Pioneer maritime archaeologist W.A. “Sonny” Cockrell passes away at age 73

Pioneer maritime archaeologist W.A. “Sonny” Cockrell passes away at age 73

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Marine archaeologist W.A. "Sonny" Cockrell with skull found at Warm Mineral Springs in Sarasota County. State Archives of Florida, photograph by Jim Purks.

Marine archaeologist W.A. “Sonny” Cockrell with skull found at Warm Mineral Springs in Sarasota County. State Archives of Florida, photograph by Jim Purks.

Wilburn “Sonny” Cockrell, a pioneering American maritime archaeologist, has passed away at age 73. Cockrell was notably one of the first underwater archaeologists to be concerned with human origins and the early peopling of the Americas rather than shipwrecks. As Florida’s state underwater archaeologist, Cockrell also taught maritime archaeology at Florida State University. These courses began in 1973, the same year the Institute for Nautical Archaeology (INA) was founded and three years before it partnered with Texas A&M University, making Cockrell’s Florida State classes are among the first accredited maritime archaeology courses in the world. The same year, Cockrell’s excavations at Warm Mineral Springs located human remains and an atlatl over 10,000 years old.

His early research into paleolandscapes had a great impact on the development of the field, as he influenced both theory and practice through advocating landscape-based study to contextualize cave sites many years before landscape theory became popular in archaeology. Much of his research focused on Florida springs and submerged sites off the Gulf coast. At a time when most underwater research was “nautical” in theme with a focus on shipwrecks, Cockrell was among a handful to take up the difficult challenge of the submerged ritual and habitation sites of the earliest Native Americans.

As the state’s underwater archaeologists and an early member of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology, he greatly influenced ethics in maritime archaeology in a period where treasure hunting was better funded and had a larger platform than archaeology.

“I often ask myself, ‘Why do I do this?’ It’s so black down there it’s easy to get lost, and sometimes I’m so terrified I have to come back up. But then I start making out the cavern walls and the things that are there, and I want to stay. It’s like being in a dream.” – Sonny Cockrell in 1988 on working in underwater

Cockrell will be remember for his pioneering role in maritime archaeology and the study of paleolandscapes, especially submerged caves. In a time when well-funded Mediterranean projects headlined maritime archaeology and Florida treasure hunters filled National Geographic and nightly news, Cockrell and his colleagues faced an uphill battle getting maritime archaeology in the United States started and funded. Their efforts are largely overlooked in current histories of underwater research, but the ascent of scientific diving and decline of treasure hunting can be attributed to this cadre of 1970s researchers (including George Fischer, Cal Cummings, John Goggin, and Eugenie Clark).

Cockrell took a strong stance against treasure hunting as Florida’s state underwater archaeology in the heyday of 1970s salvage, being known as “the Great Satan” to treasure hunters. “Most of the money in finding sunken treasure is made on dry land by people selling shares in shady salvage schemes,” he said in 1988, arguing that treasure hunting is “worse than the slaughter of whales or the pollution of the environment. If you stop killing whales, the species will come back, but you can never replace an archaeological site.”

Career Highlights:

– State Underwater Archaeologist for Florida from 1972-1983

– Early ethical  and fierce critic of treasure hunting

– First accredited university course in underwater archaeology (Florida State ’73)

– Early member and contributor to the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology (ACUA), Society for Historical Archaeology, and the American Academy of Underwater Sciences

– Early cave and technical diver, conducting dives up to 230 feet for archaeological work in Little Salt Spring and Warm Mineral Springs

– He published extensively, including up until the present day with an upcoming book chapter.

– Mentored many influential second generation maritime archaeologists, shaping the field today

Read More:

– A review of Cockrell’s career.

– A 1988 interview about the search for the earliest North Americans.

– Cockrell is discussed in the early days of maritime archaeology in the United States in Dan Lenihan’s Submerged: Adventures of America’s Most Elite Underwater Archaeology Team.

– His article “Archaeological research at Warm Mineral Springs, Florida.

– His article “An overview of technological approaches to deep water research at Warm Mineral Springs (85019).”

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