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Author Topic: Archaeologists Examine Tallahassee Site Of DeSoto's 1540 Camp  (Read 131 times)
Description: Chain mail armor fragments, coins and other artifacts
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« on: July 05, 2007, 10:13:24 AM »

July 4, 2007

By the time John Smith met Pocahontas in Virginia, Europeans had already come to the Florida Panhandle and left.

But the conquistador Hernando de Soto and his men - the first tourists to visit Florida for the winter - left behind remnants of their time on a hilltop that is now almost in the shadow of the state Capitol.

They also left behind a native culture that had thrived in this area, but was changed forever by contact with the Spaniards and the diseases they brought.

While Americans this week celebrate the birth of the nation, and while historians this year mark the 400th anniversary of the English settlement of Jamestown, archaeologists in Florida continue to sift through a site where Europeans hunkered down much earlier.

From October of 1539 to March of 1540, more than 60 years before the English settled Jamestown, de Soto and about 600 Spanish soldiers seized the town of Anhaica from the Apalachee Indians. They moved in for the winter before resuming their search for riches in gold they'd heard could be found in the New World.

Historians have long known from journals of de Soto's men that they spent the winter somewhere in the Tallahassee area, but they didn't know exactly where until the 1980s, when a state archaeologist asked some developers for permission to survey an area they were planning to turn into an office complex. The archaeologist, Calvin Jones, was looking for signs of a Spanish mission from the more recent past.

Instead, Jones found chain mail armor fragments, coins and other artifacts that because of their age could have only been left by de Soto's band. They also found significant remnants of the Apalachee settlement that de Soto invaded.

The site, which is literally in the side yard of a home built by former Gov. John Martin in the 1930s, has since been bought by the state. There's little to mark the significance of the site to Native American or Spanish exploratory history, but five centuries later it continues to yield clues to what life was like that winter when Florida's original culture clashed with its future.

Archaeology students from Florida State University continue to work at the site, where chain mail fragments, cross bow dart tips, glass beads, and pieces of pottery can still be unearthed. From time to time, state archaeologists hold a field school, allowing students get a sense for what it really means to dig into the past.

The students get down into the dirt, carefully pulling back layers of soil in what looks more like a sweaty day working in the yard than the stuff of Indiana Jones.

"The physicality of it's not romantic, but the notion is," said Paul Williamson, one of several students who took part in the field school this summer.

The field school gives the students a chance to experience what draws most archaeologists into the field - being transported in a way into another time, and to appreciate what those people did and how they lived.

In a Web diary the students are producing, student Evan Heiser talked about gaining an appreciation for workmanship in a preindustrial time.

"There is just something strange about handling an artifact which was made a few hundred years ago by someone who really needed it," Heiser wrote. "Touching the surface and looking at all the flakes really allowed me to understand how skilled the workers must have been. Touching the point brought me back in time for a few minutes."

Artifacts have provided further information about the Apalachee and the Spanish occupations at the site. Various fragments of Ft. Walton pottery were recovered, a ceramic style made and used by the Apalachee at the time of Spanish contact.

While the site is perhaps more significant as the only definitive one associated archaeologically with Hernando de Soto, the clues to what life was like for the Indians are also a remarkable trove, said Andrea White, an archaeologist with the state of Florida who oversees the students.

"A lot of people tend to focus on de Soto's occupation of the site," said White. "I'm trying to create a balanced view - we have this really cool, pre-contact Native American culture."

The site's discovery in the face of planned development that might have obscured it forever and its yielding of artifacts that have helped scholars better study the clash between explorers and Native American cultures may be a story of archaeological triumph. But the story of the site itself is rather bleak.

The disputed village was fought over by the Indians and the Spaniards and portended disappointment for both groups. While the Apalachee lost their homes and would see their culture dramatically diminished by European contact, the Spanish also had a nightmare visit to Florida.

After wandering thousands of miles over four years through what is now 10 Southeastern states, de Soto died in the wilderness, never finding the gold he and his men were seeking. Only a few members of his party survived, making their way to Spanish Mexico.

Tags: Florida de Soto spain conquistador Apalachee 
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