A team of marine archaeologists partnered with Texas State conducted the deepest archaeological shipwreck excavation in North America this summer, discovering two sunken ships in the process.
A team of researchers from Texas State’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment and other entities spent five days from July 18 through 25 mapping and documenting the underwater wreckage, according to a press release disseminated by the university.
Using the Ocean Exploration Trust’s vessel Nautilus, the team explored a shipwreck at the record-breaking depth of 4,363 feet below the surface. When the team investigated the surrounding area, they discovered two more ships within a five-mile radius of the Monterrey wreck, according to the press release.
“We went to the Monterrey shipwreck with questions and came home with even more,” said Fredrick Hanselmann, chief underwater archaeologist at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. “We found two more shipwrecks that carried a variety of similar artifacts to the first, but there were some stark differences as well.”
Hanselmann said the second shipwreck did not have copper sheathing around its hull like the other two. Its cargo appeared to include tanned hides with blocks of tallow, which, he said, would have made a profit if copper were found. The third shipwreck was the largest of the sites, however, the content of its cargo was not evident, Hanselmann said.
“Neither of the two new shipwrecks had any armament (armour) either, whereas the first had a large swivel gun, carronades and two different sections loaded with muskets,” Hanselmann said.
Hanselmann said since they were only granted a federal antiquities permit allowing them to remove artifacts from the first shipwreck, they had to leave the other two untouched until a later date. He said they were able to conduct extensive mapping and documented the additional areas through photographs and video.
“The information we gained will allow us to analyze the two new wrecks and pinpoint goals for the next trip to the site,” Hanselmann said.
The vessels are thought to be from the early 1800s, possibly privateer ships, Hanselmann said. It is not believed there were any survivors from the wrecks.
Among the more than 60 artifacts recovered from the first vessel were pottery from Mexico, china from Britain, a musket from Canada, eyeglasses, liquor bottles, clothing and a toothbrush, Hanselmann said.
The recovered artifacts are currently undergoing preservation work at the Texas A&M University Conservation Research Laboratory, according to the press release.
“The artifacts have been in a stable state and environment for up to 200 years,” said Christopher Horrell, senior marine archaeologist for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. “Removing them from the marine environment requires that we slowly remove the chlorides that have impregnated the artifacts.”
Horrell said if they did not remove the chlorides the surface of the artifacts would start to fragment and pop off, removing valuable evidence and interpretive data.
What will become of the remaining hull of the Monterrey shipwreck has yet to be determined. There is a possibility it will be reconstructed and exhibited in the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, said David Denney, the museum’s director of special projects.
“We’ve been working with the Meadows Center and the Texas Historical Society, and we are very interested in the ship materials,” Denney said.
Denney said ownership of the wreckage is the most important factor in deciding its final storage place. Under international maritime law, there is a possibility it may belong to another country, he said.
“It’s a long process,” Denney said. “The biggest decision will be in determining who technically owns the wreckage.”
A definitive answer as to what the ships were doing and how they sunk cannot be stated with certainty just yet, Hanselmann said.
One theory is the original wreckage was a small merchant convoy protected by an armed vessel, perhaps naval or privateer, as privateers were hired for a number of maritime duties, Hanselmann said.
Hanselmann said his favorite theory is that the first ship was a privateer, and the second two ships were prizes it captured prior to sinking during a storm.
Researchers are in the process of discussing the next steps to return to the sites and conduct further research on the two additional shipwrecks, Hanselmann said.