GALVESTON, Texas — Marine archaeologists examining a well-preserved shipwreck nearly a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico made a thrilling discovery this week – two nearby vessels that were likely sailing with their ship when they all went down together in the same storm.
Researchers led by a team from Texas State University in San Marcos are calling it the deepest shipwrecks – 4,363 feet down – that archaeologists have systematically investigated in the Gulf of Mexico and 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.
"We went out with a lot of questions and we returned with even more. The big question we're all asking is: What is the shipwreck? And the answer is we still don't know."
During eight days of exploration that ended Wednesday, 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 about 170 miles southeast of Galveston. They came to rest within a five-mile area of one another.
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.
The artifacts are headed for preservation work at a Texas A&M University research facility.
"For now, there's lot of conjecture, lots of hypotheses," said Jim Delgado, the director of the Martime Heritage Program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We may have answered some questions, but we have a large number of new questions.
"But that's archaeology."
Delgado 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. It wasn't likely that navigational tools and telescopes found among the wreckage would have been left behind deliberately by survivors, they said.
The ship that researchers set out to examine was armed with six cannons, Delgado said. Undersea images show the outline of an 84-foot-long, 26-foot-wide wooden hull and copper-clad ship that may have had two masts.
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 federal Interior Department officials in 2011 that its sonar had detected something resembling a shipwreck. It also detected some other material.
"Like a medical ultrasound, interpreting can be difficult," said Jack Irion, of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. "This case is the same way. You can't tell if it's an historic shipwreck or just a pile of stuff."
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.
That ship has been dubbed the "Monterrey Shipwreck," adopting the name Shell had proposed for its development site.
The Texas Historical Commission also is involved in the project.
It's the latest in a series of historical shipwrecks examined in recent years in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1995, after a more than decade-long hunt, Texas Historical Commission archaeologists found one of famed French explorer La Salle's vessels in a coastal bay between Galveston and Corpus Christi. The remains of the LaBelle, which went down in a storm in 1686, have been recovered and are undergoing an unusual freeze-drying treatment at Texas A&M. The ship is to be reconstructed next year and become a centerpiece of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
Earlier this year, researchers used special 3-D imagery to map the remains of the USS Hatteras, which was the only U.S. Navy ship sunk in the Gulf of Mexico in combat during the Civil War. The 210-foot iron-hulled ship went down in 1863 about 20 miles off the Galveston coast during a battle with a Confederate raiding vessel. Researchers believe that heavy storms in recent years shifted the sea floor sand, exposing the wreckage, which rests 57 feet below the surface of the water.