Thursday, August 10, 2017

Establishing the Size of Luna’s Settlement

John E. Worth
© UWF Archaeology Institute

The 2015 identification of Tristán de Luna’s 1559-1561 terrestrial settlement on Pensacola Bay was based on substantial and unprecedented archaeological evidence for mid-16th-century Spanish and Aztec residential habitation across a landform that had already been long suspected to be one of the best candidates for the site, both based on documentary descriptions and the presence of two shipwrecks from Luna’s colonial fleet just offshore.  But this was just the beginning of the story for UWF archaeologists, whose next challenge was to explore the extent and nature of the archaeological deposits at the site in greater detail.  As I described in a blog post last year, “How large would Tristán de Luna’s 1559-1561 settlement have been?,” documentary accounts indicate that Luna’s settlement was initially sketched out to comprise 140 house lots, 40 of which were to be reserved for a plaza, church, warehouse, and other public structures, with the remaiming 100 lots to be laid out for 100 families to remain at the port settlement once the expedition pushed north into the interior.  Projecting a 5 by 7 rectangular configuration of four-lot blocks, the initial town configuration would have been laid out during the five weeks between arrival and the hurricane that destroyed Luna’s fleet, and would have housed some 1,500 colonists and stranded sailors for the first six months, with only 362 remaining in the settlement a year later after several evacuations on relief ships returning to Mexico, dwindling to less than 200 inhabitants by the spring of 1561.

Since the site’s discovery in the fall of 2015, archaeological survey and excavations have been conducted on an ongoing basis by the University of West Florida Archaeology Institute, with one of the principal goals of 2016 work focused on “bounding” the site, or systematically determining how big of an area is covered by the Spanish debris scatter resulting from the two-year occupation of Santa María de Ochuse.  To this end, more than 900 shovel tests were excavated across the entire neighborhood surrounding the initial find, each providing a 50 x 50 cm “snapshot” about a meter deep of what artifacts were present and what the soil layers looked like in that area.  Shovel testing both within and beyond the artifact scatter established a general boundary for the site’s maximum extent, while simultaneously providing an important assemblage of tightly-dated mid-16th-century artifacts that comprise the standard “residential” material signature for the Luna expedition.  The same basic assemblage of residential debris is scattered from one end of the site to another, including numerous sherds of assorted Spanish and Aztec ceramic vessels and wrought iron nails and spikes, not to mention routinely-encountered fragments of basalt grinding stones, a range of arms and armor parts such as crossbow bolt tips, lead shot and sprue, fragments of mail, brigandine, and jack plate armor, and assorted other personal items including copper-alloy straight pins, copper lacing aglets, and other clothing fasteners and buckle fragments.

The results of the 2016 shovel test survey as well as the 2016 UWF summer field schools at the site, combined with subsequent laboratory analysis of the artifacts discovered, has provided a much clearer picture of the size and configuration of the Luna settlement site, as we reported in the spring 2017 conference of the Florida Anthropological Society in the paper “The Discovery and Exploration of Tristán de Luna’s 1559-1561 Settlement on Pensacola Bay” (coauthored by John E. Worth, Elizabeth D. Benchley, Janet R. Lloyd, and Jennifer Melcher, but drawing on field and lab work undertaken by many additional staff and students).  The spatial distribution of several categories of diagnostic Luna expedition artifacts overlap one another, including 16th-century lead glazed redware, Columbia Plain majolica, Aztec ceramics, and caret head nails, but the most abundant diagnostic is early Spanish olive jar, which is distributed across a total area of roughly 12.7 hectares, or 31 acres.  This includes 8.9 hectares on the level upper summit of the terrace overlooking Pensacola Bay, with another somewhat lighter artifact scatter across 3.8 hectares extending along the lower slope down close to the shore and surrounding a freshwater pond draining to the west.  If we overlay a projected rectangular settlement grid based on the documentary accounts on top of the archaeological distribution on the upper terrace (see schematic below), the rectangle measures 375 meters by 290 meters, with a projected main site area of roughly 11 hectares, or just over 27 acres (not counting the additional area below the terrace, which appears to have been a secondary activity area surrounding the freshwater spring drainage and boat landing along the lower bluff).

