The joy of discovery was palpable when a nearly 200-year-old wooden shipwreck was found on the bottom of the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico, along with three other wooden ship sites, according to Fred Gorell of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Ocean Exploration.
Most of the wood is gone, eaten by ocean organisms, but copper sheathing helped keep the shape of the hull together, scientists said.
The artifact-laden wreck is in a largely unexplored area of the Gulf, and when NOAA went in with their Little Hercules remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) for 29 dives, satellite and Internet pathways allowed scientists and amateurs alike to follow along live.
But why was this ship the most "exciting" out of the four potential sites?
It was full of evidence that intrigued NOAA marine archeologists. When the ship itself was discovered, 2,000 people were following along live - including scientists in five different states and "citizen researchers" ashore using telepresence technology.
"You look at this as a scene - not a crime scene, but a history scene, with pieces of evidence that will be looked at differently by different experts who specialize in different things to help date this ship and to help get a better understanding of what this ship might have been engaged in," Gorrell said.
"It has been said that there is more history on the seafloor than in all of the museums on earth. This might help us better understand a little piece of history that is in one small place on the seafloor that could be very important if put into perspective."
Plates laced with a green pattern around the edges and the copper sheathing are key pieces of evidence. They can help researchers determine the exact time period when the ship was constructed and used - and possibly when it went down.
The location of cannons, bottles and maritime navigation instruments such as a compass and octant give researchers an idea of the use areas on the ship, said Frank Cantelas, a maritime archaeologist with NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
The artifacts are all exposed because of the ship's decomposition - and because sediment didn't have the chance to accumulate and bury them. The ship is deeper than 4,000 feet and away from the mouth of the Mississippi River, a prime bearer of sediment, Cantelas said.
"As far as we know, it was sailing across the Gulf, but we're not sure where it was coming from or going," he said. "Based on the fact that it has cannons on board, and muskets as well, brings about some interesting ideas that it may have been involved in military activities."
The evidence gives an early suggestion that the ship was constructed and operated in the first half of the 19th century - when the Texas Revolution and Mexican-American War were occurring in the region, he said.
The imagery, information and data from the dives is available to researchers, graduate students and other marine archeologists that want to study the information. There are currently no plans to retrieve any of the objects.
Because only 5% of its floor is mapped, the ocean "is a big mystery," Gorrell said, "so you have the opportunity for the joy of discovering things in the big ocean, which you can do if you go out and you look in places where no one has been before, it often comes your way."
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