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Residents Updated On Archaeological Dig At Luna Settlement Site

University of West Florida

It’s been about six months since University of West Florida archaeologists revealed the discovery of Tristan de Luna’s 1559 settlement on Pensacola Bay.

Earlier this week, property owners in the settlement area were updated on their findings and briefed on the next phase of their research.

Work at the site of the Luna settlement, also known as Santa Maria de Ochuse, is continuing as part of a 10-week terrestrial field school that began May 23 and will continue through July 29.

Dr. Elizabeth Benchley, director of the UWF archaeology program, said one of their goals is to determine the spatial extent of the site. UWF archaeologists have been working at the site since January.

 “We’ve had good success finding artifacts related to the Luna settlement. But we haven’t had such good success finding where Luna isn’t,” Benchley said. “We’ve found Luna materials over 5 or 6 blocks now and we’re still trying to find the boundaries of the site.”

For the next several weeks, UWF archaeologists, faculty, and students will continue excavations, looking for identifying features - such as stains in the ground - that denote pits or building foundations at the site.

And, we found a cluster of pits and artifacts that suggest that that location had been the warehouse of Luna’s settlement,” Benchley said.

Benchley said their goal is to confirm the site of the warehouse, identify evidence of a central plaza, and find residences and a church. To date, they’ve investigated more than 30 lots.

Thus far, she said, it’s been a struggle to identify the remains of any other buildings from the Luna encampment that was established in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane.

What I’m starting to think the rest of the Luna settlers were in very temporary shelter,” Benchley said. “They built their fires on the ground. They didn’t dig pits; they didn’t have any food to store. It’s a very ephemeral settlement and it’s going to be hard to see archaeologically.”

Credit University of West Florida
Artifacts from the 1559 Luna Settlement.

While finding structures may be difficult, the archaeology team continues to discover other evidence of the colonial settlers who lived along the shore of Pensacola Bay over a two-year period from 1559-1561.

We found a piece of chain mail that’s very tiny and very fragile, and we’re grateful we didn’t destroy it when we were digging,” Benchley said. “And it’s very clearly a link of chain mail that a Spanish soldier would have been wearing to protect him from arrows and other missiles.”

The UWF team found a mid-16th century crossbow tip and collected more evidence of the Aztec Indians Luna brought with him.

Additionally, UWF archaeologists have continued to find an abundance of olive jar fragments and a variety of nails, including caret-headed nails similar to ones found from a Coronado expedition in New Mexico during the same general time period. Also, they’ve identified the remains of a campfire feature and collected several trading beads from the site.

Benchley detailed their latest findings in a slide show presentation for property owners and residents Monday evening at Constant Coffee and Tea.

“I think that she gave us a very good indication of what they found, which wasn’t too clear the last time we met and it’s very enlightening to see how much stuff they’ve found and I think it sort of cements the theory that this was the Luna Settlement, in my mind anyway,” said retired U.S. Navy Captain Robert Stumpf, who lives in the area and attended the meeting with his wife.

Credit University of West Florida
Decorative trading beads found at the Luna Settlement.

Stumpf said it was the discovery of the decorative beads and news of a warehouse on the site that he found most fascinating.

Rick and Kathy Sprague are building a new home in the area and agreed to an excavation of their property prior to construction.

Really the burn pit thing is what really got my attention, when what they found over there for being as long as it was and the fact that that solidifies that we know some pretty good stuff was going on up in that area,” Rick Sprague said.

The couple is pleased with how UWF is handling the project. That includes not publicly disclosing the exact location and establishing a gated parking lot for staff and visitors on nearby Scenic Highway to control traffic.

Had the 1559 Luna settlement lasted, it would have been the nation’s oldest permanent city, beating out St. Augustine by six years.

This year’s UWF archaeology field school will continue for another seven weeks. Benchley estimated that fieldwork at the Luna settlement site could last at least two years. To learn more, visit uwf.edu/luna. 

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.