Tinged green by age, copper sheathing from the disintegrated wooden hull of a newfound shipwreck sits deep in the Gulf of Mexico (map), where the craft sank as far back as 200 years ago. Despite clues found in surrounding artifacts—muskets, beer bottles, an anchor—the ship's exact age, origin, and purpose remain unknown.
To the right of the bow are two lead Roman numerals—now too twisted to decipher—which would have been used to gauge water displacement and prevent overloading.
A Venus flytrap anemone brings a pop of color to a murky pile of muskets found at the wreck site, roughly 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) down. The guns were probably once in a crate aboard the 19th-century ship.
The muskets, as well as several cannons (not pictured), bolster a theory that the ship may have been a privateer—an armed ship for hire—or a well-defended merchant ship.
According to Cantelas, the armaments beg the question: "What was going on in the Gulf of Mexico when the ship went down?"
The contents of the wreck, he added, indicate that the ship could have been involved in one of the conflicts at the time, such as the War of 1812 or possibly the Mexican-American War (1846-48).
Seen via the camera sled Seirios, the Little Hercules remotely operated vehicle (ROV) hovers over the ship's bow. The robot is casting light on an anchor that appears to be of a type patented around 1800, said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries.
Seirios was the source of one of three live video streams sent up to NOAA's Okeanos Explorership and then broadcast via satellite over the Internet.
This "telepresence" technology allows scientists on shore to participate in real time—for example to identify species or artifacts—and even to help "drive" the ROV to ripe targets (more on how the system works).
Photograph courtesy NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program
Now coated with sediment, ceramic plates and glassware hint at livelier days before the ship went down. The bottles would have held gin, stout, ale, porter, and wine. The plates were "likely creamware"—bone-colored pottery that was "a popular British export" in the early 19th century, said BOEM scientist Jack Irion.
Among the creamware at the Gulf of Mexico wreck site is a variety called pearl ware, in this case with scalloped, green-tinted edges—another British export widely distributed between 1800 and 1830.
The plates are among the clues to the wreck's age—assuming they were relatively new at the time of the sinking. It's possible, Irion said, that "the particular style found on the site is somewhat earlier in date."
Corals and sea anemones pepper the path of a brine pool snaking along the Gulf seafloor.
Captured during the April 2012 expedition but not near the shipwreck, the picture shows what happens when salt pushes up through sediment and rock on the seafloor, becoming highly concentrated as it dissolves.
The resulting brine, which is much heavier than seawater, flows at the bottom of the ocean in small lakes and streams.
Thanks to rusted but otherwise intact copper sheathing, the outline of the ship's bow remains recognizable.
Applied beneath the ship's waterline as protection against wood-boring organisms, the copper long outlasted the wood that scientists believe made up the vast majority of the hull.
Further investigation may help fill in the shape of the ship, said Cantelas, the archaeologist. For example, photo analysis or perhaps even a return trip could reveal "remnants of rigging to show where the masts were located," he said. "That will help us determine what kind of vessel it is, like a schooner or a brig or a sloop."