Underwater robots exploring shipwrecks that sank centuries ago off the coast of Galveston have discovered something scientists never expected to find: a strangely shaped structure that s basically a spectacular tar ball.

Inside a command center at Texas A&M Galveston, a team of archeologists, marine biologists and other experts have been coordinating the exploration of three sunken ships lying beneath more than a mile of seawater roughly 175 miles off the Texas coast. Artifacts discovered on the sites include anchors, dishes, cannon and even a clock apparently lost in some sort of disaster at sea about two centuries ago.

Another site spotted by scientists appeared to be another shipwreck, but cameras mounted on underwater vehicles discovered something else.

It looked like a shipwreck, said Thomas Heathman, a marine biology student working on the project. Definitely. And then once we get down there, we see this structure that we ve never seen before. Never seen anything like it in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Viewed from above, the discovery looked something like a display of black palm fronds shooting up from the floor of the Gulf. Clinging to the structure was a plethora of colorful marine life.

At first, they thought it must have been a man-made object. But as their underwater cameras beamed back pictures of the blackened structure and the creatures thriving around it, they came to the conclusion it was essentially a solidified eruption from an underwater volcano of asphalt.

Imagine that this would be like a big piece of molten tar, said William Kiene, a regional scientist with NOAA s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. And as it gets to the surface and it comes in contact with the cold water, it would solidify. So it came up in this very peculiar shape, like a lily. When we see something like that, we just blurt out these odd names. So we come up with this: Tar Lily.

Geologists and marine biologists were excited by the discovery, but nobody would blame the marine archeologists in the group for being disappointed. A fourth shipwreck might have provided more tantalizing clues about the mystery behind that doomed convoy.

Archeologists theorize the largest of the ships might have been a privateer, a sort of pirate vessel authorized by a government to plunder the ships of other countries. One of the smaller vessels apparently carried hides and tallow, which would have been valuable booty.

The other vessel is an even bigger mystery, because there s no remaining evidence of any cargo, leading some people working on the project to theorize it might well have carried animals and possibly even slaves.

One expedition last year brought some artifacts to the surface, including some bottles containing bright yellow samples of ginger that was apparently used to treat seasickness. Even though it was sealed inside glass, the ginger s spicy smell still emanated from the box that carried it to the surface.

Another expedition to retrieve newly discovered artifacts, including navigation tools and that antique clock sitting at the bottom of the Gulf, is expected next year.

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