Students Learn many Lessons from 452-year-old Shipwreck

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A sailing ship from the 1500s once shrouded in mystery at the bottom of the ocean revealed her secrets to students, parents and the public who came to a portable classroom at Orange Park Junior High School to hear the seafaring tale and learn the lessons she had to teach.

A navigation error doomed the Spanish merchant vessel Santa Clara slightly more than 452 years ago but the vessel came alive through “The Science of Shipwrecks” – a traveling Pop Up Museum exhibit on loan from the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West.

Cynthia Cheatwood, who teaches social studies including history at the school, and Sheila Occhiogrosso, head of its science department, got the unique but temporary exhibit free of charge in an educational program offered by the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in partnership with the Florida Division of Historical Resources.

“It’s a treasure trove of history,” Cheatwood said of the shipwreck and its excavation by marine archaeologists.

Orange Park Junior High is among only about five places in Florida that got the exhibit this year. The school opened it to the public Nov. 29 and Dec. 4. Earlier that week, the junior high’s seventh and eighth grade students participated in a scavenger hunt focusing on the history and science of the shipwreck as well as the ongoing marine archeological excavation efforts via information gleaned from the exhibit panels.

In addition, sixth grade students from nearby W.E. Cherry and Grove Park elementary schools visited the Pop Up Museum as part of their class work, said Cheatwood, who’s also chairwoman of the Historical Society of Orange Park.

“You never know when you are going to spark that one kid who says ‘Gee, this is cool I want to be a marine archaeologist’. You never know. Somebody did that with Mel Fisher,” she said.

Cheatwood said not only did the students learn about marine archaeology but they also were gaining insight into history, conservation and putting their math, reading, science and social studies skills to work as they explored the shipwreck through large informational panels, a video presentation on computer and other museum resource materials.

“Because its sponsored by the Florida Division of Historical Resources, we had a little discussion about tax dollars supporting history,” she said of a civics lesson sparked by the exhibit.

The Santa Clara, also known as the St. John’s Bahamas Wreck, is rich in history. The vessel was owned by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a Spanish admiral and explorer who founded St. Augustine. He also was Florida’s first governor – further anchoring the vessel’s place in state history, Cheatwood said.

The ship went down at 3 a.m. Oct. 6, 1564 in about 15 feet of water after hitting a coral reef in the Bahama Channel on the southwestern edge of the Little Bahamas Bank. It’s crew and passengers safely evacuated, and the ship’s cargo was transferred by row boat to another vessel in its sailing fleet. Although it had 1,400 silver bars on board, the Santa Clara wasn’t considered a treasure ship, according to historical research.

St. John’s Expeditions, a Florida-based marine salvage corporation, discovered the Santa Clara wreck site in July 1991. That December, the corporation joined with the nonprofit Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society to conduct an archaeological examination of the wreck. Fisher, who died at age 76 on Dec. 19, 1998, was best known for finding the 1622 wreck of the Spanish galleon, Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which sank off the Florida Keys.

“Mel Fisher’s organization has been excavating on this wreck for 25 years …The artifacts that they are getting from it are not treasure but they are history,” Cheatwood said.

The Santa Clara has proven to be bountiful. More than 1,000 individual artifacts have been recovered so far. Among the weapons were swords, three bombardetas, eight versos, nine crossbows, and pole arms. Other items included olive jars, tableware, food storage and drug containers, pewterware, iron rigging and a horseshoe, according to the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society website.

“I can only imagine having to go underwater to search for all that. You’d have limited visibility sometimes. Your dexterity not as great …It’s a lot of work,” said Lenard Melad of Orange Park as he and his daughters, Alia,15 and Abbie, 14, examined one of the exhibit panels that detailed the artifacts found and mapped out their precise location at the wreck site.

Cheatwood explained marine archeologists and shipwreck divers need knowledge and skill to safely recover the artifacts without damaging them. Unless care is taken to preserve them, artifacts can deteriorate when exposed to air. They also must know how to detect and recognize a relic that may be buried beneath silt on the ocean floor or encrusted with coral or barnacles

“It’s an amazing amount of work. A lot of math skills, science skills and various kinds of cultural knowledge. You also have to know what’s important and what’s not ,so you have to have a historical background,” Cheatwood said.

While not as well known as other shipwrecks, the Santa Clara and its history as well as its discovery are interesting, the family said.

“My daughters are interested in history and learning. And it’s a great way to bring them to something that was kind of overlooked especially in historical books. Sometimes we just glance over things that may seem unimportant but in reality can be important, and can shape how we see things especially about a certain time period or certain place. Especially about Florida. I mean, why not? We live in Florida,” Melad said.

Alia Melad said she found it interesting how nature preserved the artifacts. Her sister, Abbie agreed, noting that until now she never knew about the ship or what happened to it.

Jan H. Johannes Sr., a published historian who’s specialized in Nassau County history, also viewed the exhibit as chance to learn.

“I’m a history nut …This has always fascinated me,” Johannes said of wanting to know more about shipwrecks and marine archaeology.

Cheatwood said the Santa Clara also teaches the students about persistence.

“One of the things that the kids also take away from this exhibit is the arduous nature of conservation,” Cheatwood said.

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Source: The Florida Times-Union

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