CRL Reports: Conserving the hull of the Belle
La Salle Shipwreck Project
Texas Historical Commission
Throughout each year, the Conservation Research Laboratory conserves material from a number of different archaeological projects. The purpose of these CRL reports is to showcase the conservation procedures used to treat some of the more interesting archaeological material. The reconstruction of the Belle‘s hull is presented in this report. The Belle, one of the ships of French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur (Lord) de La Salle, was lost in Matagorda Bay, Texas in 1686. It was excavated by the Texas Historical Commission.
Ship Hull Conservation
The excavation of the Belle by the Texas Historical Commission in 1996/97 was one of the most innovative and spectacular archaeological excavations of the decade. The THC took an underwater site and made it a land (more or less) excavation by constructing a cofferdam around the ship and pumping out the water. The finds on this fully loaded barque longue (frigate) belonging to the famous French explorer La Salle were nothing less than amazing. There is a massive array and quantity of material.
The single largest artifact is the remains of the ship herself. It is estimated that approximately one-third of the ship survived. The remains of the ship were disassembled in the field, and some 764 components (keel, keelson, frames, ceiling planking, mast step, pump box, outer planking, etc.) were sent to the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University for conservation. Because of the importance of this shipwreck, we are making equally innovating approaches in the conservation of the hull.
The complete conservation of the hull is being documented on this web site. It is proceeding in several stages:
- STAGE 1: Proper storage and cleaning of the wood in preparation for reassembly
- STAGE 2: Construction of the concrete vat by C.F. Jordan Construction of College Station, Texas
- STAGE 3: Construction of the lifting frame by Dynacon of Bryan, Texas
- STAGE 4: Vat construction completed. The vat was viewed by all interested parties at an Open House on November 12, 1999. Reassembly of the hull completed in October 2001.
- STAGE 5: The conservation of the hull begins.
- STAGE 6: When the conservation of the hull is completed, it will be removed for final preparation for exhibition.
- STAGE 7: The preserved remains of the ship were reassembled, and are now on view at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas.
Photo Gallery Index
Stage 1 – Planning
- Photo Gallery 1, May 1996 to August 8, 1998: Wood is stored and cleaned and conservation facilities planned
Stage 2 – Vat Construction
- Photo Gallery 2, August 8, 1998: Construction starts on the vat
- Photo Gallery 3, September 1, 1998: Construction of the walls of the vat
- Photo Gallery 4, October 16, 1998: Vat construction completed
Stage 3 – Lifting the Frame Construction
- Photo Gallery 5, May 14, 1999: Construction of the lifting frame
- Photo Gallery 6, June 22, 1999: Installation of the lifting frame
- Photo Gallery 7, September 1999: Design Concept
- Photo Gallery 8, October 1999: Final touches and cleaning of keel
Stage 4 – Reassembling the Hull of La Belle
- Photo Gallery 9, Work through summer 2000: Cleaning and recording of the timbers
- Photo Gallery 10, Work through summer 2000: Reassembly begins
- Photo Gallery 11, August-September 2000: Reassembly continues
- Photo Gallery 12, October 2000: Reassembly continues
- Photo Gallery 13, November 2000: Fabricating the supports for the frame sets
- Photo Gallery 14, Fall 2001: View the completed reconstruction of the ship
- Photo Gallery 15, October-December 2001: Construction of the roof structure
Stage 5 – Conserving the Hull of La Belle.
Donny L. Hamilton 1998, Conservation of the Hull of the Belle, Conservation Research Laboratory Research Report #7, World Wide Web, URL, http://nautarch.tamu.edu/CRL/Report7/hull.htm, Nautical Archaeology Program, Texas A&M University; La Salle Shipwreck Project, Texas
Historical Commission, Austin, Texas.