CAT Scan On Possible Shipwreck Artifact Inconclusive

Aug 30, 2013

Results of an unusual CAT scan performed at the hospital in Gaylord last weekend are inconclusive. A wooden beam recovered from Lake Michigan was tested at Otsego Memorial Hospital. The goal was to find out if it could be old enough to be from the Griffin, a ship that went missing while sailing the Great Lakes in 1679. 

The Wood Gets A CAT Scan
It took a lot of effort to get this 19.6 inch piece of timber into the CAT scan at Otsego Memorial Hospital last weekend.  It arrived soaking wet and wrapped in wet blankets to prevent rot. Six men,  handling the beam with rubber gloves, laid the wood through the hole of a machine designed to hold the human body. The beam’s  weight was more than 400 pounds.

The scan brought up images of the rings inside the log, a nice alternative to cutting it open to see the same thing.  Ideally at least 75 tree rings would be visible. That way there’d be a good chance a Cornell University scientist could figure out if the log was old enough to have been from Robert de La Salle’s famous ship.

Steve Libert is the man who has been searching for La Salle’s ship, the Griffin, for over three decades, the man who fought the state of Michigan to be able to excavate the site where he found the wood. He found the wood sticking up out of the bottom of Lake Michigan in 2001 at a site off the coast of Upper Michigan’s Garden Peninsula.

“Without this test today, people would still be asking why this hasn’t been done.  Well we did it,” said Libert, on Saturday at the hospital in Gaylord. Libert won’t say how much this procedure has set his group back. But over the years he’s spent at least a million dollars personally in search of the wreck.

Inconclusive Results
Already Saturday, the news wasn’t promising. To get the age of the tree, they’d probably need more information than the scan provided. It turned up only 29 tree rings.

“I’m not disappointed, but I came in this knowing it’s going to be a long shot,” said Libert.

On Thursday, Cornell University dendrochronologist Carol Griggs sent IPR an email that was no more promising. Griggs said her official report won’t be available for another month, but due to the limited number of tree rings, she knows already that report will be inconclusive. This means her data analysis will not be able to prove that the wooden artifact was old enough to have come from the Griffin.

Griggs says she can tell the wood is from  a young tree, about 30 years old when it was cut down. But she can’t tell when it was cut -- and that’s the big question. Tests done so far show it could have been manufactured as far back as 1660. But it could as easily have been milled in 1950.

Libert remains convinced he’s uncovered an important artifact that’s hundreds of years old. “There’s no questions it’s a bowsprit.  There’s no question.  And it’s a very old vessel,” he said Saturday.

A bowsprit is the pole that sticks out in the front of a ship, hanging over the sea. It provides stability to its vessel.

There are aspects of joints used in wooden shipbuilding, Libert says. There’s a sticky substance he says was used to keep water out. He also says one end is just the right size to hold the Griffin’s flag staff.

“Now I’m not the expert but I’ve talked to the experts,” Libert said while pointing out these features.

Questions Raised
Libert is not alone in thinking this is the bowsprit of the Griffin. French archaeologists who were on site when it was recovered said they had every reason to believe it was just that. But not everyone is so convinced.

“It’s really exciting to have stumbled on something that suggests ship construction… but it just doesn’t fit,” says Charles Patrick Labadie. He’s worked at a number of Great Lakes maritime museums and is a scholar on shipping.

Labadie says there’s a joint on the artifact that you wouldn’t find on a bowsprit.  He thinks the piece of timber in question is more likely a part of pole staked into the ground and commonly used to hold up fishing nets in the 1800s. That could help explain why it was found sticking up like a candle in a birthday cake. Explorers had hoped this meant it was attached to a ship -- but it wasn’t.

The Ultimate Test
Explorer Steve Libert intends now to do more age testing on the wood. This time by drilling to take actual samples from the core. And this fall he’s planning to go back out in the water.

“Still we have to go back out and find the rest of the ship. And I’m pretty sure I know where to look, within about 3 – 5 football fields,” Libert said last Saturday.

Finding the ship is the real test, after all. Inconclusive results about the age of this piece of wood is one thing, but inconclusive results after investing decades into a search, that's an outcome Steve Libert seems unwilling to take.