Friday, September 30, 2011

Still here, still learning more!

Time to dust this off again!  It's been a while since we've written anything here.  Plenty's been happening, though!  We've moved the whole La Belle collection into one area of collection storage (it used to be in three rooms), and put it into new cabinets.

Clean!  Each of those cabinets has its own set of artifacts, organized by material.  Ceramics, leather, glass, iron, lead, bone... there are a lot of artifact materials!  If we took a picture turned around from this shot, you'd see a set of shelves with even more artifacts - mostly the ~5,000 pounds of lead musket balls the colonists brought along.

The other thing I've been doing that takes most of my time is working on the upcoming La Belle book.  It's going to be a gargantuan book that takes a look at most of the artifacts on the wreck and attempts to describe and interpret them.  With almost two million artifacts plus the ship itself, that's a lot of work.  Obviously, I'm not going it alone (or anything like alone!) but it's still a ton of work.

To try to clear up some of the remaining questions, we've been doing some new research.  Some of that includes sending the pigments (colored powders) off to be analyzed for their material composition, and some of it includes recreating some 17th century explosives.  More on all that soon - I promise.

Expect a new post on some featured artifacts really soon.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Medicago polymorpha

I haven't updated in a while, because we've still been bagging rings (bagging and labeling 1600 rings takes a while!) and cataloging things that are a little hard to show on the blog.  We just got into some pretty interesting brass, so I'll get that up this coming week.

For now, I thought I'd share an interesting little artifact.

You probably recognize it, despite the bad photography.  It's a seed from Medicago polymorpha, which most of us know as Bur Clover.  It was found aboard La Belle, where it'd been brought over from France, likely stuck to a sailor's clothes.  Medicago polymorpha isn't native to the New World, but it's found all over. While we can't say for sure, it may well be that La Belle played a part in this species invasion.

We usually think of ships like La Belle as "French".  But all ships are really global, by dint of their role in spreading culture, species, and goods.

Saturday, June 19, 2010



This one's a picture-heavy post!  Remember, you can click on any pictures to see them full-size.

Hello to all our visitors around the world - we've had a lot of international visits lately.  Only fitting, I suppose, considering how globally diverse the La Salle expedition was.  I plan to do another post on that at some point, but meanwhile you can check out one of my earlier posts with a map of the global connections on the La Salle expedition.

Today I'm going to talk about the last set of artifacts we did: the iconographic finger rings.  There are more than 1500 brass rings in the Belle collection, with 16 different designs.

Here's one of the rings now.  I feel like a 17th century gentleman with this kind of fancy accessorizing.

Most of the rings have religious designs, which led to the name "Jesuit ring" for quite a while.  They've been found in small numbers across several archaeological sites around North America, always associated with the French.  It wasn't until the Belle excavation that a large number was found, allowing further scholarship.  One of the immediate results is that we're no longer calling them Jesuit rings, since the La Salle expedition had no Jesuit involvement.  Instead, they're iconographic rings - rings with icons.

That first ring is a "Type 1A" design.  Even though the design looks like it says IXXI, it's actually an interlocked A and M, standing for Auspice Maria - under the protection of Mary.  This is the emblem of the Society of Saint Sulpice, a society with which La Salle was associated, and which sent priests to Texas on the expedition.

This is a Type 3 ring - "Christ as a Young Man".  You can barely see the halo lines around the head.

This third ring is a Type 6 design.  It's an "IHS" ring, which stands for the first three letters of Jesus's name in Greek (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ) - that Σ is an S in English.  The three arrows under the IHS represent the nails of the crucifixion.  While this is the symbol of the Jesuit order (properly called the Society of Jesus), it's not only associated with them.  This is the most prevalent design in the collection - we've got hundreds of these, mostly found in the one large intact box of rings and other trade goods.

See, there are a lot of IHS rings!  This is only one bag out of many.  We're putting all these rings into their own bags and trays.

I don't have the time or space to show examples of all 13 designs, but that should be enough to give a nice taste of the ring collection.  You can always write us if you have more particular questions.

Finally, there were a couple non-iconographic rings that have settings for gems or glass.  Here's one now:

That's all for this week - as always, thanks for reading, and feel free to speak up with questions!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bells and rings and samples, oh my!

Things have been busy here between installing new air conditioning, starting to reopen the construction-impacted Kenedy gallery, and, of course the ever-present Belle inventory.  Of course, I only work on that last one, but it's enough!

I know I said I'd come back with the sound the bells make, but I haven't found an easy way to record that.  Maybe I'll surprise you with it one week.  The bells are now all cataloged and bagged - there are just about 1500 of them in our cabinets, plus those that are on display in the museums around the state.

Next up would be the finger rings ("iconographic" or "Jesuit" rings), but we're putting that off for a bit in pursuit of another project... samples.

