Friday, March 24, 2006
Navy construction crews unearthed a rare Spanish ship, which had been buried for centuries under sand on Pensacola's Naval Air Station. Archaeologists confirmed the find Thursday and said the vessel could date to as early as the mid 1500s when the first Spanish settlement in the United States was founded here. The settlement was abandoned two years later after a hurricane. "It's possible that it's one of the earliest ships," said Elizabeth Benchley, director of the Archaeology Institute at the University of West Florida. But Benchley said the exposed portion of the ship looks more like ships from a later period because of its iron bolts. "There are Spanish ship wrecks in Pensacola Bay, we have worked on two — one from 1559 and another from 1705. But no one has found one buried on land, this was quite a surprise to everybody," Benchley said. The first Spanish settlement in the United States was founded at Pensacola in 1559.
The location of the original settlement is a mystery, but archaeologists have found clues from the 1559 wreck in Pensacola Bay. The Spanish did not return until more than a century later in 1698 at Presidio Santa Maria de Galve, now Pensacola Naval Air Station. The French captured and burned it in 1719 but handed Pensacola back to Spain three years later. A series of hurricanes forced the Spanish to repeatedly rebuild. Construction crews dug up the ship while rebuilding the base's swim rescue school that was destroyed during Ivan. "It's ironic that a hurricane probably put this ship there and now we have uncovered because of hurricane," said Alex McCroy, who is with the Navy's construction office that is overseeing repairs from Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The exposed keel of the ship juts upward from the sandy bottom of the pit and gives some guess of the vessel's form. Archaeologists estimated the rest of the ship is buried by about 75 feet of sand. Pam Boudreaux, cultural resources director for Pensacola Naval Air Station, said the Navy plans to enclose the uncovered portion of the ship, mark the site and move construction over to accommodate future work by archaeologists. But it's unlikely an archaeological dig will occur anytime soon, Benchley said. "We don't have plans to excavate the entire ship. It's going to be very expensive because it's so deeply buried and we would have to have grant money," she said. During initial work to determine the ship's origin, archaeologists found ceramic tiles, ropes and pieces of olive jars. The find was especially exciting for Benchley who doesn't dive. "I've never been on the things we've excavated in the Bay. This time, I got to walk around on the planking," she said.