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John Browning joined the board of the Mel Fisher
Maritime Heritage Society in 1992.
In the late 1980s John, who lives in East
Palatka, FL, organized a treasure-hunting
as St. Johns' Expeditions, together with Key
Wester Whitey Keevan, Richard McAllister of
Marathon, and Gene Evans from Deland, FL. They
leased a large piece of seabottom in the Bahamas
and went out looking for sunken ships. One day,
Richard contacted John and told him he thought
he had found something that they should not
disturb - it looked really old. John went to
take a look and witnessed the raising of two
very significant artifacts: an intact olive jar
and a damaged conquistador's helmet. "We
knew right away that this was much older than
anything we were expecting to find. The question
was, how to handle such an important find?"
John went to talk to Mel Fisher and Mel directed
him to the Society and it's archaeologist, Corey
Malcolm. Late in the summer of 1991, Corey went
out to take a look at the wreck together with
David Moore, the Society's project
archaeologist. They reported that this was
indeed a shipwreck from the 16th century - one
of the very oldest wrecks ever found in the
Caribbean. "Storms seem to like the area
and you find a lot of shipwrecks out
there," John explains. "One of the
things that had kept this wreck safe from other
treasure hunters was that wrecks got piled up
over the centuries. You would find a 17th
century wreck with later wrecks on top of it.
Most treasure hunters would move on as soon as
they found a few modern objects. We lucked out
and found something better."
St. Johns Expeditions donated the wreck to the
Society the following year and the Society's
archaeological team, led as always by Corey
Malcom, spent six field seasons on the site from
then until 1999. The ship was definitely
Spanish, and over time the artifacts revealed a
date somewhere in the latter part of the 16th
century. Eugene Lyon, who is currently the
Society's Chairman, became involved in the
research and determined that it was the Santa
Clara, part of Pedro Menendez fleet - the man
who founded Florida. "It was a wonderful
connection for the museum," says Madeleine
Burnside, the Society's executive director.
"It's an extraordinary wreck, revealing a
wealth of information about the period and the
tie to Florida brings the story home."
John describes diving on the ship, "It was
a fantastic sight, as though it was frozen in
time. A large portion of the hull was in place
and the rigging fell the other way, allowing you
to see the detail of the ship." One of the
great things about this site is that it is only
in about 20 feet of water - so the Society's
team can work long hours underwater on the
project - eight hour days are the norm, which is
unusual for a shipwreck site, most of which are
in deeper waters.
"On behalf of St. Johns' Expeditions, I can
say that we were all changed by working with the
museum. We went from being regular treasure
hunters to understanding the real value of
archaeology and now we never so to a site
without an archaeologist on board. We learned
the importance of being really careful with
cultural heritage sites - apart from everything
else, you get so much more out of them.
Archaeologists notice things that treasure hunters never would.
I hope that when the story of this ship comes out and the exhibition travels we can reveal not only a large portion of the nation's history but also show that there's a right way to explore and conserve these wrecks."