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Collectors and Archaeologists working together: discovery of Don Tristan de Luna’s Florida settlement of 1559

The University of West Florida (UWF) Division of Anthropology and Archaeology announced today (December 17, 2015) the discovery of the site of the  ill-fated settlement of Don Tristan de Luna y Arrellano, dating from 1559. This site had eluded archaeologists for decades, but its location was confirmed based on artifacts found by a local historian and collector, and reported to the University. The collector and University archaeologists now form a team planning the scientific investigation of one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Florida and the United States.

The Luna expedition was the first well-funded and provisioned attempt to establish a European settlement in North America. The endeavor quickly encountered problems when, shortly after arriving in Pensacola Bay, half of Luna’s fleet was sunk by a hurricane. Despite losing many of their provisions in the storm, the settlement persisted for two years before it was finally abandoned. Two of Luna’s ships have been discovered–one in 1992 by the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research and one in 2006 by UWF–but the location of the land settlement remained unknown.

This fall, a Pensacola collector happened upon some European artifacts that he believed dated to the 16th century and might be evidence for Luna’s failed settlement. He could have kept these for himself, or attempted to profit by recovering others for sale on the antiquities market. Instead, he took his finds to the University’s Archaeology Institute laboratory for identification, and offered to share the location of these finds and to help in whatever way he could with the further study of this site.

There are those who decry the failure of archaeologists to work with collectors. Archaeologists have, in fact, always worked with collectors, and this is just the latest example of this collaboration and its importance for archaeological inquiry. Not all collectors are willing to share information, and are more interested in possession or sale of found artifacts. The historian/collector who discovered the site of Luna’s settlement was, in fact, more interested in ensuring that the story of this settlement is told through careful archaeological study. He knows the artifacts have a story to tell that is not fully recorded in historical documents, and that can only be told through careful scientific study. Being a part of that is, for some, sufficient reward.

William B. Lees, PhD, RPA
Executive Director
Florida Public Archaeology Network


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