Growing up in the Midwestern United States, Gregory Cook used to watch PBS television specials about archaeology and history with his parents. His father, a worker in a Chevrolet car factory, instilled in him the desire to pursue higher education and to find something he was passionate about. For Cook, that something was archaeology. Now in his third year as a maritime archaeologist and professor at the University of West Florida, Cook is sharing his passion with students and the Pensacola community.
"The thrill of discovery, that's what I love about archaeology," said Cook. "When you pick up an artifact that is more than a century old, it's like traveling through time. It's a thrill I never get tired of."
Cockroaches, rat skeletons, seeds and bricks – not exactly discoveries that the average person would be thrilled to find. But for Cook and his students, these artifacts and the context they are found in are key to piecing together the long-lost stories of centuries-old cultures.
"Trash doesn't lie," said Cook. "While printed historical documents and texts are important to study and understand, you cannot guarantee that the author of a particular printed piece is conveying the full story or giving a factual account of history. Looking at material culture through artifacts is very important in getting the complete picture."
Cook, along with UWF Archaeologist John Bratten, is currently leading a team of graduate and undergraduate students in excavating the second oldest shipwreck in the United States. The shipwreck, which was discovered last summer in Pensacola Bay by two university students, is the remains of one of the colonization ships of the Tristan de Luna fleet that sank during a hurricane in 1559.
"UWF has one of the best underwater archaeology programs in the country because we have such rich, historically significant archaeological sites right in our own backyard," said Cook. "Our graduate and undergraduate students are gaining hands-on experience that they simply would not have access to in any other programs."
In addition to his work on the de Luna shipwreck, Cook is also leading a shipwreck survey project off the coast of Ghana, Africa. Next summer he plans to take a group of UWF archaeology students to Africa to continue documenting the remains of the late-18th century and early-19th century colonial trading ships that wrecked off Ghana's "Gold Coast." The research is part of Cook's doctoral dissertation with Syracuse University. He currently holds a bachelor's degree in Anthropology/African Studies from Indiana University and his master's degree in Anthropology/Underwater Archaeology from Texas A&M.