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La Belle sails into preservation
by Tim Delaney
May 22, 2014 | 16 views | 0 0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Contributed photo
A model of the French ship La Belle was made by Glen Grisco, a professional ship modeler and a graduate of the Texas A&M University's Nautical Archaeology Program. The model will be on display at the Bob Bullock Museum in Austin on Oct. 23 when the La Belle's preservation is near completion.
Contributed photo A model of the French ship La Belle was made by Glen Grisco, a professional ship modeler and a graduate of the Texas A&M University's Nautical Archaeology Program. The model will be on display at the Bob Bullock Museum in Austin on Oct. 23 when the La Belle's preservation is near completion.
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Tim Delaney photo
Peter Fix, who is in charge of the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University, left, and Herndon Williams, treasurer of the Bayside Historical Society, talk about underwater archaeology before Fix's presentation and update on the French ship La Belle's preservation.
Tim Delaney photo Peter Fix, who is in charge of the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University, left, and Herndon Williams, treasurer of the Bayside Historical Society, talk about underwater archaeology before Fix's presentation and update on the French ship La Belle's preservation.
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BAYSIDE – As much as the Spanish wanted to cover up the presence of a French colony on the Texas Coast, lots of evidence showing otherwise surfaced over time.

Of course, all the cannon, bones and artifacts found buried at the Fort St. Louis site on a Gracitas Creek bluff in Victoria County supports the fact that the French arrived first in 1685.

Adding to that discovery was La Salle’s ship, La Belle. The ship had run aground in Matagorda Bay and eventually sunk into the bay’s mud.

And in 1996, work to to raise and preserve the La Belle began. La Belle, after 310 years, began a new journey into preservation.

And that journey was the subject matter Saturday, May 17, of a presentation hosted by the Bayside Historical Society and delivered by Peter Fix, a marine archaeologist in charge of Texas A&M University’s Marine Conservation Archaeology Center.

Fix’s presentation, A Science of Context: The Delineation of History Through Underwater Archaeology, explained how La Belle helped write a true account of early Texas history, thanks to underwater archaeology.

“We are the Indiana Jones of forensic sciences. It depends on the analysis of our finds,” Fix said.

Fix described the findings of underwater archaeology as a literal and temporal spacial scale of history.

“The sea connects all of this ... we get an understanding of past cultures,” he said.

“And it’s fun,” he added.

Fix said maritime archaeology deals with what was once land or on land.

For example, a large portion of the city of Port Royal in Jamaica sunk about 10 feet in a 1692 earthquake and tsunami.

“Over time, it covered up. In the 1980s, about three acres were excavated,” he said.

Fix said nautical archaeology deals specifically with ships, like La Belle.

Another example is the recent possibility that Christopher Columbus’s ship Santa Maria has been found off the coast of Haiti. The ship sunk in 1492. A call to raise and preserve the ship has been publicized.

Fix also noted that at Ground Zero, a ship built around the revolutionary war era in the 18th century was discovered.

“It will be in a museum in Albany five years from now,” Fix said.

He added that nautical archaeology became an academic discipline about 54 years ago. George Bass is credited for beginning the discipline.

Fix said without the science applied, ships’ preservation would fail.

“(The ships) are a window to the past. They tell us what the requisite was for the folks at the time and how they lived daily life,” Fix said.

Hence, that is why the Texas Historical Commission undertook searching for and saving La Belle.

A $6 million cofferdam was constructed around the ship, and another $10 million was spent to save the ship, which was 25 feet below the sediment layer, serving as an anaerobic barrier.

Fix said the ship was well protected from the elements that cause degradation over time.

But raising it presented a real challenge to preserve the craft.

He said some of the things found on the ship included bugs: cockroaches and their eggs, seeds from grapes that tell what vineyard they came from in the Mediterranean area and a lice comb.

“An entire excavation can take up to 20 years,” he said.

During the excavation, now coming to an end, more than a million artifacts have been recovered.

The ship was packed in wooden vats of water and carpet foam to get it to Texas A&M University.

“Conserving is a very delicate process,” he said.

He said La Belle’s preservation is about one-third finished. The ship is undergoing freeze drying.

So far, about 900 pounds of water have been removed from its wood.

Fix said on Oct. 23, La Belle will be in the Bob Bullock Museum in Austin, and visitors will get a chance to participate in the conservation process for a period before it is put on permanent display in the museum.

When it is moved to a permanent display, it will be under the Bob Bullock Museum’s first floor, where visitors can look down on it through glass, while its mast protrudes upward through an opening.

Fix said he will move to Austin from Bryan for the remaining preservation process.

In the meantime, Fix is working on excavating a World War II aircraft near an atoll in the Marshall Islands.

He said the TBD-1, a torpedo dive bomber, is in a lagoon near Jaluit. Fundraising and archaeological groups are working on recovering the craft that went down in 1942.

“Eventually, it will go into the new Navy Museum in Washington, D.C.,” Fix said.

He added that it will take three years to get it to the museum.

First, a chemical analysis will have to be conducted.

“Like La Belle, you just can’t bring it out of the water. There’s all kinds of different metal (that could degrade quickly).”
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