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Digging Up Pensacola Past & Enjoying Its Present


  Over the summer I was lucky enough to volunteer with University of West Florida archeologists to assist with the ongoing effort to uncover the settlement of Don Tristan de Luna.

Luna attempted to establish a permanent Spanish colony in Pensacola in 1559, which if it had succeeded would have been the first permanent European settlement in what is now known as North America. The effort failed by 1561, mainly from the bad luck of being hit by a hurricane before the ships in the expedition had been fully unloaded.

The work was hard, sweaty and dirty. Mainly I was either shoveling dirt or manning a screening tool that sifts artifacts from the shoveled dirt. For archeologists the goal is not just finding these artifacts, but understanding what they mean in context of where they are found. So they spend a lot of time marking, photographing, taking notes and meticulously brushing dirt off tiny things found in the ground. As a side note, most of the artifacts are so uninteresting to the untrained eye that residents of the area say that they have for years been finding stuff that they usually discard as meaningless.

Because the work is physically taxing, the painstaking documentation provides a welcome break. Being a complete amateur, I simply stand around or sit while those who know what they are doing, do it. But it gives me time to think.

On a recent volunteer day I found myself wondering what it was like for Luna and his people, who walked where we were walking. In 1559 the site was likely dominated by longleaf pine, which covered what is today the Southeast United States. But it’s possible that the live oaks so abundant on the site today were also present.

It was a breezy, cloudy day and more than once we ran for cover as rain came in off the bay on a lively breeze. We went back to work when the blue sky returned, only to be interrupted again by the return of another squall.

In other words, a typical Northwest Florida summer day.

We were thankful for the way the rain and winds cooled the summer heat. But I wondered how Luna and his people looked at low, dark thunderheads coming off the bay, or the sudden explosion of wind that signals coming rain. They had been deeply shaken by the violence of the hurricane that shattered the expedition, sinking a number of ships whose wreckage remains today in the mud and sand on the bottom of the bay. They must have feared every rainstorm, seeing in it the possible return of the howling winds that carried such destructive power.

For us, when the sun returned, it brought the flitting shadows of pelicans, ospreys and gulls riding the steady bay breeze on their way to wherever it is they go each day. I’m sure Luna and his people watched the same shadows and looked up to see the same kinds of birds on the wing.

I assume, at least before the hurricane hit and left them desperate, that some of them took the time to turn their faces to the breeze, enjoy the cooling impact of the rain, and watch the clouds race over the bay.

It’s certainly what I would have done.