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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.

View the completed reconstruction of La Belle here.

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

Stage 2 – Vat Construction

Stage 3 – Lifting the Frame Construction

Stage 4 – Reassembling the Hull of La Belle

Stage 5 – Conserving the Hull of La Belle.

Conservation underway.

Citation Information:

Donny L. Hamilton 1998, Conservation of the Hull of the Belle, Conservation Research Laboratory Research Report #7, World Wide Web, URL,, Nautical Archaeology Program, Texas A&M University; La Salle Shipwreck Project, Texas
Historical Commission, Austin, Texas.