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UWF Gets $290,000 To Study Pensacola Bay Shipwrecks

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The University of West Florida Archeology Institute has received a grant to explore the remains of a Spanish fleet in Pensacola Bay. The $290,000 grant is support from the Florida Division of Historical Resources. Dr. Gregory Cook is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at UWF who teaches shipwreck and nautical archeology. He says the Special Category Grant from the state will help expand the university's study of the ships under Pensacola Bay.

Dr. Cook says the oldest shipwreck found in Florida are in Pensacola Bay. They are the remains of the 1559 fleet from the Luna Expedition. "The state found the first ship from that fleet back in early 90s, and UWF found the second vessel in that fleet in 2006. So we've been focusing on this as part of our Maritime Archeology research agenda ever since we found the second one." Cook says the department does other maritime work in nearby bays and rivers, but the Luna Fleet is their main target.

The grant will support a crew of four to twelve students and staff actively diving on the site. Dr. Cook says they are making new discoveries and bringing up new artifacts from the site practically every day they dive. When artifacts that have under the sea for so long are brought to the surface, "they have to have specific conservation treatments so they don't just basically fall apart. And depending on what the artifact is made from., wood as opposed to ceramic as opposed to metal, they have different treatments." Many of those artifacts are treated at the UWF Maritime Archeology Conservation Lab and are studied as part of the department's publications and students' masters thesis. Ultimately, they become property of the state, which lends many of them out to museums.

The expeditions into the bay are manned by students and staff, with senior level graduate students running the day to day operation, along with a dive-safety officer. The search for more artifacts is concentrated in the bay where the university has a diving platform anchored. With this grant the search will widen for more ships in Luna's fleet. Dr. Cook says the fleet started with 11 ships when they made their way into Pensacola Bay in August of 1559. One ship was sent back to Mexico to people know they arrived safely, leaving 10 in the bay when a hurricane hit in September. "That storm grounded all the fleet and ultimately only three vessels out of the ten were able to be refloated and survived."

It is thought that one ship was blown inland in the storm, which leaves six ships at the bottom of the bay. To date, the remains of only two have been found. Dr. Cook says the wrecks were well preserved and not scattered across the bay.

One thing that has not been found on any of the wreck: treasure. Cook says Luna's fleet "was a voyage of colonization, so we know they had lots of food, lots of tools, they had weapons. We found an occasional poorly preserved coin, but they're really rare."

The University of West Florida's Archeology Institute is one of the most active archeology programs in the country in both maritime and terrestrial archeology. They are one of the few programs to offer both. Dr. Gregory Cook says that while UWF students have participated in dives and digs around the world, the focus of the program is in the local area. And with the $290,000 grant, he has hopes for new discoveries under the waters of Pensacola Bay.