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Shipwreck expedition discovers ship's timepiece silent for 2 centuries

Recent deepwater archaeological dives uncover key artifact

Recent deepwater archaeological dives have uncovered a key artifact that may shed more light on three mysterious shipwrecks off the Texas coast.

Using undersea robots, satellites and the Internet to send live video from the seafloor to audiences ashore, the team of marine archaeologists discovered a ship's chronometer during the three-day Gulf of Mexico expedition. It was a partnership among multiple organizations.

Officials said this was just the latest discovery made as part of the Gulf of Mexico expedition by the Okeanos Explorer, an NOAA ship. The expedition headed back to investigate another potential shipwreck site Thursday.

"These sites never fail to amaze as to the preservation of the artifacts and what we continue to find intact on the sites," said Meadows Center underwater archaeologist Fritz Hanselmann. "Artifacts such as this chronometer serve as a tangible connection to our past and shed light on aspects of history that are unknown."

Last Thursday, pilots guided camera-laden undersea robots called remotely operated vehicles over the seafloor 200 miles off Galveston as scientists at sea and ashore directed the cameras to comb the remains of a shipwreck believed to be from the early 1800s, officials said.

From an Exploration Command Center in Silver Spring, Md., Frank Cantelas, a marine archaeologist, spotted a partly buried circular object on the live video.

Cantelas, his colleague, James Delgado, and other scientists were commenting on views of a ship's octant -- a navigator's measuring instrument -- that was nearly buried in sediment except for its mirrors, officials said.

Cantelas then spotted this other object a few feet away. When the ROV's cameras zeroed in, scientists were amazed to see the ancient timepiece. An expedition a year ago had missed the ship's chronometer, officials said.

"Do you see a dial and a hand inside the circle as well?" Delgado asked the team that day.

As the camera zoomed in, a scientist in Galveston added, "You can see Roman numerals."

The chronometer's hand appeared to be pointing to 6:30, officials said.

In Mississippi, Jack Irion, a regional historic preservation officer with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the chronometer's discovery was rare and significant. While other evidence from the wreck suggests the ship predates 1825, it was unusual for merchant ships to have such an expensive instrument, officials said.

"For this to appear on a merchant ship in the Gulf of Mexico at this early date is extraordinary," Irion said.

A British carpenter perfected the design for the chronometer in 1761 -- a clock that could keep accurate time on a rolling ship at sea so that sailors could determine their position by measuring the angle of the sun relative to high noon in Greenwich, England. University officials said the devices were so expensive initially that few ships carried them. It wasn't until 1825 that British Royal Navy ships carried chronometers.

"This chronometer is an object worthy of scientific recovery, preservation treatment to reverse the corrosive effects of two centuries in the sea, detailed study and eventually, display in a museum," said Delgado.

Thus far during this expedition, there have been more than 490,000 views from shore of live streaming video from the seafloor.