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Cannons stolen from shipwreck

An archaeologist says the thieves who stole the artifacts off St. Augustine knew what they were doing.

Modern-day pirates have stolen two 18th century cannons and damaged the site of a British shipwreck near the St. Augustine Lighthouse.

The 1-ton cannons were stolen between April and mid-July during a lull in the two-year research project on the remains of the sloop Industry, the first colonial shipwreck found off the nation's oldest city.

The Industry ran aground May 5, 1764, while carrying cannons, ammunition, money and tools to the new British outpost in St. Augustine.

Divers from Southern Oceans Archaeological Research Inc., already had salvaged one 7-foot-long cannon from the eight found at the 20-foot-deep site in June 1998. They were preparing to recover two more when archaeologist John W. Morris III discovered the theft July 15, the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville reported Wednesday.

"They used a prop-wash deflector and blew a big crater in the sand. Whoever did this knew what they were doing," Morris said.

Prop-wash deflectors, called "mailboxes" in the treasure hunting community, are large pipes placed over propellers to direct the propellor thrust to the ocean bottom to displace sediment and expose artifacts.

The deflectors blast away the seabed to expose shipwrecks, leaving large swaths of exposed sand and sediment.

The wreck-hunting "mailbox" _ so named because that's what it looked like _ was invented by treasure hunter Mel Fisher, who in his quest of the Atocha pitted acres of the Gulf of Mexico with more than 600 20- to 30-foot-wide holes. In 1997, Fisher was fined almost $600,000 for leaving a "lunar landscape" in destroyed sea grass beds while searching without a permit in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The loss is a tremendous blow to the investigation of St. Augustine's maritime history, said Jim Miller, chief of archaeological research for the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research in Tallahassee.

"These two cannons were to be raised and exhibited," Miller said. "Unless they are recovered, they are now unavailable to the public. They are in danger of deteriorating if not conserved, and become a missing piece of the archaeological record of the shipwreck site. We want them back."

Archaeologists began the state's first underwater wreck survey off St. Augustine in 1995 and targeted 55 sites. Dives two years later uncovered a well-preserved steamship that sank between 1850 and 1870 and the Industry.

The precise location of the Industry was never released publicly, but Morris said anyone with the right equipment could have found the wreck site. As for the cannons, he said they were probably stolen by a private collector and are in someone's back yard or living room.

Morris doesn't know what the iron weapons might be worth.

Blasting the crater in the ocean floor washed away artifacts, and the thieves damaged the remaining cannons, Morris said.

"The other five were beaten on to see if they were bronze. They took a sledgehammer and whacked on them," Morris said. A piece was broken from one.

The Lighthouse Museum is funding much of Southern Oceans' research into the Industry and had filed for an $800,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to establish a shipwreck laboratory.

"The frustration I feel is based on the fact that had we had the center in place, we would have gotten them last year and no one would have touched them," said executive director Kathy Fleming.

The theft, a violation of Florida's Historic Preservation Act, may be the first on an active underwater archaeological site in Florida. The state Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Marine Patrol are investigating.