Dig This

A salvage operation in Matagorda Bay unearths a bureaucratic feud.

FIVE HUNDRED YARDS leeward of Matagorda Peninsula, beneath twelve feet of Matagorda Bay and two feet of silt, lies La Belle, sailed by French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and run aground by a storm in 1686. When state marine archaeologist Barto Arnold and a team from the Texas Historical Commission (THC) identified the wreck in July 1995, it was said to be one of the most important finds on the continent. There’s only one problem: The excavation of the ship, which finally began this summer, may be illegal—or at least that’s what a General Land Office official has suggested.

The story begins nineteen months before La Belle was discovered. On December 20, 1993, the Houston Chronicle reported on page one that two officials of the THC had accused the General Land Office (GLO) of granting commercial leases on Texas land without their say-so. According to Texas’ strict Antiquities Code, the THC is supposed to assess the impact of all projects on state property before allowing a salvage or recovery operation to go forward. Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, a self-described preservationist, was stung by the rebuke and hired a former U.S. Forest Service archaeologist, Bob Skiles, to serve as the GLO’s staff archaeologist. Skiles was charged with improving communication between the two agencies, and for a while, he did just that.

But on July 13, 1995, the very day Arnold and his team hauled up an ornate seven-hundred-pound bronze canon from La Belle, Skiles fired a shot of his own. In a six-page in-house memo, he noted that the THC may be violating the Antiquities Code: Even though La Belle rests in a submerged stretch owned by the Texas Permanent School Fund, the THC had not applied for an antiquities permit. “Without this essential requirement, the landowner has no opportunity for review of projects,” Skiles wrote, adding that the GLO might want to get the state attorney general involved. In a second memo, dated August 8, 1995, Skiles further suggested the THC was operating “in a secretive manner” and obstructing the GLO’s “oversight role.”

A year later, the THC still has no antiquities permit. Arnold maintains that a permit is unnecessary, since the THC is the agency that grants them in the first place and has long conducted digs without them. “We don’t grant permits to ourselves,” he says. But according to Skiles, at least one THC official recognized the potential problem. He wrote in his first memo that Timothy Perttula, the assistant director of the THC’s Department of Antiquities Protection, told him that he “had informed Barto that an antiquities permit was necessary.”

All Perttula will say today is that “we had discussions” and “the matter has been resolved.” Skiles says he doesn’t want to make trouble and remains on cordial terms with the THC. So the dig goes on. The GLO has no plans to pursue the matter, and Mauro is quick to point out that Skiles was speaking for himself, not the agency. “I’m tickled to death they found the ship,” he says, “and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let somebody drag me into a turf battle.”

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