Digging Deeper: La Salle Archaeological Projects

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Excavation of La Belle hull
Greg Cook and Toni Carrell measure the bow of La Belle while other archaeologists work on the stern. A seawater cofferdam—a structure that keeps water out of an enclosed area—was used to excavate the ship. This allowed archaeologists to perform a dry-land excavation in the middle of Matagorda Bay.

Digging Deeper is our new blog series that revisits the sites and stories covered in previous issues of American Archaeology Magazine.

In our first installment of American Archaeology Magazine in 1997, we reported on the discovery of the La Belle shipwreck off the coast of Texas in Matagorda Bay and the plans to begin its $6 million excavation project. Later in our Fall 2000 issue, another article brought even further coverage of the excavations and their findings. Today, artifacts and results of the research can be seen at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, as well as several other museums spanning six Texas coastal counties. Beginning in November 2013, the public will be able to witness the gradual installation of La Belle’s hull at the Bob Bullock museum. The full exhibit is slated to open after the installation is complete in the summer of 2014. The temporary exhibit will then travel to select locations in the United States and France.

La Belle Cemetary Marker
Marker for the sailor at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

Beginning in 1997, the Texas Historical Commission (THC) began excavations on two important sites relating to the French explorer, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. At the first site, archaeologists erected a cofferdam around the 320 sq. ft. site of the sunken La Belle so that excavations could be carried out on dry land. La Belle’s hull and cargo had been excellently preserved thanks to a thin layer of salt that had covered the objects for more than 300 years.

One of the most significant finds was a complete skeleton of an adult male. At the time of publication, the article in the first volume mentioned that the remains had been sent to Gentry Steele, a physical anthropologist with Texas A&M for further research. From 1999 – 2000, excavations began on the second related site – Fort St. Louis. The settlement was originally established in 1685 by La Salle and his colonists along Garcitas Creek. The crew soon discovered more than 1,000 Spanish, French and Native American artifacts including ceramics, armaments, glass trading beads, faunal remains, and even ficas – Spanish Colonial good-luck charms used to ward off the evil eye. In total more than 20,000 artifacts had been collected over the years of research.

And what became of our lone skeleton discovery? As previously mentioned, the skeleton was complete and very well preserved. Due to the anaerobic, or oxygen-free, environment of the natural salty materials, bits of tendon still clung to the bone, and a large part of the brain remained intact within the skull. Associated with the skeleton, was a cup with the name C. Barange engraved into its side. Dr. Gentry Steele volunteered his time to help analyze and answer important questions about the remains – Who was this man? Could his DNA be traced to identify living family members in France? How old was he? What had his life been like? How did he die?

Figure 1 The reconstructed head of the skeleton. Is this the face of Monsieur C. Barange?
The reconstructed head of the skeleton. Is this the face of Monsieur C. Barange? Image courtesy Donny Hamilton, Image credit: TexasBeyondHistory.net.

Analysis determined that the man was in fact of European descent, that he stood somewhere between 5’ 3” – 5’ 7”, and that he had aged 35 – 45 years by the time of his death. The remains showed no signs of trauma or disease, however evidence did show that he suffered a number of injuries in his lifetime as well as significant pain from medical disorders like abscessed teeth and infected gums that had eaten away a hole in his upper jaw. Unfortunately, the DNA analysis could not be completed because even though the remains were well preserved, micro-organisms living within the seawater had entered into the brain and bone, contaminating the DNA. As for cause of death, nothing definitive was identified from the skeletal remains, but a historic journal kept by one of La Salle’s companions, Henri Joutel, describes the days following the wreck as conditions became increasingly desperate. By the sound of the Joutel’s entries, it’s most likely that the man had died from dehydration. The remains were buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin on February 3, 2004.

This past weekend, November 22-24, the Center for French Colonial Studies held their annual 2013 meeting in Austin, Texas at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. The conference was open to the public, and its theme was The Lasting Legacy of Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle from the St. Lawrence River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico. The weekend began with a special behind-the-scene look of the artifacts recovered from the La Belle project, and concluded with a tour of the French Legation.

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