For three centuries, its contents lay on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico 35 miles off Key West, Fla.

But this December, artifacts from the Henrietta Marie - the only merchant- slave ship discovered in the Western Hemisphere - will go on display at the Museum of African-American History in Detroit."In terms of African-American history, the Henrietta Marie is like

finding Noah's Ark," said Madeleine Burnside, executive director of the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society in Key West, which organized the 12-city tour that debuts in Detroit Dec. 1. It will run through March 3.

"There are five other slave ships that have been located, but they have not been excavated, researched or documented like the Henrietta Marie," she said.

Famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher found the British ship in 1972 in 38 feet of water while searching for the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The Henrietta Marie sank - probably with all hands in a hurricane - on New Ground Reef in 1700.

The discovery yielded more than 7,500 artifacts, including the ship's bell, rare pewter, cannons, ivory and numerous iron shackles, including some for children.

"That we found the ship's bell with the ship's name and date on it is incredibly fortunate," Ms. Burnside said. "It meant we were able to do research to find out who the captain was, the shipowners, the crew and even the wills of the crewmembers.

"We know where it went in Africa and the people that were brought to the New World. It's just an amazingly significant find," she said.

Mr. Fisher donated the claim and all of the artifacts to the society

because of its historical significance. The society developed a 3,000-square- foot traveling exhibit of the ship.

The exhibit will explore the early history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its effect on the life and culture of Europe, west Africa and the New World.

The ship's first known voyage as a merchant-slaver was to west Africa and Barbados in 1697. It was refitted in London and set sail in September 1699 with a 20-member crew.

The ship sailed to the delta region of Nigeria and traded metal wares, firearms, textiles and spirits for ivory and enslaved Africans, mainly Igbo taken in battle or kidnapped for commerce.

The ship embarked on a 3 1/2-month voyage across the Atlantic with about 200 to 300 slaves packed below decks. One-third of the Africans probably died during the trip across the Atlantic from mistreatment, dehydration or disease caused by the filthy conditions.

After a stopover in Barbados, the ship unloaded its human cargo in Kingston, Jamaica, where the slaves became part of the sugar trade. The Henrietta Marie then embarked on the return leg of the journey carrying a cargo of sugar, logwood, cotton, indigo and a surplus of untraded goods.

In 1991, the National Association of Black Scuba Divers placed a concrete and bronze memorial on the site of the ship's remains to commemorate the Africans who died during the trip.

The society spent $400,000 to prepare the exhibit. It received a $150,000 endowment from the National Endowment for the Humanities and $75,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and $20,000 from actor Paul Newman's organization, Newman's Own Foundation.

Meanwhile, workers have installed the last of 400 pieces of glass in the 82.5-ton dome of the museum's home in Detroit's cultural center.

When the $33.5 million museum opens next fall, it will be the world's largest facility for preserving African and African-American heritage and culture.