The Archeology of the French Explorer La Salle's 1684 Wrecked Ship La Belle: Artifact Preservation Using Polymers

March 2, 2008

E-Separation Solutions

Given the historic and crucial relationship between New Orleans and the sea, it was appropriate to kick off the Pittcon week with a nautical-based session.

Given the historic and crucial relationship between New Orleans and the sea, it was appropriate to kick off the Pittcon week with a nautical-based session.

The session, "The Archeology of the French Explorer La Salle's 1684 Wrecked Ship La Belle: Artifact Preservation Using Polymers," was arranged by James Bruseth of the Texas Historical commission. The La Belle, a French vessel under the command of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, sank in a violent winter storm off the coast of Texas in 1686, in what is now Matagorda Bay. It lay dormant on the ocean floor for over 300 years until 1996, when excavation was started by archeologists from the Texas Historical Commission. After a decade of study, the findings were discussed at this year’s Pittcon.

The team of archeologists have used a technique called passive polymers, which are a set of concepts based on the use of functional polymers and cross linkers to stabilize and bulk the cell structure of waterlog-damaged organic artifacts. Using this technique, the ship and the various artifacts have been studied Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University, discovering new ways to conserve and sometimes restore the ship’s organic materials.

For example, the team extracted a wooden chest from the shipwreck and discovered a large assortment of materials that co-existed for over 300 years, including iron, silver, brass, lead, pewter, wood, rope, leather, cloth, and hair. Concerning the rigging and cordage Jennifer McCaskill of Texas A&M University explains the conservation technique, "Three hundred years of submersion in mud and water degraded the cellular structure of the cordage fibers. Two conservation methods were chosen both to reinforce the cellular structure of the fibers and to preserve the cordage for future study and display," McCaskill said. "The bulk of the rope, consisting of anchor cables recovered from the hull, is undergoing treatment through an amended polyethylene glycol (PEG) impregnation treatment. The remaining rope, including the coils, knots, and smaller artifacts, underwent treatment through dehydration, followed by silicone oil impregnation."

Further presentations on the findings were given by the team from Texas A&M of C W. Smith, Helen Dewolf, Starr Cox, and Michael West.