Shipwreck: The Contents of Apothecary Jars Found in the Belle

In the spring of 1686, the great explorer René-Robert de la Salle set sail from France with four ships and some 300 crewmen and colonists toward the mouth of the Mississippi in order to establish forts and other outposts to counter the influence of Spain in the new world. La Salle was confident in his abilities, having just (in 1682) claimed the Louisiana territories for France. Unfortunately, this new expedition failed – his ships either sank, or in the case of the Belle, ran aground. After 350 years the Belle was finally discovered at the bottom of Matagorda Bay, near Corpus Christie, Texas. He had missed the Mississippi by some 400 miles. Investigation of this underwater site by archeologists from the Texas Historical Commission uncovered 12 sealed intact ceramic apothecary jars and their contents. For more information concerning this important and exciting underwater site, go to The archeologists who made the find were eager that the contents of these jars be identified. The organic contents from eight of these jars were sent to SCMRE for identification – after 315 years of resting in salt water. These samples were subjected to analysis by FTIR, GC-MS, light microscopy and SEM. We have partially identified the contents of six of the apothecary jars.

For example, the contents of one jar (Sample #12-45) consisted of an undifferentiated dark organic mass whose infrared spectrum, collected using an FTIR microscope and spectrophotometer, indicated that the sample was most likely a balsamic resin, probably used as a balm or rubbing compound. Another (Sample #12-49) produced an FTIR spectrum indicating that it was likely composed of calcium stearate. This was confirmed by subjecting the same sample to mass spectrometry probably used as a lubricant on sutures. Further confirming analyses, as well as the analysis of further specimens, is continuing.

The results of the analyses and description of these contents are compared to the pharmaceuticals available in France during this time period, and constitute our presentation.