The Monterrey Shipwreck: Artifact Recovery

Herc bottle
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


  1. Herb Hanselmann
    Indianapolis IN
    July 22, 2013, 8:00 pm

    Thanks for the details about use of robotic manipulators, concerns for conditions & artifacts, & how operators adapt. Very interesting!