases of life in that undersea desert,” Delgado said.

The initial Monterrey shipwreck was discovered in 2011 during an oil and gas survey funded by the Shell Oil Company, Hanselmann said.

The shipwrecks are currently “being looked after very well” by Shell, who has leased the section of the ocean in which they were found, Delgado said.

In 2012, NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer ship dropped ROVs on one target the team found interesting. This site “turned out to be a shipwreck with cannons and muskets and the whole nine yards,” Haselmann said.

“And we figured that was really a pretty phenomenal site,” Hanselmann said. “So we decided we’d go back and actually pursue a more detailed study of the wreck site.”

The team hopes to discover where the ships came from, why they were in the gulf, what caused them to be lost and what stories they can tell, Delgado said.

The exploration project is ongoing, but field work typically happens in the summer months, Hanselmann said. However, the team is not going back to the shipwreck this summer.

“We’re working on analyzing the data that we collected last summer so that we can be better informed for going back in 2015,” Hanselmann said. “I have a really sold research design plan to go sample artifacts from the other two wreck sites.”

Hanselmann said they stream the exploration live online and, from the exploration command center at The Meadows Center, Hanselmann is able to “tap into the ship” and direct the ROV pilot on what to do from campus. Some students came to view the exploration with Hanselmann, he said.

Kathryn Haughney, anthropology senior, said it was an interesting experience to be able to watch the exploration live.

“It was definitely interesting to be able to sit in the command center and see them talking live to the ship, and having the stop and look at artifacts and try to figure out what they are,” Haughney said.

In order to recover any artifacts from the wrecks, the team needs to have permits and they are currently working to obtain the permits, Hanselmann said.

Once the artifacts are recovered, the collection will be curated at Texas State in The Center for Archaeological Studies once the conservation treatment at Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory is complete, he said.

Delgado said “the idea is” that after the artifacts are treated and preserved, and they will go to a public museum.