Texas State professor studies history at the bottom of the sea
SAN MARCOS, Sep 01, 2013 (Menafn - Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --After spending a week in the Gulf of Mexico, then three in Colombia, documenting and excavating shipwrecks, Fritz Hanselmann has docked back in Central Texas.
An underwater archaeologist at Texas State University, Hanselmann has studied wrecks dating from the 16th century to the World War II era, some belonging to legendary explorers such as Captain Henry Morgan and Captain William Kidd.
This summer, he led a dig at the "Monterrey Shipwreck," which he says is the deepest ever excavated in North America. In Colombia, he and five other archaeologists participated in the first-ever study of four ships that may have been casualties of a British attack on a South American port town.
During the year, he teaches at the San Marcos school, where he's helped developed a fledgling program in underwater archaeology. Though there's currently just one class on scientific diving, the goal is to create a series of courses for students in the archaeology major. To practice, students go diving at Spring Lake, where they can map a model shipwreck consisting of a cement cannon and part of a row boat.
Hanselmann spoke with the American-Statesman about his research, from the modern-day gadgets used to find shipwrecks, to the romantic and tragic sides of the history of exploration. Here's an edited transcript of our interview:
How do you find shipwrecks?
When we are searching for a shipwreck, usually we use electronic survey equipment, which is typically a magnetometer or a side-scan sonar. A magnetometer functions as a very large-scale metal director. You tow it from behind the boat, and it's set to the geographic region's magnetic signature, and it picks up anomalies in that magnetic signature. If you're thinking about a historic shipwreck, you think cannons and anchors, those are large magnetic anomalies that are going to pop out.
We get a number of targets, and we go dive the anomalies to see what they are. Sometimes you find everything from an engine block to geologic features, and every now and then, you come across a shipwreck.
In all the shipwrecks you've studied, what was the most amazing find?
On the shipwreck that Captain Kidd abandoned off the coast of the Dominican Republic, one small wood sample proved to be teak. Finding a section of hull, getting that one wood sample that told us, 99 percent, this is the ship captured in the Indian Ocean, because there's no other reason for a ship built out of teak to be in the middle of the Caribbean.
It was a ship that he had captured in the Indian Ocean, sailed across the Atlantic, and abandoned off the coast of the Dominican Republic to clear his name of piracy. At the time, in the 17th century, teak was only indigenous to Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and India.
That's what really gets to me. For me, it's the artifact that gives you information that's something you didn't know. That either disproves or proves the hypothesis.
One of the aspects that's really unique about Colombia is the fact that not much has been done with ships and maritime archaeology in those waters, due to the fact that there were certain political situations, there were certain issues that caused the navy to patrol the waters all the time, so nobody really went and did anything.
Can you sum up some of your big finds from the Colombia trip?
In Cartagena, we have one colonial shipwreck, and we're not sure if it's English or Spanish, but we're fairly certain it's 18th century. In the bay, we have what looks to be four shipwrecks, that were sunk in the 18th century, perhaps during a British attack on the city, and they were sunk to blockade the channel entrance so the British couldn't advance on the city.
In the Bahia de la Gloria project, we conducted an electronic survey. We also mapped what locals call "the bridge," what could be a rock wall built with part of the first port that would have served the ships that were coming to Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien, the first successful Spanish settlement on the mainland in the western hemisphere, which was established by Vasco Nunez de Balboa in 1510.
In your work, looking at all these shipwrecks, what mysteries have emerged?
In Panama, we found cannons that belonged to Morgan's shipwrecks that were on the reef where he ran aground, but we're still looking for the ships. Where are the ships, and what would they look like, and what would the spatial arrangement be? Because Morgan was such a popular guy and well known and a legend in his own time, would he have had his own cabin? Or would he have been more like the pirates that came on later in the 18th century that were more egalitarian?
A lot of times, our questions are answered in the lab. We go out to try and acquire the information, or acquire artifacts, objects on the site, excavate them, bring them back to the laboratory, then begin to analyze them, and that's where 75 percent of our work is done.
But because it happened so long ago, there's no guarantee you're going to solve the mystery.
There's always that possibility. And to be honest, unless you find a bell with the ship's name on it, it's hard to say anything with 100 percent certainty.
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