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Unearthing the Pensacola Bay Area

Pensacola has a lot going on beneath the surface. With more than 450 years of recorded history, not to mention thousands of years of Native American habitation, visitors can really dig into the past and discover its treasures.

Over the years, Pensacola has revealed rich archaeological discoveries both on land and underwater. Our area affords archaeology buffs ample opportunities – summer digs, field projects, lab activities and special events – to study ancient cultures and the historical record.

Buried Treasure

In 1559 – well before the colonies in Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620), Jamestown, Virginia (1607) and St. Augustine, Florida (1565) – Tristán de Luna y Arellano landed on Pensacola’s shores with a fleet of 11 ships and more than 1,400 people. This crew of explorers established the earliest multi-year European settlement in the U.S. Just over a month after arriving, the colony was hit by a hurricane that sank five ships and killed hundreds. The survivors kept the settlement going as long as they could, but by 1561 they had scattered to Cuba, Mexico and beyond.

In 2015, 450 years after the colony was abandoned, archaeologists from the University of West Florida confirmed the exact location of the settlement. The historical site is located in an undisclosed neighborhood in Downtown Pensacola. Among the Spanish colonial and Native American artifacts recovered from the dig were mid-16th-century pottery shards, a lead fishing line weight, copper lacing aglet, wrought iron nail and Native American trading beads.

Underwater Treasure

Pensacola is also home to two underwater archaeological sites. Called the Emanuel Point shipwrecks, they are believed to be the remains of two ships from the original Tristan de Luna fleet that were sunk by a hurricane in September 1559. Discovered in 1992, Emanuel Point I was identified as a 16th-century galleon. In 2006, archaeologists from the University of West Florida received grant money to conduct a systematic magnetic survey of the area where the first shipwreck was found. Emanuel Point II was discovered as a result, and artifacts recovered from the ship suggest that it, too, was part of the original settlement attempt. The Emanuel Point shipwrecks are the oldest found in Florida. Fewer than a dozen ships from this era have ever been discovered, so the fact that two have been identified in Pensacola Bay is extraordinary, and furthers secures Pensacola’s place in maritime history and archaeological research.

FPAN’ing for Archaeological Gold

The Florida Public Archaeology Network is headquartered in Pensacola and works in partnership with the University of West Florida Archaeology Institute and the Pensacola Archaeological Society. Visitors of all ages can volunteer in FPAN’s lab, cleaning and sorting artifacts recovered from local archaeological sites. Accompanied children, families and groups of 12 or less are encouraged to dig in, and volunteers can take on real archaeological work with real lab tools. Along the way, they discover a fascinating way to experience history.

More to Explore

At FPAN’s Coordinating Center in Downtown Pensacola, visitors can experience a museum exhibit titled “A Roadtrip Through Florida Archaeology” to learn more about heritage sites that are open to the public. At the Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site and Museum, visitors can tour Northwest Florida’s largest 19th-century water-powered industrial complex and stroll through the archaeological remains of the mills on an elevated boardwalk. Located in Historic Pensacola Village in Downtown Pensacola, the Colonial Archaeological Trail encompasses a series of open-air archaeology exhibits that trace the ruins of 18th- and 19th-century fortifications occupied by Spanish, British and American soldiers, highlighting features of the forts, such as kitchen sites, buildings, trash pits and wells.

Dig into fun learning experiences in the Pensacola Bay Area!

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