Freeze-drying history

Peter Fix, the conservator of La Belle, Lasalle's flagshipPhoto Julio Cortez

By Allan Turner - Houston Chronicle

A&M archaeologists find a way to accelerate preservation of 17th-century shipwreck.

Since its discovery in Matagorda Bay 15 years ago, the French ship La Belle has yielded a treasure trove of artifacts that offer unprecedented insight into 17th-century exploration of the New World.

Weapons, trade goods, medical and navigational instruments — part of the approximately 1 million items plucked from the bay bottom — have found homes in Texas museums.

But the biggest, arguably most significant recovery — a massive section of the ship's oak hull — has remained out of sight, submerged in a tank of preservative at Texas A&M University's nautical archaeology conservation lab.

The process of replacing water in the sodden timbers with polyethylene glycol, begun in 2004, could have taken up to nine more years to complete. But now, with the purchase of what is thought to be the hemisphere's largest archaeological freeze-dryer, conservationists believe they have found a better, cheaper way to finish the work in far less time.

In coming months, segments of the ship's 54-foot-long, 14-foot-wide hull, will be transferred to the dryer for processing. In October 2013, the newly conserved hull will be unveiled at Austin's Bob Bullock State History Museum, where it will be reassembled - in view of museum visitors - over a 10-month period.

The hull will be the centerpiece of a 6,000-square-foot exhibit on the Belle and its role in French exploration of Texas.

The ship, one of four explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, brought to America in search of the Mississippi River's mouth, sank in Matagorda Bay in 1686.

Texas Historical Commission nautical archaeologists discovered the Belle's remains in 1995, calling them one of the New World's most exciting shipwrecks.

"The exciting thing about the hull reaching completion, aside from the conservation of a major artifact, is that it's an icon of an event that transformed Texas history," said Jim Bruseth, historical commission archaeology director.

The ship's sinking, he said, contributed to the failure of La Salle's Fort Saint Louis colony near present-day Inez and opened the door to Spanish domination of the region.

"We could very well have been a state with a French heritage," Bruseth said.



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