Vive La Belle: Reconstructing La Salle’s Ship

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The excavation of La Belle took place inside a steel cofferdam with the seawater removed.
The excavation of La Belle took place inside a steel cofferdam with the seawater removed.

Spring 2015: Vive La Belle, By Elizabeth Lunday.

In the spring of 1684, a team labored to assemble a ship in the port town of Rochefort in southwest France. They fastened timbers using iron bolts and wooden pegs and raised three masts over the single deck. That summer the vessel, christened La Belle, set sail with Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who was on a quest to establish a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

More than 300 years later, a team is again laboring to assemble La Belle, this time in a museum in Austin, Texas. Archaeologists and conservators are carefully hoisting the vessel’s original timbers, resting them on carbon fiber and fiberglass supports, and securing them with fiberglass bolts. Not only are the materials different, this time, the team has an audience. A class from Highland Park Elementary School in Austin peers at the ship and the timbers arranged on the floor.

“How do you know how these pieces go together?” asks one boy. “I spent 18 years looking at them,” says Peter Fix, La Belle conservator and head of reconstruction. “So I can tell you where each piece goes by looking at it.” “I’ve never seen anything this old,” says another boy with awe in his voice.

La Belle spent only a few years afloat after it launched from Rochefort. The story of its journey to America and subsequent sinking is an example of what could go wrong in the New World. The story of its discovery, conservation, and reconstruction is an account of what can go right when archaeologists find creative solutions to perplexing conservation challenges.

Summary. Read more in American Archaeology Vol. 19 No. 1, Spring 2015

2 COMMENTS

  1. How much on average does it cost to have an archaeological project in which you pump water out like the La Belle project?

    • Good Question! This is first time a cofferdam was done for an archaeological project on such a large and complex scale. The cost of the 178-foot long and 131-wide cofferdam was about $2 million dollars!

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