Internship at the Texas Historical Commission: My Experience Diving into the Marine Archeology Program
In the Spring of 2018, I was an intern for the Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) Marine Archeology Program under the direction of Amy Borgens, State Marine Archeologist, and Sarah Linden, Marine Archeologist and Diving Safety Officer for the division. This report is to describe the marine archeology program’s role within the THC, to narrate my experience as an intern through projects I took part in, as well as what I learned from these experiences.
Texas Historical Commission
As noted by the Texas Historical Commission’s web page for marine archeology, “The State Marine Archeologist is responsible for the protection, preservation, and investigation of historic shipwrecks and other submerged sites in all state-owned waters of Texas. As part of this work, the Marine Archeology Program maintains an ever increasing inventory of these wrecks, investigates known wrecks, and reviews development projects in state waters for possible impact to historic shipwrecks” (Texas Historical Commission 2018). This mission has been the goal of the marine program since its inauguration (or first hired marine archeologist) in 1972, and a role that current
State Marine Archeologist Amy Borgens and Diving Safety Officer Sarah Linden, have taken to heart. During my time as their intern, I came to greatly respect the hard work and dedication these two women have put into this program, as well as their future goals for the division itself.
The THC is spread across multiple locations throughout Austin, Texas. I ventured between two particular locations during my internship: the THC’s main office on Colorado Street and one of the THC’s labs. Both spaces are restricted access, due to the nature of the equipment, material, and data within. As such, my roles varied depending on the location: most data entry work, such as creating site forms for the TexSite database, conducting research for on-hand shipwreck data, and logging artifacts within a project database require the office on Colorado Street. The lab work, where I documented artifacts for lab records and also tried my hand at one-to-one scale drawings of various artifacts from the Monterrey, Miles, and the Pass Cavallo shipwrecks, respectively, took place mostly the THC lab. In between these projects, I was thoroughly educated on the role that the Marine Archeology Program plays in documenting and preserving the numerous historic shipwrecks that are an intrical part of Texas history. This documentation includes the oft overlooked – but incredibly important – role of review and compliance that I will detail next.
Review and Compliance
The majority of Mrs. Borgens and Ms. Linden’s work is reviewing projects submitted to them by corporations, individual archeologists, and other agencies — or what is officially termed as “Review and Compliance.” These cultural resource management reviews are mandated by state and federal laws, such as the Antiquities Code of Texas and the National Historic Preservation Act, and require further research by the team to decide whether or not historic sites will be impacted by the proposal.
For example, during the Texas City Channel Improvement Project, which required dredging (or clearing) after Hurricane Ike in the Port of Galveston, the shipwreck USS Westfield was discovered. This discovery required further action to be taken by both the Army Corps of Engineers and the THC, as well as her other allied partners. Multiple permits had to be drafted and approved before any action could be taken on the project: to dive on the site required a permit, to use non-invasive technology such as magnetometers (a sort of high-powered underwater metal detector) and side-scan sonars required a permit and excavation was a separate series of permits. In short, a lot of paperwork was involved just to gain access, see, let alone excavate, the USS Westfield.
During my internship, I studied proposals such as these as well as the finished, published reports by environmental consulting firms to create TexSite forms. TexSite is a database for Texas archeological sites both marine and terrestrial, that once forms are completed and finalized are then sent for approval to the Texas Archeological Research Lab (TARL). From there, TARL updates the public database so that these new shipwreck sites (or terrestrial sites) are available for public use, as well as the Texas Archeological Database (TAD), which is for registered archeologists only.
I worked on several TexSite forms for the database, but for me the Bob Hall Pier shipwreck carries the most importance, as Mrs. Borgens gave me the opportunity to name the shipwreck. This isn’t the usual course of action for TexSite forms. Shipwrecks, or possible sites of shipwrecks, are usually named after the ship itself. If, however, the ship is unknown, its “new” name is usually derived from where the ship was found, as was in the case of the Bob Hall.
The Bob Hall was exposed by Hurricane Beulah in 1967 and “claimed” by three treasure hunters in the Padre Island area. By the time the THC arrived at the location several days later, the ship had been mostly covered by sand and tide. Only secondhand reports by the treasure hunters could be taken into account, including the artifacts they supposedly discovered: human bones, oxidized pieces of silver, musket balls, beeswax, and Spanish river rock that created the ballast system for the “Spanish nao” they proposed the Bob Hall had to be.
