In April 2012, the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer investigated a 4,300-ft deep shipwreck target previously identified in a 2011 remote-sensing survey required by the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM). The 2012 archeological assessment of site 15577 was part of a larger study focusing on deeply submerged environmental and cultural resources in the Gulf of Mexico. What was found through remotely operated vehicle (ROV) reconnaissance and documentation of the site is a very exciting discovery. The shipwreck appears to be an untouched, early 19th century, wooden-hulled, copper-clad vessel containing artillery and firearms. In a partnership between the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, NOAA, BOEM, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the Texas Historical Commission (THC), and the Institute for Ocean Exploration at the University of Rhode Island, a team of top notch archaeologists and explorers is being assemble to return to the site in July 2013 for more in depth documentation and artifact sampling in order to identify the shipwreck and share the findings with the general public.
The vessel’s length is 84 feet and the most prominent feature of the site is the remains of the ship’s hull covered with copper sheathing, which indicates a relative date of late 18th to early 19th century. The rake of the vessel at the stem and the stern suggest that it is potentially a clipper or shares attributes with this vessel type. While the hull might be the most prominent feature, the assemblage of material culture found on the shipwreck is extremely impressive and lends to the need for sampling and further study. The assemblage includes six iron cannons, a cast iron stove, bottles, porcelain plates and an iron cauldron close by. Some of the bottles are unopened, still protecting their organic contents from the harsh marine environment. Other weaponry, such as groups of muskets lay exposed outside the ship’s hull. Textiles that appear to be rolls of fabric and potentially one article of clothing are visible as well. Navigation devices such as octants, hourglasses, and a telescope are strewn throughout the wreckage as well. There also appears to be a possible leather trunk, partially covered in sediment with contents unknown; perhaps the captain or an ordinary sailor.
The goal of the project is to carry out further in depth documentation and mapping of the site, as well as recover a sample of the artifacts for conservation, analysis, and exhibition. While it is true that the archaeological assemblage is out of reach of humans, and, technology will be the medium by which the data sets collected during the course of field work will be used to address research questions including determining the age, function and cultural affiliation of this vessel. In addition, there is a desire by the archaeologists on this project to say more about the past using the data collected from the field investigations. The ability to tease out human behavior from the archaeological record is paramount and separates this project from something akin to applying the archaeological lens solely to the artifacts found on this shipwreck. All of these artifacts not only provide clues to the identity of the shipwreck, but also tell stories of the crew, the activity that was occurring during that time period, and can allow for further examination of the big picture of maritime activity in the Gulf of Mexico.