La Belle, measuring less than 20 meters on deck and armed with only six 4-pounder cannon and eight swivel guns, would not have been considered a very significant naval vessel in the French navy of the 1680's. In fact, it is among the smallest vessels listed in the surviving French naval records of the decade (AR 1689:1L3-20 fol.24v–25r). However, La Belle's small size does not diminish its archaeolgical value.
La Belle took part in the French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's seaborne expedition to the Gulf of Mexico whose goal was to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi river. This ill fated expedition was an important event in the history of the exploration and colonization of the Gulf of Mexico region. La Belle was constructed in the French naval yard of Rochefort in 1684, the year the expedition sailed, and was the only vessel remaining with the expedition until it was lost in 1686 in Matagorda Bay on the coast of present day Texas.
The story of the expedition, and La Belle's role in it, is well documented in historical records like the expedition chronicle (1684 to 1687) of Henri Joutel (Foster 1998) and has been extensively studied by both historians and archaeologists (Foster 1998; Weddle 1991; 2001; Bruseth and Turner 2005). To a great extent it is the wealth of the artifact assemblage discovered and excavated (1996 to 1997) within the remains of La Belle's hull, and not the hull itself, that shed further light on La Salle's expedition and similar colonization efforts.
However, from a modrn day perspective, La Belle is a treasure for the study of ship design and construction. The preservation of a large percentage of articulated hull, along with many rigging elements, has allowed archaeologists and naval historians to reliably reconstruct the vessel's overall appearance and structure (Boudriot 2000; Corder 2007; Grieco 2003). This work in itself makes an important contribution to French naval history as well as to the overall history of ship construction. But unexpectedly, La Belle's hull remains yielded an additional treasure: shipwrights' marks that provide direct evidence of how the vessel was designed (Figure 1, 2, 3).
Throughout most of the history of shipbuilding, one of the main challenges for shipwrights has been how to quantify—capture—the complex curvature of hulls. In other words, how do shipwrights determine measurements for the curves of the vessel prior to actually defining the hull shape in three dimensions with timber? If making such a predetermination is one of the great challenges for ship construction, then determining how shipwrights accomplished this feat on the basis of archaeological remains is one of the great mysteries for ship reconstruction. NEXT
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