History In The Headlines

Archaeologists Make Mysterious Find in Gulf of Mexico

By Barbara Maranzani
Last week, a team of marine researchers announced a remarkable find—the well-preserved remains of three 19th-century ships, 170 miles southeast of Galveston, Texas. While researchers had previously known of the existence of one shipwreck, they were surprised to discover two additional ships less than five miles away. All three of the vessels lie more than 4,300 feet below sea level, making the sites the deepest shipwrecks excavated in North America to date.
Wreckage at the Monterrey site. (Credit: NOAA/Okeanos Explorer)

Wreckage at the Monterrey site. (Credit: NOAA/Okeanos Explorer)

The site first came to the scientists’ attention in 2011, when Shell Oil Company reported the discovery of an unusual mass on the gulf’s floor, which they had stumbled upon while surveying potential oil and natural gas drilling targets. Dubbed the Monterrey site—after the name Shell had previously given the area—its location more than three-quarters of a mile below sea level put it out of the reach of human exploration, so researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made an initial examination of the site last year, using a remote-controlled vehicle that confirmed the mass was indeed a shipwreck and likely dated to the early 1800s.

This month’s study, conducted by NOAA and teams from Texas State University in San Marcos and Texas A&M Galveston, was able to determine the ship’s dimensions (84 feet long and 26 feet wide) and construction type (a wooden hull covered in copper and likely carrying up to six cannons), and also recovered a trove of more than 60 artifacts from the shipwreck. Among the items recovered are ceramics and china, musket parts, navigational tools and personal items such as books, eyeglasses, clothing, a toothbrush and a small, sealed bottle filled with ginger, once a popular tool to combat seasickness.

After finishing their work at the initial wreck site, the team moved on to investigate earlier reports by Shell of the possibility of more ships in the area, and located the two additional wrecks just a few miles away. Their research permit limited their excavation work to just the original Monterrey site vessel, preventing them from recovering artifacts from the new sites. They did, however, photograph, map and measure the area and take detailed notes on the condition and contents of the ships. Both ships were approximately the same size as the first, but their condition varied: The second ship had deteriorated the most, with only its masts and frame visible from beneath the ocean floor, while the third ship (the largest of the group) remained in good condition, with its copper-plated hull mostly intact.

While researchers have made headway in locating the wreck sites, it remains unclear where the ships (and their crews) were from, and just what sent them to their watery grave two centuries ago. Some of the personal artifacts recovered were Spanish-made, but the cannons and other weapons were British and Canadian, making it difficult to pin down one location as the likely origin. And in the early 1800s, the section of the Gulf of Mexico where the ships went down was a turbulent region that pirates, privateers and government-sanctioned ships all called home. Researchers are certain of one thing: They believe the vessels, each of which carried 50-60 men, met the same violent end (most likely during a deadly storm), and did not sink at different times. They point to the navigational tools recovered on the wreckage as proof, noting that those would have been the first items the men would have taken with them when trying to evacuate the ships, making it highly likely that the crews of all three vessels went down with their ships. The team hopes to return to the site early next year, while the recovered items will be put on display at Texas A&M Galveston following conservation efforts expected to last several months.

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Categories: Archaeology, Shipwrecks