GALVESTON, Texas -- An underwater archeology project coordinated from a high-tech command center in Galveston has discovered a centuries-old clock amid the debris of a shipwreck found in the Gulf of Mexico.
Deep in the briny waters of the gulf, the timepiece’s round face marked with Roman numerals -- spotted in live images transmitted by a robotic vehicle – delighted scientists spending much of this week remotely exploring a debris field from what apparently was a disaster at sea in the early 1800s.
As the darkened control room at Texas A&M Galveston echoed with scientists’ voices crying out “That’s a chronometer!” and “No way!,” a computer monitor showed what looked like the hand of a clock pointing toward numbers that ringed the round rim of the clock’s face.
“Now, that’s cool!” said Kim Faulk, the marine archeologist whose routine survey work for Shell Oil & Gas led to the shipwrecks’ discovery.
The distinctive timepiece deepened archeologists’ suspicions that nobody escaped the lost vessel alive. Under anything but an extreme emergency, they suspect, sailors leaving the ship during that era would almost certainly have taken the clock, a valuable piece of nautical equipment.
The clock is only one of the latest discoveries from a debris field found about 175 miles off the coast of Galveston in 2011. Images beamed back from the site show the ghostly remains of three ships that marine archeologists believe sank about two centuries ago.
“This, we believe, is a telescope,” said Dr. Steve Gittings of National Marine Sanctuaries with NOAA, pointing toward a picture transmitted from the shipwreck. “Right here, with the glass lenses broken out of it, probably because of pressure when the ship sank.”
Anchors, dishes, bottles, jars and navigation tools have all been found in the wreckage scattered around the three separate sites. Last year, a salvage expedition launched with remote controlled robots brought a trove of artifacts to the surface, including some sealed glass containers carrying bright yellow samples of spices used to treat seasickness.
The largest ship was armed with cannon and other gear that led historians to theorize it was a privateer – a sort of mercenary pirate ship contracted by a government – that had taken control of the two smaller vessels, one of which carried valuable hides and tallow. The convoy, they suspect, was headed for a friendly port when it befell some sort of deadly disaster.
“That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?” said Faulk. “It’s hard to say what happened. All three ships are certainly within visual sight of one another. It’s entirely likely that they all could’ve gone down in the same storm.”
None of the ships bear any evidence of a fire or a battle at sea, although the area was routinely patrolled by pirates commanded by the notorious Jean Lafitte, who openly used Galveston as a base of operation.
Next week, the robotic vehicle will explore another site that archeologists believe may be location of a fourth shipwreck.