Discovery of Sunken Ship Aided by Modern Technology

Artifacts from 200-year-old shipwreck in Gulf of Mexico
Artifacts from 200-year-old shipwreck in Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf of Mexico is home to what researchers are calling the deepest shipwreck systematically investigated in the Gulf and in North America. At 4,363 feet down, marine archaeologists discovered a a well-preserved 200-year-old sunken ship about 170 miles southeast of Galveston.

The undersea images showed a wooden hull and copper-clad sailing ship measuring 84 feet long and 25 feet wide, but the wreck was too deep for divers to explore it. The exploration vessel Nautilus used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to collect samples of various data. That included items such as ceramics, liquor bottles, an octant which was a navigational tool used by sailors, various muskets, swords, cannons, and shoes. When it docked in Galveston on Thursday morning, 60 artifacts had been collected.

James Delgado, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was one of several marine archaeologists aboard the Nautilus. He is the director of maritime heritage for NOAA’s office of national maritime sanctuaries. As reported in the Houston Chronicle, he confirmed that this was the “deepest documentation, recovery and excavation of a shipwreck in U.S. waters.”

In addition to exploring this shipwreck, researchers also conducted remote video surveys of two other shipwrecks close by. Both of them were about five miles away from the first one. Jack Irion, with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said it was highly unusual for three ships to sink in the same location, and possibly even at the same time.

Chris Horrell, federal preservation officer with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is also the co-principal investigator on this project. He said it’s not just about collecting artifacts, but about providing “some context to the Gulf Coast maritime history and heritage.”

Now that the collected artifacts are in Galveston, they will be documented and cataloged, then packed carefully for transport to the Texas A&M University Cultural Resources Laboratory at the Riverside campus. The lab will be responsible for the cleaning and preservation of the items. Amy Borgens, state marine archaeologist with the Texas Historical Commission in Austin, is responsible for the cataloging before the preservation process, and the lab will create new documentation during the process.

This shipwreck was first discovered in 2011 when a Shell Oil Co. survey crew notified federal officials at the U. S. Department of Interior that their sonar had detected something. In 2012, a NOAA vessel documenting seafloor habitat and naturally occurring gases, looked at the wreck aided by a remote-controlled vehicle. The results showed it hadn’t been disturbed and was estimated to be early 19th century.

The type of ship is still unidentified, as is the reason why the three ships were in the same area. Dubbed the “Monterrey Shipwreck,” after Shell Oil’s proposed development site name, this has captured the attention of the Texas Historical Commission and federal agencies.

Right now, there are more questions than answers. Once the restoration process is completed and more information is available, the artifacts will eventually be displayed in a Texas museum yet to be announced.

Written by: Cynthia Collins, Senior Museum Correspondent

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