The Monterrey Shipwreck: Artifact Recovery

ROV Hercules retrieves a bottle with organic contents from the Monterrey Shipwreck

National Geographic Grantee and Texas State University Research Faculty Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann and a team of leading archaeologists are conducting an expedition to the Monterrey Shipwreck in order to carry out the deepest archaeological shipwreck excavation ever in North America. Follow along with Fritz’s updates from the field.

Now that the site has been mapped, we begin the process of excavation and artifact recovery.  We excavate a site so that we can study the features and artifacts in greater detail, as they will give us much more in depth information regarding the vessel’s origin, nationality, and function.  As one could imagine, excavation and recovery at a depth of 4,300 feet is no easy feat (pun intended).  Further compounding this issue is the fact that many of the artifacts that can provide the most information are the most delicate and the most difficult to excavate and recover.  Our ROV pilots – Reuben Mills, Brennan Phillips, and Bob Waters of OET- along with their support crew, work around the clock to strategize and build tools that Hercules’ manipulator arm can use to best collect a sample of these artifacts in order to recover them with the most minimal of disturbances to the site.  My team member Jack Irion notes the inherent challenges with recovering such delicate artifacts and the need to adapt our tools and methods to ensure safe recovery.  Hercules has a number of tools that he uses to recover artifacts, including a small water jet, a small suction device nicknamed “the breast pump”, brushes, scoops, nets, and even the manipulator claws themselves.  In some instances we even develop and create new tools, including storage boxes built on ship for specific artifacts such as muskets and swords.

ROV Hercules swims towards the elevator for artifact recovery.
ROV Hercules swims towards the elevator to prepare it for artifact recovery.

The question most people ask is how do we get the artifacts from the seafloor to the wet lab in the ship.  Once Hercules picks up an artifact, he swims it to an elevator that is dropped from the ship.  Upon fully loading the elevator, Herc pulls the pin and the elevator drops the ballast that keeps it weighted to the seafloor and begins its ascent to the surface where crew manning a chase boat and a crane awaits to lift it from the ocean surface to the aft deck of the ship, where we all wait with baited breath to see the artifacts for the first time in 200 years.

Funding provided by foundations and individual donors through the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment and the Office of Advancement at Texas State University, the Way Family Foundation, and the Harte Family Foundation. 

NEXT: Artifact Analysis

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Frederick "Fritz" Hanselmann is Research Faculty, who serves as the Chief Underwater Archaeologist and Diving Program Director with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. He is also the director of The Meadows Center's Underwater Archaeology and Exploration Initiative. Fritz learned how to swim at age three, and has been in love with the water ever since, having been taught to breath hold dive by his grandfather diving for golf balls tied in a sock in the Gulf of Mexico. Having worked on underwater sites from a wide variety of time periods, his research ranges from submerged prehistoric deposits in springs and caves to historic shipwrecks in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the wreck of the Quedagh Merchant, abandoned by Captain Kidd in 1699 off the coast of Hispaniola. Fritz led the first-ever archaeological survey of the mouth of the Chagres River in Panama as the initial phase of the ongoing Río Chagres Maritime Landscape Study. One aspect of this study is the Lost Ships of Henry Morgan Project, the search for the famous privateer's sunken ships. He is one of the Principal Investigators of the Monterrey Shipwreck Project in the Gulf of Mexico, which is the deepest shipwreck excavation ever conducted in North America, in collaboration with three federal agencies, three universities, and three non-profit organizations. Fritz is also the co-director of the Sunken Ships of Colombia project, which focuses on finding, documenting, studying, and managing historic shipwrecks along the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The Spring Lake Underwater Archaeology Project on the university's campus also falls under his supervision and he assists other projects in Mexico and Texas as part of the Initiative. Fritz also focuses on capacity building and training for archaeologists and heritage managers in less developed countries, as well as the development of marine protected areas and underwater preserves. He is a GUE Cave and Technical Diver, a Nautical Archaeology Society Tutor, a certified scuba instructor, an ambassador for Aquadive Watches, and a fellow of the Explorer’s Club. Fritz regularly gives public lectures and presentations for museums, universities, and other organizations.