When he talks at great length about his research into music archaeology, Philadelphia native and musical composer Mark Howell may lose his audience on the details, but his passion for his work and how it relates to his own creativity captivates even the least informed.

While most folks are familiar with La Salle's famous 1682 exploration of the Mississippi River, one might not know too much about his ill-fated ship called the Belle, which sank two years later near Matagorda Bay, Texas, while part of a mission to establish a French colony near the mouth of the Mississippi.

What does Howell and a 17th century flagship have in common?

Lost ancient music.

In 1995, divers discovered the Belle below the surface of the bay, which eventually led to an archaeological study of the wreckage conducted by the Texas State Historical Commission.

Barrels of trade materials were excavated from the wreckage, including numerous bells which Howell would eventually study.

While Howell and his wife, Stephanie, were on an amateur excavation at a mound site a few years ago in the Delta, they met Mississippi archaeologist John Connaway, who was conducting a study of the trade bells.

The conversation ended with Howell, who was living in New York at the time, agreeing to compile an acoustic analysis of the La Salle Trading Bells, hence the name of his published findings.

Howell returned to Mississippi during two separate summers to make recordings of the bells as part of his analysis.

An instrumentalist and composer himself, Howell became intrigued with lost ancient music years earlier while in graduate school, traveling to numerous far away lands, including Guatemala to study ancient Maya music.

His goal was to replicate other people's ideas and work them into his own compositions.

His findings on the La Salle bells were published in the proceedings from the fifth symposium of the International Study Group on Music Archaeology which he attended in Berlin last month as a member.

His analysis found an octave preference in the bells among other points.

Bells similar to these have been found in the native burials in Natchez, his findings showed.

Howell returned to Mississippi not long ago when he was named director of Winterville Mounds near Greenville.

Twelve of the site's largest mounds, including the 55-foot-high Temple Mound, are currently the focus of a long-range preservation plan being developed by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the University of Mississippi's Center for Archaeological Research.

The Mounds, an official state historic site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is traditionally rich in archaeological history that makes Howell a perfect fit as director.

The son of Millie and Boots Howell, Howell graduated from Philadelphia High School. From there he studied music at the University of Southern Mississippi and then it was off to New York. He holds a masters in fine art in music composition from State University of New York and a doctorate in ethnomusicology from the City University in New York.

Howell left Mississippi for New York in 1982 after reconnecting with a past acquaintance who agreed to sub-let him his apartment.

"I left Southern and went to New York to get in the professional music business," he said. "It worked out pretty good. I was making a living after about 10 years, touring in Europe and the states."

Howell left for New York with $1,000 in his pocket and a punch list of things to accomplish within five years, the top of which was to make a recording and travel Europe, he said.

"I thought if I was there for five years that meant I was going to stay," he said.

He later taught at Hunter College and Fordham University in New York.

Howell, who has lectured widely during his career, is the recipient of many awards and other honors. He has performed throughout the country as well as in Europe.