When Belle was excavated, there were lots of mystery materials and sediments.  Most of those were bagged up for later examination.  Some have been examined, but some others have not.  They're in about 10 big boxes, plus 8 buckets.  The goal now is to look at see what we have, and how much of it there is.  For example, the buckets are all full of pitch, which is tree resin that the sailors used to waterproof and seal wood on board Belle.  I sailed on sailing ships for a number of years, and that smell is something that still pervades the wooden ship world.  It's something that would have been an integral part of life aboard Belle, so it's kind of nice that I get to smell it now.

There's also lots of sand, mud, and pieces of "stuff" that was around the wreck, along with some film canisters of liquid from the ceramics we talked about a few weeks ago.  These bags are all getting old (16 years in some cases!), and some are starting to leak, which makes the lab smell foul.  Some of this stuff wasn't so nice 330 years ago, and the years might not have been kind.  What a mess!

I'll try to update with some pictures next week.

Anything you guys want to know about Belle?  Ask away in the comments section.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Belle's Bells

Another Friday, another set of artifacts.  You'd think we'd be running out, but there's a lot of different types of artifacts on board!

Today I started working on Belle's collection of "flushloop" or "hawk" bells.  These little brass bells are made out of two pieces of metal with a little loop, probably in Holland (remember the map from earlier?).  Inside is an iron clapper, or bead for making them jingle.  Maybe by next week I'll have figured out how to put sound on the blog, and you can hear what one of them sounds like.

Here's one of the ~1300 bells we have.  It's the bottom, and you can see the little soundholes.  You can also see the engraved "bowtie" maker's mark, used to identify the person that made it.  There are several different marks, indicating that the bells were from different manufacturers.  They include this bowtie, a letter "S", and a cat.

As with so many Belle items, we have a lot of bells.  They're in big bags right now, and the goal is to get them retagged, rebagged, and lined up in trays, so that researchers can find them easily.  We also need to make sure any analysis we've done in the past can be linked with individual bells.

They start like this...

Then they're laid out on a table...

Because we're still working on these bells, I don't have pictures of the nice neat trays they're all going.  Next week I'll try to get you some sound from a bell, and also more pictures.

Anything you want to know about them?

Friday, May 14, 2010


I've got two artifacts to share this Friday, both from the pewter collection.

There are several hundred pewter artifacts in the Belle collection, most of which are (or used to be) plates.

There are quite a few of these small pewter plates, which were mostly stacked in crates in Belle's hold.

The backs of the plates are pretty interesting.  They carry two marks: a maker's mark and a owner's mark.  Most are marked with the owner's mark LG, probably for Le Gros.  Le Gros was a merchant who was on the La Belle expedition, and he died early on after a rattlesnake bite.

Above, you can see the owner's mark (top), and the maker's mark (bottom).

The second artifact today is a pewter screw top.  Just like today, bottles needed removable, replaceable tops.  The bottles on the La Salle expedition have threaded pewter tops.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Fingerprints from France

It's Friday, so it's time for another post.  We've had lots of traffic from news media around Corpus, so if you're here from those sources - thanks for stopping by.

Before we move on to an artifact, I want to address a question that someone asked.  They didn't ask it via email or comments (and if you have a question about anything La Belle related, please ask in comments!), but rather in a google search that led to our blog.  They wanted to know how we found out that the ship we have is La Belle.  That's an entirely fair question, and a good one.

In 1995, during the first exploratory field season in Matagorda Bay, the crew was investigating a wreck, one of several candidates for Belle.  On the wreck, archaeologists found white tin-glazed ceramics of a type only usually seen on French sites.

This was good evidence for the ship being Belle, but the real evidence was the bronze naval gun (or "cannon"), which you can see right here at the Museum.  It carries a cartouche, or insignia, of the admiral who was in charge at the time of La Belle's sailing.  These artifacts together linked the wreck at the bottom of Matagorda Bay to La Belle.

On to artifacts.

I've started cataloging pewter objects, but I'll post about that another week.  Right now I'm going to show you another ceramic artifact with a pretty unique feature.

This is one of Belle's earthenware ceramic vessels.  It's remarkable in that it's a complete object, which survived unbroken at the bottom of the bay for more than 300 years.

What's more remarkable to me is what's on its interior.

What I'm talking about is pretty hard to see here.  You might want to click the image to see it bigger.  If you look up at the top of the image, you might be able to see something really pretty interesting - two fingerprints on the interior of the jar.  These are, in all likelihood, the fingerprints of the French potter who created the ceramic in the early 1680s.  I love this sort of artifact - something that is genuinely linked to people, in this case, an individual.

That's all for this week. As always, please get in touch if you want to know more about anything at all!