© 2023 | WUWF Public Media
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
850 474-2787
NPR for Florida's Great Northwest
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

UWF Professor Discusses Shipwrecks At Archaeology Lecture

michael Spooneybarger/ CREO

 The Florida Public Archaeology Network kicked off its “Beyond Our Backyard: Archaeology Around the World” lecture series in March with a presentation about the importance of four historic shipwrecks.  


Dr. Greg Cook, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of West Florida, gave a lecture entitled “Maritime Connections in the Atlantic World from the Perspectives of Four Shipwrecks.”


It was the first of three lectures that is being presented by FPAN in celebration of Florida Archaeology Month. 


Cook began bytalking about the wreckage of the La Belle, one of four ships used by Robert de La Salle when he failed in an attempt to establish a fort at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the 1680s. 


“They overshot the Mississippi by about 400 miles,” Cook said. “In La Salle’s time, there was still no accurate means of determining longitude at sea. 


Pirates took one of the ships, while another vessel ran aground and sunk. Realizing the mission was doomed, the captain of another ship sailed back to France with passengers onboard. 


Only the La Belle remained, but it eventually sank to the bottom of Matagorda Bay in Texas in 1686 after being damaged by storms. 


The ship was discovered in the 1990s. Cook was on the archaeological crew who excavated the site over the course of a year.  


“This was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, a true time capsule shipwreck,” he said. “Everything (was) still in it. Because they were in such bad straits, there was no one there to salvage the ship, basically. The colony was wiped out not long after the ship sank.”


Boxes discovered from the La Belle were still preserved, and barrels found were still full of goods, Cook said. 


Cook also detailed a shipwreck he did his dissertation research on that was discovered off the coast of Elmina, a town in Ghana. The identity of the ship, which had a cargo that consisted of European goods, has never been determined, Cook said. 


“We did some archival research and found a very good match. A Dutch West India Company vessel called the Groningen had sailed to Elmina, came to the coast, fired a five-gun salute to let everyone know it was there and they were ready to trade. The fifth gun exploded, (the) ship caught fire (and) sank, (with) loss of life.”


Cook also talked about another shipwreck discovered off the coast of Jamaica which yielded about 700 artifacts. 


“It had a single mast, so we know it was a sloop, which we know in the 18th century was a very common small vessel that was used for trade,” Cook said. 


Cook finished the lecture talking about the San Pablo tanker, the wreckage of which lies about 80 feet deep off the coast of Pensacola. 


Built in 1915, the San Pablo was sunk in Coast Rica by German submarine during World War II. 


“This made national and international news,” Cook said. 


The San Pablo ended up in Pensacola and documents declassified in the 1960s reveal the ship “was actually destroyed in a top-secret U.S. military operation testing an experimental weapon system,” according to the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail website.


The wreckage of the San Pablo,also known locally as the “Russian freighter,” has been a popular dive site since the 1970s, Cook said. 


“It’s never been studied archaeologically,” Cook said. “We’re rectifying that. This is actually a thesis topic for one of our students in our program.”


This article is part of a collaboration between WUWF and the UWF Center for Research and Economic Opportunity.


Richard Conn works as a staff writer for the Center for Research and Economic Opportunity at the University of West Florida.