In the mid-16th century, France was eager to assert her claim to the New World, both to seize the opportunity for material wealth and increased commerce and to ease religious tensions at home by providing a refuge for Protestant Huguenots. A series of fleets were sent to colonize the wilderness of La Floride starting in 1562, alternatively led by sea captains Jean Ribault and René de Laudonnière.
The French at Fort Caroline (present-day Jacksonville) came to a dramatic and bloody end with the arrival of their bitter enemy, a Spanish Catholic force under command of Pedro Menéndez. The showdown between the rival powers played out under a sudden and tremendous storm, which wrecked the French galleons and resulted in the massacre of the shipwrecked survivors by Menéndez. It was thus the Spanish that founded the first and oldest European city in America, St. Augustine, in 1565. The year 2015 marks the 450th anniversary of these formative events.
This July 2014 expedition began with a geophysical survey followed by diving operations in an attempt to discover one or more of Ribault’s lost ships. The focal point for the expedition is a five mile stretch of coast in Canaveral National Seashore immediately adjacent to a series of terrestrial archaeological sites identified as 1565 French shipwreck survivor camps. Featuring 16th-century French coins and salvaged ship fittings modified to make survival tools, it is logical to assume that these sites are in the immediate vicinity of one or more of the wrecks offshore. We know from historic documents, including cargo manifests and eyewitness accounts, that Ribault’s flagship La Trinité and the other three wrecked ships were fully loaded with supplies and never had a chance to discharge their cargos, which means that they should display prominent magnetic signatures and likely feature a wide range of well-preserved artifacts.
The Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP), along with its partnering institutions the Center for Historical Archaeology and Institute of Maritime History, first launched a seven-day survey to explore the search area with a magnetometer, sidescan sonar, and a sub-bottom profiler. After analyzing the data, delineated targets were tested by divers in an attempt to locate and identify one or more of these lost ships. Arguably the most historically significant shipwrecks in U.S. waters, these ships played a pivotal role in the founding of Florida, and thus the founding of our nation. If found, they would be the oldest French ships discovered in the New World.
Three primary types of data were collected or generated by this project: magnetic, acoustic, and archaeological.
Magnetic data was collected by a marine magnetometer, which measures and records both the Earth’s ambient magnetic field and the presence of magnetic anomalies or deviations from the ambient background generated by ferrous material (including iron on historic shipwrecks).
Acoustic data was collected by two different devices: a sidescan sonar and a subbottom profiler. The sidescan sonar produces an acoustic image by transmitting a sound pulse to each side and receiving a return signal that is reflected back from the bottom and any objects encountered. Computer processing produces an image from the returned signal that can provide a photo-like image of the bottom. In addition to the sidescan sonar, a subbottom profiler will be used to collect acoustic data. This device projects sound directly into the seafloor to penetrate bottom sediments and provide a cross-section view beneath the sea bottom. While the image produced is not of photograph-like quality like a sidescan sonar’s plan view, the subbottom profiler does allow an assessment of materials that may be buried in sediments.
Archaeological data may take many forms, including written and typed field notes or record forms, measurements and drawings, photographs and video, geological or organic (i.e., timber) samples, and collected artifacts. Artifacts with characteristics that are diagnostic to a particular time period or country of origin are necessary for the identification of shipwreck sites.
For this preliminary project, any artifact discovered will be photographed, drawn, measured, and described by archaeologists and then returned to the site. To protect the security of archaeological sites, which are protected from destruction or looting by law, it is standard practice in the National Park Service and for the State of Florida to keep specific site location data confidential, except when it is appropriate to share it with legitimate researchers.