Without the aid of historical documents, there would be much greater uncertainty in deciphering design from archaeological evidence. The earliest historical documents that begin to provide some insight into how shipwrights quantified hull curvature are from fifteenth-century Italy (Alertz 1995; 2009; Bondioli 2003; Dotson 1994; McGee 2009; McManamon 2001; Rieth 1996). Italian documents dominate till the appearance of English, Spanish, and Portuguese works in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century and then a proliferation of works in various European shipbuilding traditions through the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Anderson 1924; 1947; Dotson 1994). The earliest French documents relating to ship design also appear in the seventeenth century (Boudriot 1994:10–14; Rieth 2001:260–261; 2003b:75).

Once the hull remains were positively identified as those of La Belle, historical records such as naval archives and correspondence were searched for documents specifically relating to its design and construction. One particular document discovered by John de Bry (Bruseth and Turner 2005:66) is extremely important in reconstructing La Belle's original shape and system of design. Known in French as a devis, this document lists 18 of La Belle's key dimensions and is signed by several shipwrights and naval administrators at Rochefort (Figure 17) (AR 1684a:1L3-19 fol.88v–89r; Boudriot 2000:36–37; Bruseth and Turner 2005:66–67, 69–70). This devis not only provides an opportunity to compare the historically recorded measurements with the archaeological remains, but it also gives critical information for reconstructing the hull beyond the levels of preservation.

While La Belle's devis provides an insight as to what were considered the key dimensions for the vessel's design, early on in the study of La Belle's remains it became obvious that while some measurements are exactly the same as those of the devis, others are close, and some are completely different. The design presented in this study is of the "archaeological" La Belle; discrepancies with the devis will be identified and an attempt will be made to explain the reasons for these discrepancies. Understanding the reasons for the discrepancies enabled the use of measurements for unpreserved parts of the hull with more confidence. The measurements in the devis are given in French feet. Since it is definitively known and archaeologically confirmed that this was the base unit used in La Belle's design and construction, measurements in this essay are only given in historic French feet (equivalent to .32484 m).

La Belle's devis does not explicitly mention surmarks or their use, but other devis with very similar lists of measurements are associated with drafts that exhibit multiple oblique straight lines in the body plan, such as those defined by La Belle's surmarks. NEXT