From newspaper archives both in paper and online, this information was pulled in to create the TexSite form. Data included in this form was the shipwreck’s approximate location, soil description, mapping methods, information on the informants of the site, sources, and any reasons as to why further investigation is or isn’t possible, as well as hazards to the site itself. Much of the Bob Hall form has been placed in hypotheticals, due to little to no concrete evidence for any of the claims made by the treasure hunters. Evidence can only be gathered by field work, which I will discuss next.
Most aspiring archeologists dream that they will spend weeks or months out in the field at any given time, documenting historical finds in incredibly exotic places. I have to burst that bubble to say that in reality, field work is a lot of work. This cannot be more true than my experience I had with the THC during a long weekend of field work in Galveston Bay.
On April 8th, Mrs. (Amy) Borgens, Ms. (Sarah) Linden, Mr. (Jeff), Dorothy Rowland (a Texas A&M graduate student), and I headed for Galveston to accomplish two tasks: 1) to participate in a survey equipment workshop for the THC headed by Survey Equipment Services (SES); and 2) to get as much data on three Galveston concrete shipwrecks, all possibly dating to World War I (WWI). The second task was intrical both to Dorothy’s thesis and for further documentation for the THC on these shipwrecks. As Amy always says, “You can never have too much data!”
Our team hoped to use the side-scan sonar and the magnetometer (or “mag”) to gather data for Dorothy’s graduate thesis, but due to our inability to access HyPack remotely, only the side scan sonar could be used. To steal the definition from the HyPack website, this “is a Windows based software package used primarily for hydrographic surveying and data processing” (HYPACK 2018). Without HyPack, the magnetometer is of no use.
The side-scan sonar (also lovingly called “the fish”) is frequently used in marine archeology to detect debris or destructions on the seafloor, which makes it incredibly helpful to find shipwrecks. Using sound pulses aimed in a wide angle, the “echoes” that are received are pieced together to form an image of the ocean floor. For our purposes, we towed the “fish” behind the boat to eliminate the creation of false “echoes”. This required constant lifting and hauling of the towfish as we conducted our survey to prevent the equipment from hitting the seafloor thus damaging a very expensive piece of equipment. Data plotted from the side-scan sonar was used to aid the photography compiled from all of our outings, the first of which was to visit the SS Selma.
The first ship that we visited was the SS Selma. Constructed in 1918, she is a concrete WWI oil tanker repurposed as a merchant vessel. She lived a short life – only a year – before wrecking in a jetty off of Tampico, Mexico. After doing “band-aid” repairs of the ship and determining she was beyond repair, Selma was intentionally scuttled (or run aground) in a shallow area of Galveston Bay. She is composed entirely of concrete and reinforced steel, steam propelled, and was estimated to be 425 feet long before her grounding. Her importance to Texas history is that she was part of the experimental techniques used during Texas’ WWI shipbuilding efforts, as were all of the ships we visited that weekend. Metal shortages during the war were expected, so many techniques both modern, such as concrete, and traditional, such as wood, were used as part of the EFC (Emergency Fleet Corporation). After the armistice had been enacted between the Allies and Germany, contracts for vessels had been terminated, leaving many ships unfinished. Most were eventually abandoned in the Sabine and other East Texas Rivers. “This is believed to be the second-largest collection of abandoned EFC vessels in the U.S., after the Mallow Bay “Ghost Fleet” in Maryland’s Potomac River” (Borgens and Rowland 2017, 4).
The second shipwreck site we visited that weekend was on the north side of the jetty, also in Galveston Bay. After navigating through incredibly rough water around the jetty, I learned the hard and very painful way why it’s always imperative to maintain “three points of contact” while on a vessel. Due to inclement weather (rain, fog, and high tide) we couldn’t add further documentation about the site either through photography or the side-scan sonar. What Dorothy was able to gather from the brief visit was that this was possibly the SS Dismore, another concrete shipwreck from the World War I era. She had been intentionally grounded as a breakwater off the Texas coast around 1921, but more evidence, and better weather, will be needed in the future to gain any further information about this site.
The third and final shipwreck turned out to be a confusing character, as she is composed – to our eyes – with steel, and no concrete reinforcements could be seen. According to the THC’s shipwreck database, she is a whaleback tanker, but our team remains doubtful of that theory. If she is the Durham as history would suggest, she would have been built in Port Aransas in 1919. But as she had a rounded hull — which makes for terrible sailing — it is of little surprise that by 1925 she was no longer in service. Durham was reportedly sunk for use as a fishing pier off the Galveston coast, but her exact location was always uncertain (Borgens and Rowland 2017, 4). Without diving on the wreck itself, not much can be said of the wreck for certain.
