La Belle of the 2014 SAA Annual Meeting

My experience at the 79th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in Austin, Texas was very informative and enjoyable, but the most fascinating aspect was a tour and presentation of the La Belle shipwreck and its artifacts.  I was able to meet the archaeologist who was in charge of the excavation, Dr. Jim Bruseth, who gave us a presentation on his work at the La Belle site.  We were also allowed to see and handle some of the artifacts (while wearing gloves) and were shown a recently produced film that will later be part of the museum tour.

Viewing this film was a unique experience for me because it was “4D”, meaning that three screens were showing different angles of the story simultaneously, and there were special effects such as vibrating seats, wind machines, flickering lights (to simulate lightning) and smoke billowing from the stage.  All of this combined to make for a very memorable experience and was the highlight of my trip to the SAA conference.  It was also an inspiring example of good public archaeology, because presenting the archaeology in an engaging and entertaining way helps to inform visitors and helps them to retain the information.

In 1681 La Salle commanded an expedition that explored the Mississippi River from New France, believing he would find a path to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, La Salle found a route to the Gulf of Mexico. Although Hernando de Soto had explored and claimed this area for Spain 140 years earlier, La Salle claimed the Mississippi River valley for the French king, Louis XIV, and named the territory Louisiana in his honor. La Salle proposed to his king that France establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, which would provide a base for attacking the Spanish at Nueva Vizcaya and gaining control of its lucrative silver mines. Since Spain had declared war on France in 1683, Louis agreed to back La Salle and gave him the La Belle to use as his flagship.

La Belle was one of four ships used by Robert de La Salle in 1685 to explore the Gulf of Mexico and start a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River. He miscalculated his position, ending up on the coast of Texas but convinced that the Mississippi River was nearby. The ship was wrecked in present-day Matagorda Bay the following year, one of a chain of events that doomed La Salle’s colony to failure.  The colonists had transferred most of their supplies onto the ship in order to protect them from raids by natives, but a storm soon sank the ship, leaving the colonists without most of their food and equipment. After three centuries underwater, it was discovered by a team of state archaeologists in 1995 and was regarded as a very important find and a major excavation was launched by the state of Texas that recovered not only the ship, but also over a million artifacts.

When the team of state archaeologists began diving on the wreckage, they discovered that the dark waters of the Bay severely limited visibility for the divers, and the decision was made to construct a cofferdam around the wreck site. They built a double-walled structure, around the entire wreck and then proceeded to excavate the site as if it were on land.  An interesting point that Dr. Bruseth made was that they had to teach the underwater archaeologists how to dig in squares like those of us who work on land do.

The ship was still fully loaded with cargo (the La Belle had contained all of the salvaged supplies from La Salle’s wrecked store-ship the L’Amiable) giving us insight into what colonists of the era thought was important to bring to the new world when founding a colony. There were many weapons on board including three bronze cannons, one iron swivel gun, several boxes of muskets, many casks of lead shot and gunpowder, a handful of ceramic firepots (used like hand grenades), and several sword handles. There were also numerous trade goods, including glass beads, brass finger rings with Catholic religious symbols, brass pins, brass hawk bells, wooden combs, and a barrel of iron axe heads. Tools and supplies such as smelting crucibles, a cooper’s plane, a shovel, rope, and long bars of iron stock were also recovered, as were a wide variety of ship’s hardware and rigging components. One complete human skeleton was discovered, that of a middle-aged male with signs of arthritis, who may have been the guard who was on the ship when it went down in a storm. I was able to view some of the recovered artifacts at the Texas State History Museum, where the hull of the ship will eventually be displayed.

An interesting discovery was that the La Belle was originally a “kit”, meaning that all the boards and planks had Roman numerals and letters on them, to be able to be assembled as if it were a puzzle. It is believed that the ship was originally intended to be brought over in pieces and assembled in Louisiana, so that it could be sailed up the river.  There was no room for it along with the rest of the cargo, and so it was assembled in France and sailed with the rest of the fleet. The entire ship was disassembled by the archaeological team, piece by piece, and transferred to a preservation facility. It was then reassembled in a special cradle to be preserved by being soaked in polyethylene glycol.  Dr. Bruseth noted that this process was too slow for such a large vessel, and so they built the largest freeze-drying chamber in North America in order to complete the preservation process in a timelier manner.

Once the excavation was finished, the French government filed an official claim for the ship and its contents, which was challenged by Texas. Dr. Bruseth told us that Madeleine Albright conceded to France’s claim just before the end of the Clinton administration.  Today, the official title to the wreck and its artifacts belongs to France, but control was granted to the Texas Historical Commission.  Dr. Bruseth jokingly noted that he had inserted language in the treaty recommending professional consultation and collaboration, which has enabled him to travel to Paris several times.

The excavation and presentation of the La Belle is a great example of how public archaeology can be informative, engaging, and entertaining.  Starting with the film that hooks visitors into the story of the ship and ending with a large display of interesting artifacts and information, the project should be a popular attraction for visitors to the museum.

Contributor Chris Dukes is an applied anthropology graduate student at Missouri State University. His focus is historical archeology. He is currently researching the history and disappearance of a small Ozark town in Southwest Missouri.


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