It is with sorrow that the ACUA mourns the passing of Wilburn “Sonny” Cockrell, an early ACUA Board member and pioneer underwater archaeologist. Sonny passed away October 8, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida at age 73.
Sonny was an implacable champion for protection of all submerged archaeological sites; he was an innovative researcher and advocate for deriving public benefit from archaeological research. His passionate advocacy of preservation, protection, public engagement and professional archaeological research led the way for many archaeologists. His ground-breaking interdisciplinary research at Warm Mineral Springs raised the bar for inundated terrestrial site archaeology and effectively demonstrated that submerged excavation could and should be as controlled as any terrestrial research.
During his time on the ACUA, Sonny worked unstintingly to thwart treasure hunting and site looting of all submerged archaeological sites. He was an early and vocal proponent of shipwreck stewardship and advocated professional investigation of them commensurate with historical sites on land. He rejected all rationales for treating shipwrecks differently than land sites. In the 1970s, during the height of Florida treasure hunting, Sonny’s efforts as the Florida State Underwater Archaeologist lead to treasure hunting’s decline in Florida, other states and nations. Sonny stood up for underwater archaeological sites when few others did and it was very difficult to do so, and when it mattered.
Sonny leaves a rich legacy and lasting impact on our discipline and on his colleagues. His voice ensured that underwater archaeology would increase in professionalism and in stewardship. He will be missed by those who knew him personally, and by the many underwater archaeologists who have been influenced directly and indirectly by his contributions, and certainly those who have inherited his passion for underwater archaeology and site preservation.