Texas Heritage, Volume 18, Number 4, Fall 2000 Page: 23
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BY DONNY L. HAMILTON
LaSalle's ship the Belle, which was excavated
within a double-walled cofferdam,
was fully loaded with cargo when it sank in
1686. In fact, the Belle contains one of the
largest collections of 17th-century French
artifacts ever excavated in the New World.
The conservation of the Belle and her
associated material is being conducted at
the Conservation Research Laboratory
(CRL) of the Nautical Archaeology Program
at Texas A&M University. This phase
of the project is as important as the ship's
excavation, since few waterlogged artifacts
can survive for study and display without
being carefully conserved. In the case of the
Belle, not only is her cargo being cleaned,
treated, and stabilized, but her hull is being
completely reassembled in what is one of
the largest conservation projects ever attempted
in the United States.
CONSERVING THE HULL
The hull of the Belle is the largest and
most important artifact from the site (see
image on page 24), and the first step in its
conservation was to determine how the timbers
could be removed from the cofferdam
and shipped safely to CRL, more than a
hundred miles inland. Initially, some
thought was given to lifting the hull intact
out of the cofferdam and transporting it via
road to the laboratory. It was decided, howThe
excavation of LaBelle within the
walls of the cofferdam in Matagorda Bay.
From the Texas Historical Commission.
ever, that to disassemble the ship in situ (its
original position) would be a much safer approach.
It would be then reassembled at its
destination. The Belle was thus duly delivered
to CRL for storage, and ultimately, for
reassembly and conservation.
Before the reassembly of the Belle's hull
could begin, months of work went into
cleaning the wood, removing all the sawnoff
treenails, as well as remnants of iron
spikes and bolts. Just as the concept of constructing
a cofferdam around the ship and
excavating it as a dry site ensured that the
project would attract media and public attention,
an equally imaginative approach
was devised that would assist in the analysis
and the conservation of the hull. After much
thought, it was decided to construct a large
outside vat that could hold the reassembled
ship prior to conservation treatment.
The largest wood conservation vat in
the United States (60-ft. long x 20-ft. wide
x 12-ft. deep) was built next to CRL. A lifting
frame to support the ship during reassembly
and conservation was incorporated
into the design, so that the ship could be
lifted in and out of the water as appropriate
(see image on page 24).
Approximately one-third of the lower
part of the ship remains; however, before
any of it could be reassembled, the structural
timbers had to be put in their proper
places so that all the holes for the treenails
and spikes lined up. It was also necessary
to devise a support system to securely hold
the hull during the 3-5 year conservation
process. Furthermore, the ship will have to
be reassembled in a modular manner, so that
once the conservation stage is over, the dif
HERITAGE * 23 * FALL 2000
Of the early
Cavelier, Sieur de
La Salle, is well
noted in 17thcentury
history. In the
annals of 20thcentury
and excavation of
La Salle's ship,
the Belle, which
Texas, figure just
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Texas Historical Foundation. Texas Heritage, Volume 18, Number 4, Fall 2000, periodical, Autumn 2000; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45391/m1/23/: accessed April 24, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.