Artifact Trove on Deepest Shipwreck Explored off U.S.

Deepest wreck under investigation in U.S. waters holds well-preserved clues to its mission and crew.

A team of researchers excavating a 19th-century shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico—the deepest wreck currently under excavation in U.S. waters—has found more than they had hoped for, including two other ships that appear to have been sunk at the same time.

Artifacts such as eyeglasses, navigational equipment, and telescopes indicate that no one made it off the copper-clad ship—dubbed the "Monterey Shipwreck," noted James Delgado, director of maritime heritage with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Office of Marine Sanctuaries. 

The Monterey shipwreck contained bottles (pictured) that appeared to contain liquor, medicine, and sauces, said NOAA's Delgado in an interview last week. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NOAA

"If you were in the midst of abandoning ship and getting into a lifeboat [and trying to] navigate your way home, you would grab your navigational instruments, your telescope. Those were all lying there," he said.

A suction cup attached to the end of a robotic arm gently picks up an artifact from the Monterey shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico. Pilots sitting on a boat thousands of feet up must carefully manipulate the controls to place the precious cargo into storage boxes so that the ROV can bring them back to the surface. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NOAA

"You look at all of that and it hits you—nobody made it off this ship alive because all of their stuff is there."

The physical connection of interacting with artifacts was something that touched all of us, said Frederick Hanselmann, an underwater archaeologist with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos. The Center organized the expedition and provided much of the funding.

A cannon sits 4,330 feet (1,300 meters) down on the seafloor amidst the remains of the Monterey shipwreck. Although cannons aren't the only weapons archaeologists have found—muskets manufactured in England were also on board—experts are unsure whether the 84-foot-long (25-meter-long) vessel was a warship, a privateer, or passenger ship. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NOAA

We read about history in school, Hanselmann said, but what makes archaeology so special is that the history—in the form of artifacts—is tangible.

The expedition streamed video footage of their explorations in real time, allowing people from around the world to follow their progress. In fact, the public helped experts spot artifacts that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. "Somebody spotted a syringe from the medicine chest," said NOAA's Delgado. Others asked researchers to nose their video cameras into a bowl—such as the one pictured—in order to see if they could spot a manufacturer's mark. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NOAA

The Shell Oil Company initially discovered the wreck about 170 miles (274 kilometers) southeast of Galveston, Texas, in 2011 during a survey of potential drilling sites. The downed vessel had come to rest in 4,300 feet (1,300 meters) of water.

By law, Shell was required to notify the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) about the find.

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