National Geographic : 1997 May
(f(t was archaeol ogy by braille," says Chuck S_ Meide, who groped through Matagorda's muddy waters to find the first of three ornate bronze cannon recovered from the Belle -proof of her identity. Each bears the name Le Comte de Vermandois (right), illegiti mate son of Louis XIV. In 1669 the king appointed him admiral of France -at age two. Meide was part of a team led by marine archaeologist Barto Arnold, who found the Belle by scanning the bay for magnetic anomalies caused by iron in the wreckage. Arnold knew roughly where to look. In 1687 a Span iard wrote of a wreck with "three fleurs-de-lis on her poop" near what is now Matagorda Peninsula. Shrimpers had snagged nets there for decades. To simplify excavation in the silty bay, the Texas Historical Commission-in charge of the wreck's recovery-had a coffer dam built around the Belle (be low) and had the water pumped out. "It is the first dry-land excavation of an offshore wreck in this hemisphere," says project director Jim Bruseth. For Belle's archaeologists it is a 15-mile boat trip from their warehouse-dorm in Palacios to the wreck. Inside "the pit" Belle's oak ribs peeked through gray mud, her planking sloped to starboard. Wood casks lay in a jumble, and everywhere was a sense of human hands-in the nested cook pots, the coiled ropes, the numbers carved into Belle's timbers by a shipwright. She was surprisingly small only 51 by 14 feet, according to records discovered last year by historical archaeologist John de Bry. Yet her loss was incalcula ble to La Salle's colonists: It left them adrift in a hostile land.