Archaeologists give tentative name to shipwreck

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Professional archaeologists may have finally solved the mystery behind a sunken steamboat in Bayou Bartholomew that has intrigued local residents for decades. 

This square-shaped nail is one of a handful of artifacts collected from a sunken steamboat in Bayou Bartholomew on Friday to be used in further research [Credit: Wes Helbling]

Dennis Jones with the state Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism, Division of Archaeology and Allen Saltus Jr. with Archaeological Research Inc. conducted the first formal study of the site Friday. 

As a result of their work, the sunken vessel can now be confirmed as a steamboat and will be recorded with the state archaeologist’s office. 

The shipwreck had been exposed for a few weeks during the recent drought. By Friday, the boat was once again submerged and buried in sand. 

Jones and Saltus determined the boat’s dimensions — close to 150 feet long and up to 17 feet wide — by marking the unseen perimeter with metal probes and then mapping it in sections via tape measure and graph. 

In addition to the size, Saltus, who specializes in underwater archaeology, found several hidden clues that may help identify the boat. 

“This vessel shows evidence of burning,” he said, noting a charred piece of cross planking that has become detached from the hull. 

Evidence of burning has caused past visitors to wonder if this could be the Jim Barkman, which was captured and burned by U.S. Col. E.D. Osband in 1865. Saltus noted the wreck is too large to be the Barkman, which only measured 93 feet in length. 

Saltus found the possible ruins of a metal boiler midship, and evidence at the stern to indicate this was a sternwheel boat. That rules out another proposed candidate, the Bastrop, which was a side-wheeler. 

“We’ve eliminated those two boats,” said Saltus. “Based on preliminary observations, I would say it fits the Big Horn.” 

According to published records, the Big Horn was a 312-ton sternwheeler built in New Albany, Ind. in 1865. Measuring 152 feet in length, the Big Horn sank in Bayou Bartholomew in 1873 after its lime cargo caught fire. 

Enterprise writer Paul Rawson, who visited the sunken boat in 1980 and became the first to document it, listed the Big Horn as one of several sinkings  recorded by Capt. Elisha Austin and published in the Monroe Bulletin in 1881. Austin had not recorded the locations of any of the sunken boats he named. 

Rawson writes of the Big Horn, “Since this was such a large boat it would be especially interesting to find the remains, although the resultant acids [from the lime] may have destroyed most of the boat.” 

Saltus emphasized the Big Horn is still a tentative candidate. Friday’s data and collected artifacts will be used in further historical research. 

Regional Archaeologist Dr. Joe Saunders and Poverty Point Assistant Station Archaeologist Fran Hamilton accompanied the team to the site. 

“It’s a different kind of archaeology,” said Saunders, who specializes in terrestrial studies. “The state does try to record these sites. They’ve provided important documentation that will help to protect [the boat] and maybe lead to future work here.” 

Author: Wes Helbling | Source: Bastrop Daily Enterprise [July 30, 2011]

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