The discovery suggests an expedition led by conquistador Hernando de Soto ventured far off its presumed course—which took the men from Florida to Missouri—and engaged in ceremonies in a thatched, pyramid-like temple.
decThe discovery could redraw the map of de Soto's 1539-41 march into North America, where he hoped to replicate Spain's overthrow of the Inca Empire in South America. There, the conquistador had served at the side of leader Francisco Pizarro.
A continent and five centuries away, an excavation organized by Atlanta's Fernbank Museum of Natural History found buried glass beads, iron tools, and brass and silver ornaments dating to the mid-1500s. The southern-Georgia location—where they'd been searching for a 17th-century Spanish mission—came to be called the Glass Site.
"For an Indian in the South 500 years ago, things like glass beads and iron tools might as well have been iPhones," said project leader Dennis Blanton, an independent archaeologist who until recently was Fernbank's staff archaeologist.
"These were things that were just astonishing to them. They were made of materials that were unknown and were sometimes in brilliant blue and red colors that were unmatched in the native world."
Blanton called the finding a "stunning surprise." Prior to the discovery, it had been generally accepted that de Soto and his men had crossed a river about 100 miles (160 kilometers) upstream of the site, but archaeologists hadn't suspect that the expedition had ventured so far south and east.
The trove of items—all of which could fit into a shoe box – represents the largest collection of early 16th-century Spanish artifacts ever found in the U.S. interior outside of Florida, according to Blanton, whose work was funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)
Quid Pro Quo?
Excavations by Blanton's team suggest a large building with a thatched, pyramid-shaped roof once stood at the Glass Site. The structure was surrounded by a ditch, contained a large central hearth, and may have served as an important ceremonial center or temple.
The concentration of Spanish artifacts at the Glass Site suggests de Soto may have participated in a gift-exchange ceremony with the town's chief and other leaders. It's not known what the Spaniards would have received in return, but they commonly asked for food, information, free passage, baggage carriers, and perhaps female company, Blanton said.
By comparing the archaeological results with journal accounts by the Spanish party, Blanton and his team think the Glass Site was an important village in a province ruled by the Ichisi Indians. The team also believes de Soto and his men stayed there between March 30 and April 2, 1540, according to journals.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
De Soto's party consisted of more than 600 men and hundreds of pigs and horses—animals that many of the Indians had never seen before.
"There are accounts in the chronicles of how Indians at first imagined the mounted men to constitute a single creature," Blanton said.
To encourage cooperation among the Indians and avoid conflict, de Soto sometimes claimed to be a god.
"De Soto took advantage of the fact that the Indians revered the sun and even at Ichisi made the claim to be descended from it," Blanton said.
By 1540 rumors of an "alien people" had already spread among Native Americans in southeastern North America, but few Indians would have encountered any Europeans in the flesh, he said.
"A de Soto encounter would have been for most, if not all, of the people at the Glass Site a wholly new—and undoubtedly startling—experience," Blanton said.
The fact that there is no evidence of mass killing or vandalism at the Glass Site suggests de Soto and his men were treated well during their stay, he added. And in fact Spanish journal records say the Spaniards were lavished with food and hospitality at an Ichisi village, which Blanton suspects was the Glass Site settlement.
This wasn't always the case.
"The Spaniards often treated the Natives very badly, and when the local people did not accede to their demands, de Soto would usually take the local leader hostage until he got his way," said Jeffrey Mitchem, a de Soto scholar with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, who was not involved in the discoveries.
"Usually their demands for food and young women wore out their welcome very quickly," Mitchem said, "so the natives were almost always trying to make them leave as rapidly as possible."
"Even More Spectacular" Than Thought?
Mitchem agreed that the discoveries support the idea that de Soto and his men camped for several days at the Glass Site.
"Many of the specific types of artifacts that have been found at [Glass Site] are the same types recovered from other sites that were contacted by the Hernando de Soto expedition," he said.
The new discoveries will not only help refine de Soto's expedition route, but could also provide valuable insight into how American Indian groups were organized in particular areas.
"As we identify specific Native American towns or villages described in the narratives, we can then look at what the Spanish narratives tell us about the political situation in those specific areas," Mitchem said.
The team has also explored another Georgia Indian site, called Deer Run, but the case for a de Soto encounter there is less conclusive, Blanton said.
While a visit by de Soto's party is the most likely explanation for the artifacts found at the Glass Site, Blanton says there may be another explanation: that the items were left by deserters of the lost Spanish colony of Ayllon. The settlement is known only from writings, and some scholars have proposed it was located on the Georgia coast.
Though it's unlikely that the bead site harbored lost colonists, Blanton said, "if that proves to be true, then the Glass Site record is arguably even more spectacular."