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17th century shipwreck to be freeze dried

The remains of La Belle, a ship which sank in 1686, are set to be freeze dried in a massive dryer at Texas A&M university in a revolutionary new procedure.

Texas A&M University researchers working to restore the hull of La Belle, a light frigate recovered from its underwater grave, are using an unconventional method to preserve the pieces: a state-of-the-art freeze dryer big enough to hold a few head of cattle.

La Belle was carrying 43 people when it sank in Matagorda Bay in January 1686. The ship’s remains now lie in a vat of oily preservative on Texas A&M’s Riverside Campus, the former Bryan Air Force Base that serves as headquarters for research and related activities, including a division of the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation.

The massive freeze dryer, at 40 feet long with an 8-foot internal diameter, is the largest such machine for conservation use in the hemisphere, says Peter Fix, the maritime center’s assistant director and project conservator for the La Belle.

The instrument arrived Monday, and Fix plans to test some smaller pieces of other objects before dismantling the carefully tended timbers of La Belle and placing them in the cavernous cavity.

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