As we wrapped up our weekend trip, Amy and Dorothy reminded me of how important it is in archeology to conduct thorough research and to learn about all the equipment that marine archeologists use to make research in their field possible. Research isn’t conducted in a vacuum: it requires connecting with others in the field, and there was no better way to meet professional archeologists than to attend one of their talks. Next, I will briefly describe my experience with the Texas A&M University’s Shipwreck Weekend, where I got to meet one of the founders of modern marine archeology, Mr. George F. Bass, and how important public outreach is to this young field.
Insert Figure 7. “Intern meeting George Bass, founder of the Institute of Nautical Archeology, at Texas A&M University’s (TAMU) Shipwreck Weekend.”
Just to briefly summarize the long list of George F. Bass’ accomplishments, he is instrumental in bringing the science of terrestrial archeology into the field of marine archeology. He implemented underwater grids for excavation, which are similar to those conducted on terrestrial surveys, but with more stable PVC pipe instead of string; and changed how we look at thousands of years of human history thanks to his excavations in the waters of the Mediterranean. He is also the founder of the Institute of Nautical Archeology (INA), which is a non-profit research organization devoted to not only documenting historical shipwrecks but also publishing its findings for the public audience (Institute of Nautical Archeology 2018).
During TAMU’s Shipwreck Weekend, George F. Bass and representatives of the INA were present after Kimberly Kenyon’s talk about Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Describing her conservation work and the project’s findings to a packed auditorium, Mrs. Kenyon (herself a former TAMU graduate) reiterated how pirates can still draw in a crowd hundreds of years after their deaths. During her talk, what stuck with me the most was that to date, only two “pirate” ships have been excavated, let alone discovered. There are many reasons why this is so: pirates did not visibly advertise the name of their ships, both to avoid detection (and thus termination) by royal navies, as well as to surprise their prey; and they kept little to no records to speak of. A more modern reason as to this scarcity is twofold: difficulty and expense.
Unlike terrestrial archeology, the difficulty in accessing most “sites” within marine archeology has prevented many discoveries from taking place. Even within Texas, and despite our robust state marine archeology program, most sites in our database haven’t been dived on, let alone excavated. This is a common problem throughout the field: the shipwrecks are too remote, the excavations are too expensive. At most, a plank can be removed for wood analysis testing, such as the hull planking from the aforementioned USS Westfield. Rarely do full-scale excavations, such as the Queen Anne’s Revenge or the La Belle, take place, leaving the public only tantalizing glimpses of our past.
It is because of these brief glimpses into our past that marine archeology is so important. So much of human history was defined by our maritime exploits: the voyages to the “New World”, the North Atlantic slave trade, the naval battle of Trafalgar, Sir John Franklin’s failed expedition to find the Northwest Passage, the arrival of the Polynesians into present-day Hawai’i; all possible because of watercraft.
In the decades to come, and with the advent of new technology and burgeoning interest in a superbly young field of science and discovery, it is my sincere hope that we will begin to understand more completely the scope of our past. Public outreach is a necessity in overcoming this hurdle, and in the future I hope to do my part in adding my voice to the marine archeology community.
At the beginning of my internship, I wasn’t sure if the field of marine archeology was for me. But thanks to Amy Borgens’ enthusiastic love for Texas’ maritime history and Sarah Linden’s enduring patience during my open water scuba diving training, I have come to appreciate all that I learned about my state’s history and about the rigors of marine archeology itself. I plan to apply to graduate school programs for marine archeology next fall to continue my education, and I recommend this internship for anyone who is passionate about shipwrecks, Texas, and adventure.
Borgens, Amy, Dorothy Rowland. 2017. “Ship Shape.” The Medallion 55, no. 3 (Summer): 4. http://www.thc.texas.gov/public/upload/publications/2017-Summer-TheMedallion.pdf
HYPACK. 2018. “About us.” Accessed May 1, 2018. http://www.hypack.com/about-hypack/about-us
Institute of Nautical Archeology. 2018. “Introduction.” Accessed May 2, 2018. https://nauticalarch.org/introduction/
Naval Encyclopedia. N.d. “Renaissance ships.” Accessed May 2, 2018. http://www.naval-encyclopedia.com/renaissance-ships/
Texas Historical Commission. 2017. “Marine Archeology”. Last modified June 13, 2017. http://www.thc.texas.gov/preserve/projects-and-programs/marine-archeology.