Objects & Archaeology: Where Does the Story Take You?

Bow section of Ada K. Damon
Bow of the wreck. Site protected by law.

[This should have been posted MONTHS ago. Sorry for the delay!]

I feel pretty lucky to still be connected to some of my undergraduate professors. Not only have they become my friends, they let me know when something interesting is happening at Salem State. Back in March, I found out about the first-ever Maritime Archaeology Field School that would be held during a week in July. Holy crap was I stoked on this! I signed up as soon as it was possible.

The class was broken down into 2 days of classwork, and 3 days of field work. Our first day of field work was spent at the Friendship in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, where we practiced taking offset measurements from a baseline, and learned a bit about the ship. This was also my first time ever being on that ship, even though I had lived in Salem for 3 years AND my roommate at one time used to work at that park site! It was awesome to be able to check out the ship and learn about her construction.

Day 2-4 was spent on site. We were working on Steep Hill Beach at the Crane Estate, which is managed by the Trustees of the Reservations. The wreck we were working on is most likely the Ada K. Damon, which was wrecked during a Christmas storm in 1909 while she was carrying sand from Plum Island to Pennsylvania. The story is really quite sad; the owner of the ship sunk all of his money into the ship, and she wrecked on her first voyage. That’s rough. You can still see the wreck if you visit the beach at low tide, but keep in mind that the site is protected by law, so please don’t try to take anything from it!

We dug, a lot. Day 3 it poured on and off for most of our time on the site, but that didn’t stop us from digging up the port side and taking offset measurements. In fact, I think day 3 was probably the best day; we all laughed through the rain, and really got to know each other while digging with the outgoing tide crashing against our backs. We had 3 instructors – Dr. Calvin Mires, Captain Laurel Seaborn, and MA State Underwater Archaeologist Victor Mastone – and 2 Ph.D students with us to help us take measurements while working around piles of sand and the fact that none of us had ever been on a dig before. We really had to work as a team to make sure our measurements were correct, we weren’t getting in each other’s way, but most importantly we were helping each other figure out what we didn’t understand (scale? huh?). While day 4 was a bit of a wash – incoming tide meant we took sketches of features on the starboard side before they were buried by the water – we DID get an awesome tour of the Crane Estate and learned how to do trilateration measurements. Day 5 we spent at school, creating a site map that will be kept in the public record. How cool is that!? Our work will be the basis of future research done at the site. So flippin’ sweet.

Working in museums and being a collections gal, something Calvin said on day 1 really stuck with me. He talked about what archaeology is and isn’t, but what he made clear was that “shipwrecks are stories about failure.” Shipwrecks are STORIES. He emphasized that archaeology is an examination of past human existence based on objects found at the site, and that maritime archaeology is concerned with all aspects of material culture. Wrecks are cool, but what can they tell us about the people involved with them? The time period? The culture? While this course focused primarily on the how-to’s of maritime archaeology, Calvin made sure we all understood that beneath it all, what is important is what we can learn about a person, a group, or a place from the wreck site and any artifacts found.

We didn’t find any artifacts. In fact, we were told on day one that we wouldn’t. This wreck has been buried for over a century, and had been picked over after wrecking for resources (wood, iron, etc.). But that didn’t diminish our insane enthusiasm for what we were doing. To be able to work on a site and become part of the site record, to be encouraged to dig deep and get messy, was an opportunity that doesn’t come around every day. It was a great learning experience and I think all of us came away from the dig with a better appreciation of the work that goes in to an archaeological dig, and that even the smallest, seemingly insignificant task contributes to the larger picture in a big way.

Office Lens 20151117-095501
Word cloud I sketched out during class over the summer. These are just some of the stories that can be connected back to one wreck.

Learn more about SEAMAHP and The PAST Foundation


Objects & Archaeology: Where Does the Story Take You?

The Ship That Shaped the Future of Texas

Star of Texas outside the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Star of Texas outside the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

Hey all! Back from Austin, and I’m refreshed and ready to roll. I had a fantastic time and got to meet up with a few folks from Austin institutions. I would definitely recommend Austin to anyone who is thinking about going (I would also recommend renting a car while you’re there…I did A LOT of walking!).

