Excavation and Preservation

Up from a muddy grave and into a stunning exhibition.

Please note: A portion of the Bullock Museum’s first floor galleries, including the ship La Belle, is temporarily closed and undergoing a major transformation that opens fall 2018. (Read more.)

The amazing journey of La Belle began in 1684 with La Salle's departure from France, and continued with the ship's demise two years later. This, however, was only the beginning of the ship's intriguing saga.

A 20-year hunt to find the shipwreck, and the remarkable 1995 discovery of its remains by archaeologists with the Texas Historical Commission, led to one of the most extraordinary engineering feats ever associated with an archaeological excavation.

 

Unprecedented Excavation

A double-walled cofferdam was built around the sunken ship in 1996, allowing archaeologists to pump water out of the wreck site and excavate La Belle almost as if it were on dry land. After excavation, the hull and much of the cargo were transported to the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University’s Riverside Campus in College Station, Texas.

Unparalleled Insight

The cargo recovered from La Belle gives an unparalleled glimpse into the life of 17th century European colonists in North America. More than 1.6 million artifacts were excavated, including the hull of the ship, three bronze cannons, thousands of glass beads, bronze hawk bells, pottery, and the skeleton of a crew member. The crew member's remains were buried at the Texas State Cemetery on February 3, 2004.

Historic Journeys

Riveting film footage tells the story of an excavation that became as historic as the artifact. Though La Belle was hailed as one of the most important shipwrecks in North America, the untested yet successful solution of excavating a ship in dry conditions within a cofferdam was a significant achievement in maritime archaeology. The film details the adventurous journey from discovery and excavation through the 10-plus years of painstaking conservation.

Reassembly and Rest

In October of 2014, La Belle began its final expedition. The remains of the French sailing vessel were reassembled during a seven-month, award-winning exhibition at the Bullock Museum, led by exhibition curator Dr. Jim Bruseth, the archaeologist who directed the original excavation, and Texas A&M conservator Dr. Peter Fix. Now on view, the shipwreck La Belle is the central artifact in the Bullock's Texas History Galleries, and introduces new scholarship on early Texas history.  

Banner image courtesy of Texas Historical Commission.

La Belle Excavation Facts