A team of Texas A&M University researchers will soon be recovering artifacts from a 200-year-old shipwreck that lies more than 4,000 feet beneath the Gulf of Mexico, making it the deepest such recovery effort ever attempted in the gulf.

The $4.8 million project, funded by the Okeanos Gas Gathering Company, will begin today (May 22) says William Bryant, professor of oceanography, and Donny Hamilton, professor of anthropology at Texas A&M. Peter Hitchcock, a doctoral student and team leader of the project, says the vessel could be one of the most historically significant shipwrecks found in the gulf.

The recovery effort is named the "Mardi Gras Shipwreck Project" after a gas pipeline in the area. While the work has been an ongoing effort for the researchers over the past two years, the fieldwork phase of the project is just beginning as the team prepares to work southwest of the Louisiana coast where the Mississippi River flows into the gulf.

Ten researchers from Texas A&M and its Department of Oceanography and Center for Maritime Archaeology will participate in the effort, as well as members of the Minerals Management Service, a division of the Department of the Interior. The group anticipates the fieldwork to be completed in about a month and an announcement of their findings could come in late June.

"This will be the first academic excavation of a deepwater shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico," Bryant explains. "The waters are much too deep for human diving, so we use remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to retrieve objects we find. We want to stress that at this time we are focusing our efforts on retrieving items and artifacts visible on the surface, and do not plan to excavate the entire hull."

The vessel's identity and origin remain a mystery, Hitchcock adds.

Based on analysis of video documentation from previous visits to the site, the artifacts scattered on the seafloor suggest it was likely from the late 1700s or early 1800s, he notes.

"We can see a cannon, a box of weapons, navigational instruments, plates and bottles, but there really is no way to tell what else is down there," he adds.

Ultimately, the team hopes the fieldwork and conservation that follows will answer the questions surrounding the ship and provide a better understanding of its historical context.

The project will be extensively recorded and a documentary film about it is planned, the organizers say.

The team has contracted with a private firm to use the recovery ship Toisa Vigilant leased by Veolia Environmental Services. Once the artifacts are recovered and conserved at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M, they will be delivered to the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. Eventually, many of the objects will be displayed by the Louisiana State Museum.

"This is an exciting time for us, but also very challenging," adds Bryant, who has conducted such underwater efforts for more than 40 years.

"At this depth, the pressure is about 1,700 pounds per cubic inch. The next few weeks are going to be interesting, to say the least."

A website hosted by the Florida Public Archaeology Network will provide regular updates on the expedition. It can be viewed at http://www.flpublicarchaeology.org/mardigras/.