Anyway, let’s get down to business. I managed to visit three fabulous museums during my trip: the Blanton Museum of Art, the Harry Ransom Center (both on campus at the University of Texas at Austin), and the Bullock Texas State History Museum. All three were amazing, world-class museums, but it’s the Bullock that left me spellbound.

Opened in 2001, the Bullock Texas State History Museum was the brainchild of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, who was a master of Texas history and who thought it was vital to have a state history museum in the state capital. In 1995 he began discussing this idea with the state legislature – at the same time that one of the most incredible shipwrecks was discovered off the coast of Texas.

The wreck was of the La Belle, a 17th century French barque longue that had set out from France in 1865 with three other ships on a journey to found a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, led by famous French explorer, Robert de La Salle. A series of unfortunate events struck the mission, with the ships eventually landing at Matagorda Bay — in Spanish-controlled territory. Not good! As the colonists established Fort St. Louis, a storm swept the La Belle into the bay, eventually sinking her under 14 feet of muddy water (this story is actually much longer and much more interesting than it sounds right here, but I’m not writing a novel!). All that remained of the La Belle was a 17th century map, indicating where she had sunk.

Fast-forward to 1995. Bob Bullock is discussing a state museum, and the Texas Historical Commission gets funding to do another sweep to try to find the La Belle, which at this point they had been searching for since the 1970s. Going off the 17th century map, the historical commission divers begin their search…and return with a cannon that could only be from the La Belle.

Cannon from the La Belle

The way they excavated this ship is AMAZING. Instead of taking the route of the Mary Rose and the Vasa, the archaeologists in Texas decided to build a steel cofferdam around the site, and pump the seawater out from the area so the could excavate the ship from the floor of Matagorda Bay. The project took a year, and at the end of it all, they recovered over 1 million objects from the wreck, and had a pretty decent chunk of the hull intact. Everything was brought to the conservation lab at Texas A&M, where they built a freeze-dryer to clean the hull. The freeze-drying process restored the wood to its 17th century look! How cool is that?! And, as if this story couldn’t get any more awesome, putting the ship back together was (relatively) easy. La Belle was originally designed as a kit ship: meaning, she would be stored in pieces aboard one of the other ships on the journey, and reassembled in the New World. But that plan was scrapped, and La Belle was assembled in France. However, that meant that her keel was numbered with Roman numerals, and all the ribs were numbered accordingly. You can still see the Roman numerals today!

The Bullock Museum was built to house the La Belle, as well as tell the story of Texas. Currently, the ship is being worked on by conservators and archaeologists as they continue to stabilize her; the ship and many of the artifacts are on display in a temporary gallery. The permanent exhibit for the La Belle is currently under construction in the center of the museum — meaning you, as a visitor, get to see the exhibit as it’s built from the ground up. Yes, this means you have to hear saws buzzing and hammers…hammering, but it’s still an amazing opportunity to watch your museum build an exhibit! I think it’s a great way to show your local community what goes into creating an exhibit space.

What has really stuck with me from this exhibit is this: the La Belle landing at Matagorda Bay had a lasting affect on the future of Texas. Because of this one event, the Spanish doubled-down their control of the Texas territory, spreading their influence much further than they initially had, and creating the Texas we know today. If it hadn’t been for this singular event, who knows what Texas might look like! What if the Spanish hadn’t gotten word of the landing of the La Belle? Maybe parts of Texas would be much more French! The possibilities are endless and I can’t stop thinking about it! And I think this is such an important part of why we need history museums in our communities; it forces you to think about how events shape the future of the world around us. They bring us together and help ground us in our common ancestry; in events we can all share as our collective history.

I could go on and on about this exhibit and the Bullock Museum, because they absolutely blew my mind. If it helps at all, I Storified my #itweetmuseums journey through the exhibit, check it out here. Honestly, if you really want to hear about this exhibit and hear my enthusiasm, come meet me this Wednesday, April 15th at 6pm at the Hong Kong in Harvard Square at Drinking About Museums! (shameless plug).

Stay tuned, the next post is going to be about something a bit closer to home…the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture.

Until then!
– a

The Ship That Shaped the Future of Texas