GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — U.S. marine archaeologists examining a well-preserved shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico made a thrilling discovery this week — two nearby vessels that likely were sailing with their ship when they may have gone down together in the same storm, carrying 1800s-era cargo from as far away as Britain.
Researchers are calling it the deepest shipwrecks — 4,363 feet (1,329 meters) down — that archaeologists have systematically investigated in North America. "I think we're all thoroughly intrigued by this project," principal investigator Fritz Hanselmann, of the Texas State University Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, said Thursday at a news conference announcing the new find.
"The big question we're all asking is: What is the shipwreck? And the answer is, we still don't know." More than 60 artifacts were recovered from the first vessel explored, including musket parts, ceramic cups and dishes, liquor bottles, clothing and even a toothbrush. The researchers couldn't legally or ethically retrieve pieces from the two new finds under the terms of their agreement to examine the initial shipwreck.
But scientists who took thousands of photos and closely examined the wrecks with remote-controlled undersea vehicles speculated that the three ships likely went down together in a storm off the Texas coast.
The artifacts originated in several places, including china from Britain, pottery from Mexico and at least one musket from Canada. "What you're going to see and hear I hope will blow your mind," Hanselmann told reporters. "Because it has ours."
Two of the ships were carrying similar items, and researchers believe they may have been privateers, or armed ships hired by a government, Hanselmann said. The third vessel was carrying hides and large bricks of tallow, and it may have been a prize seized by the privateers.
Jim Delgado, the director of the Martime Heritage Program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said it's likely the ships were from the first two decades of the 19th century. "Empires were falling, Spain was losing its grip, France was selling what it has, Mexico becomes independent, Texas independent, Latin America becomes independent and the U.S. is beginning to make a foothold in the Gulf," he said. "So these wrecks are all tied to that, we are sure."
It's likely the ships each carried 50 to 60 men and that none of them survived, the researchers said. Hanselmann said the artifacts will help researchers determine the ships' ages, functions and affiliations.
"Nationalities, cultures, all collide in these shipwrecks," Hanselmann said. "We hope to return in the future next year with more work." A Shell Oil Co. survey crew notified U.S. Interior Department officials in 2011 that its sonar had detected something resembling a shipwreck.
A year later, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel examining seafloor habitat and naturally occurring gas seepage used a remote-controlled vehicle to briefly look at the wreck. Besides determining the ship's dimensions, the examination showed it to be undisturbed and likely from the early 19th century.
It's the latest in a series of historical shipwrecks examined in recent years in the Gulf of Mexico.