Schematic Map of Luna Settlement Site

Now that we have archaeological data revealing the Luna settlement’s size to be somewhere between 12.7 and 14.8 hectares, we can confirm that this is by far the largest mid-16th-century Spanish residential site in the entire Southeastern United States, larger than both 16th-century locations of St. Augustine (about 1 and 4 hectares) and the contemporaneous location of Santa Elena in South Carolina (6 hectares).  Since the Luna settlement originally housed 1,500 settlers, more than double the number of settlers living in 16th-century St. Augustine and Santa Elena (with between 300-600 inhabitants in each), the huge size of the archaeological site of Santa María de Ochuse is entirely consistent with what we would expect, though its two-year duration was of course far shorter than the later Spanish colonies to the east, leaving a somewhat lighter trace on the landscape.

Apart from simply being a huge random scatter of Spanish debris, or objects accumulated by local Native Americans (whose apparently small seasonal camps at the edges of the site throughout much of prehistory are concentrated along the bluff margins of the bay and bayou; see also the previous blog post here), we also now know that the site is accompanied by direct evidence of Spanish structures, trashpits, hearths, and other activity areas.  The 2017 UWF terrestrial archaeological field school at the Luna settlement site has built upon previous fieldwork at the site to open up even larger excavation units in search of intact evidence for Spanish residential presence.  Even though the total area excavated between shovel tests and larger excavation units represents only a fraction of a percent of the entire site area, examples of all these feature types have already been found (see pictures below).

Profile of burned Spanish post, with inset showing olive jar sherds packed vertically along the posthole walls.

Trashpit deposits in place.

Spanish firepit deposits in plan view and profile (inset).

Structural features include a deep, burned post found in 2016 with a charred post remnant and a wrought iron nail still in place and with olive jar sherds in the posthole fill, and a second nearby post found this year with the same depth and size (though not burned below ground like the first one).  Also this year we discovered a straight line of three probable Luna-era postholes of equal depth within a single 2x2 meter excavation unit.  And in 2016, we excavated a large trashpit packed with 16th-century trash such as broken barrel bands, Spanish pottery sherds, nails and spikes, wire, a smashed Native American bowl, a few shells, and a complete deer antler.  And on yet another end of the site, mechanical stripping of topsoil in advance of house construction exposed a firepit deposit containing Spanish olive jar sherds and a wrought iron nail fragment amid shell and wood charcoal. 

In addition to pit features, we also have good evidence for routine on-site activities that would have been carried out by Spaniards while living at the site.  For example, several areas have produced direct evidence of the on-site casting of lead arquebus shot, including a number of unfinished and unfired lead balls with sprue snipped off them with scissors (and sometimes still attached), along with a good number of lead droplets and splatter (see below).

Evidence of on-site lead casting and the use of scissors.

In sum, the broad distribution of mid-16th-century Spanish artifacts at the Luna site are clearly a result of a large number of Spaniards living on site, and the association of these artifacts with pit features resulting from Spanish structures and the activities of daily life at the site is exactly what we would expect for the short-lived occupation at Santa María de Ochuse.  Now that we have established the site boundaries and begun a more thorough exploration of the subsurface deposits, we look forward to continuing our exploration of this large and important colonial site over coming years.


  1. Are there any descendants of these Spaniards living in the U.S. now? Florida? Did the Luna people go back to Spain?

  2. Luna's settlers were a mix of Spaniards born in Spain but living in New Spain, Spaniards born in New Spain, Aztec Indians born in New Spain, free and enslaved Africans potentially born from Africa to the Caribbean and New Spain, and likely more than a few children of mixed marriages from all these groups. When they left, most returned to New Spain (modern Mexico), and even Luna lived out the rest of his life in Mexico City after initially traveling to Spain after the expedition to request that his debts be forgiven (unsuccessfully). While some of the Luna colonists might later have moved to Spain, and it is also possible some later participated in the Menendez colonization of Florida after 1565, the majority probably remained in Mexico and may have many descendants there today. In that sense, if there are living descendants of the Luna colonists who are living in the U.S. now, they would most likely be of Mexican ancestry, if I had to guess.

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  4. I am a descendant. Luna would have been my 10th great-grandfather.