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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Aggies help preserve sunken French ship

 
 

In the year 1684, four French ships braved the Atlantic waters in search of the seaward route to the Mississippi River. 326 years later, one of those ships, La Belle, would end up frozen in a nautical archaeology lab at Texas A&M University.
A&M scientists purchased an oversized freeze dryer that will eventually lead to the preservation and display of the historic ship. Using the dryer, they will be able to extract the water trapped inside the wood of the ship’s hull.
“The French wanted to put a colony [along the Mississippi River’s coast] to be in direct opposition to the Spanish,” said Peter Fix, a staff member of the Conservation Research Laboratory.
Robert Cavelier, the Sieur de La Salle who was responsible for the expedition, was off on his calculations. Only La Belle reached what was thought to be the destination, but she sunk in present day Matagorda Bay. After 24 years of searching, nautical archaeologists found La Belle and began excavating all salvageable artifacts.
“First of all, that would be an awesome job to have,” said Derek Nguyen, a freshman general studies major, referring to the nine graduate students and four full-time staff members involved. “It sounds like it would be very informative about life then and now, how different it is. It’d be good just to learn everything we can from the ship.”
A&M’s Conservation Research Laboratory is heading the conservation process now that the majority of pieces have been collected. The lab, one of the best in the country, Fix said, is entering the final stages of the 14-year project.
“Part of the conservation stabilization process is that wood that’s been immersed in water for so long it is not the same wood we would think of today,” Fix said. “It degrades, bacterial action occurs, and as the fibers and cells of the wood degrade, water goes in and starts filling everything.”
To keep the wood from cracking and turning to dust in the future, the ship is currently immersed – and will be for the next three years – in a solution of polyethylene glycol and water to saturate the wood before it goes into the freeze dryer. While in the dryer, scientists will be able to control the drying process.
“It’s something interesting that we need to keep in our history,” said Wesley Swanson, a sophomore history major.
After preservation is complete, the reconstructed ship will be displayed in the Bob Bullock Museum in Austin. According to the Texas Historical Commission, history meets science to bring up from the depths “one of the most important shipwrecks ever discovered in North America.”

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