Public will get its first look at De Soto artifacts this fall
Published: Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 6:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 6:05 p.m.
Until recently, only a handful of people knew of a site where Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto stopped in Marion County nearly 500 years ago.
Even fewer have handled, or seen, the artifacts left behind by the explorer or the separate collection of artifacts from the lost mission of San Buenaventura de Potano built near De Soto's encampment years later.
That changes this fall when Ashley White, who discovered the sites along with his wife, Michele, and son, Ethan, unveil their finds in a new exhibit at the Appleton Museum of Art.
"New World Treasures: Artifacts from Hernando De Soto's Florida Expedition" opens Sept. 22 — an early event ushering in a yearlong recognition of 500 years of Spain's connection with La Florida.
"This is the first time we've seen a whole collection of De Soto artifacts," Ashley White said. "This is now the oldest New World exhibition, even older than the De Soto site in Tallahassee."
Officials at the Appleton are thrilled.
"The significance of the discovery of these 16th-century Spanish artifacts cannot be overstated," said interim director Jillian Ramsammy. "And we are confident that having this never-before-seen collection showcased at the Appleton will increase the exposure of the Appleton Museum of Art and Marion County throughout Florida and beyond.
"It's a find in the archaeology world as well as in the art world," she added.
The artifacts almost remained lost.
Ashley White had been scouring his wife's 700-acre tract near Orange Lake for two years looking for evidence of an early Spanish ranch without success. But when heavy storms in 2005 washed up a coin and some beads, White began to realize he had found something more important.
It turned out to be evidence of an encampment used by De Soto on his trek through the New World. And nearby, he and his family discovered evidence of the lost Mission San Buenaventura that was founded more than 60 years after De Soto.
Then two years ago, after the mission site had been mapped, Ethan and Michele White were scouring the area with a metal detector when they came upon the largest stash of medieval coins ever found in the New World.
Ethan, who attends Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala, said that he and his mother were checking a rise near the mission when the metal detector pinged. They dug, thinking they'd unearth more old washing machines like those found nearby.
Instead, they found one coin, then another and another.
His father, excavating mission post holes nearby, recalled that "it was really quiet there that day. I heard the detector ‘ping' and then Ethan hollers, ‘Hey! Hey! Come here!' "
His mother added: "I was very excited for Ethan. He has been a real trooper through the years, travelling wherever our research takes us. After a few more of the medieval coins were excavated, my feelings turned to, this is a serious, important historical discovery."
Eventually, the three of them found more than 100 common coins dating from 1551 to 1665.
Ashley White figured the coins were pay for soldiers stationed at the mission or payment for cattle and vegetables raised here to feed the mission in St. Augustine. It's possible, he added, the coins might have been stored in an out-building that was part of the mission.
Some of the cache likely will be returned to Spain. There are hopes of a Spanish royal visit to Ocala sometime in the coming year. Gov. Rick Scott, during a visit to Spain in May, invited King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia to visit next year during the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce De Leon's discovery of Florida.
Gregorio Laso, a press counselor with the Spanish Embassy in Washington, said "it's possible there may be a visit by one of the royals, but who is coming has not been decided."
? ? ?
Michele and Ethan's coins will be a significant focus of the Appleton exhibit, although Dr. Ruth Grim, curator at the Appleton, is only now deciding how best to display them.
"That's the challenge," Grim said. "All the pieces are small. The success will depend on high-quality, high-resolution blowups that show the craftsmanship involved and the detail."
White displayed some of the coins, beads and pottery for the museum's collections committee about two weeks ago. It was the first time they had seen the artifacts.
And they seemed impressed. "I didn't think our history went back that far," said Rich Schleicher.
About the only decision so far is to display the artifacts in the gallery currently housing a Middle Ages Persian Ceramics exhibit. "It's time for that to go on the road," Grim said.
Further, she added, the De Soto display will flow nicely from the museum's permanent Pre-Columbian collection a few feet away.
Then after the Whites' artifacts have been on display through most of 2013, they may go on tour. But Grim isn't ready for that step. "Knowing we have a year to think about it means it (a tour) doesn't go on the front burner yet," she said.
Contact Rick Allen at email@example.com.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.