Delayed De Soto exhibit reaches farther back into site's past
Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 6:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 6:34 p.m.
The artifacts archeologist Ashley White found near the Black Sink Prairie south of Citra shed light on the infamous Hernando De Soto expedition through Florida and were readied for a September 2012 exhibition at the Appleton Museum of Art. Then, White and the museum rescheduled the show.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “New World Treasures: Artifacts from Hernando De Soto's Florida Expedition”
WHERE: Appleton Museum of Art, 4333 E. Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala
WHEN: Saturday through Dec. 31
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
COSTS: Vary from free up to $6
CONTACT: 291-4455 or www.appletonmuseum.org
The excavation site is one of only two in Florida authenticated to show De Soto's route north in search of gold in 1539. He and his entourage encamped at the Potano Indian village in Marion County before marching to Utinamocharra in present-day Gainesville and later to Tallahassee where they spent the winter of 1540.
What the exhibit would not have included had it debuted as scheduled, White said, was the 9,000-year history of the aboriginal people at the De Soto site and a later Catholic mission site.
The museum will now host a larger, more comprehensive exhibit, which opens Saturday.
“New World Treasures: Artifacts from Hernando De Soto's Florida Expedition,” will include aboriginal artifacts from the site as well as artifacts placing De Soto and the 600 men under his command in Marion County.
“Postponing the September show was worth it to include the cultures before the Europeans arrived at the site,” White said. “I just thought it was more important. It needed to be De Soto and the mission and the people that were here before the Europeans.”
The postponement gave White time to more fully prepare and catalog the aboriginal artifacts he had already found and keep looking for more on his wife's 700-acre property.
The additional time also gave him an opportunity to hire a historical recovery team that used electromagnetic and metal detection equipment to find more De Soto artifacts, painting an even more vivid picture of the expedition.
The new finds include a half-dozen harquebus (rifle) lead bullets, two iron crossbow arrow points designed to go through armor, coins and glass beads.
Finding the arrow points and the bullets from the same group of men was significant, White said.
“What made it exciting was that it was a transition from the use of the crossbow to firearms,” he said.
“Working in a peat bog is extremely difficult, but then you hit an oxygen-free zone (in the earth),” he said. “And we found a crossbow point, but we didn't know what it was, it was so encrusted we thought it might be a railroad spike.”
The harquebus was considered a matchlock firearm and was used during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Areas underground with low oxygen levels typically result in artifacts being better preserved. Once the arrow points were cleaned, they were a match to those used during prior Spanish explorations, White said.
The lead balls were disfigured and within feet of where the arrow points were discovered in a marshy peat bog close to where White made his first De Soto discoveries. That site also is close to where the Spaniards built the mission of San Buenaventura de Potano some years after De Soto passed through.
White said he didn't know why the lead balls were disfigured, but early in the expedition they could have been used during target practice or for shooting at the Indians who routinely attacked De Soto and his men.
White previously had found pieces of iron chainmail, coins, a variety of beads used for trade with local Indians and the lower jaw bone of a pig that was linked to the De Sota expedition. There had been other Spanish explorers, such as Panfilo de Narvaez, but they had not brought Old World pigs, nor had they traveled as far inland.
The additional De Soto artifacts are consistent with White's theory that the explorer's trek went through the Black Sink Prairie to Orange Lake and looped north through Micanopy.
Postponing the museum show also resulted in an additional treasure trove of aboriginal pottery and stone tools. In the same area as the mission, and where he had previously found more than 100 Spanish coins and dozens of glass beads, White dug deeper.
At about 3 feet deep, he and his team found clay potsherds from the Alachua Indian Culture, dating from about A.D. 600 to A.D. 1700. The pottery resembles that from the Ocmulgee culture found along the Ocmulgee River near Macon, Ga. White suspects the Indians could have migrated south to where the pottery was found.
The deeper the team dug, the more they found.
Another foot deeper, they uncovered artifacts from the Cades Pond culture. Those were non-agricultural, hunter/gatherer people who typically lived adjacent to wetland prairies. They lived in the excavation area from A.D. 100 to about A.D. 600.
Along the lower edge of that additional 1 foot excavation, they found evidence of the Deptford Culture and Indians that lived there between 800 B.C. and 700 B.C.
Digging another 2-plus feet near some freshwater springs in the area, White found Paleo-Indian stone tool artifacts dating back as early as 7000 B.C.
“You would think that the springs have been there since the Ice Age ... and a continuous occupation (by people) for the past 9,000 years,” White said.
The expanded dig also revealed broken porcelain fragments suggesting that the mission included a separate kitchen area, White said. The pieces were most likely produced in Puebla, Mexico, during the 17th century.
All the artifacts found tell of the popularity of the site, which was close to freshwater and a bog once filled with water used for fishing and canoe transportation, White said.
“The holy grail for archeology and me is what we call context,” White said. “Context is not simply location … but what surrounds an artifact (and its relationship to other artifacts).
“We now have a 9,000 year time and connectivity, and it goes from the Paleo to the Deptford to the Cades Pond to the Alachua culture and eventually the European culture,” White said.
Jerald Milanich, the author of multiple books about De Soto's expedition and curator emeritus in archaeology of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, said of the De Soto find, “I looked at the archaeological evidence. There is absolutely no doubt that is a De Soto contact site, and I am 99.99 percent sure this is the town of Potano, the major Indian town. Until now, we really had no one location until all the way up to Tallahassee. Now we have a midway place.”
“This (the De Soto site) is an extremely important site, historically and archaeologically,” said Gifford Waters, historical archaeology collections manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History and an expert on Spanish missions. Missionaries would have used De Soto's records to establish their churches along Indian trails and towns, Waters said.
De Soto left Tallahassee and wended his way into Arkansas. He died in 1542 on the banks of the Mississippi and was interred in those waters.
“New World Treasures: Artifacts from Hernando De Soto's Florida Expedition” will be on display at the museum through Dec. 31.
Contact Fred Hiers at 867-4157 or firstname.lastname@example.org.