On the third floor of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, there is a tiny exhibit with seven multicolored glass beads and a few scraps of metal. This unassuming cache, which went on display in May, is the largest collection in the Southeast—outside of Florida—of sixteenth-century Spanish artifacts and has challenged historians’ notions of how Europeans discovered the New World.
In 2006, Fernbank’s lead archaeologist, Dennis Blanton, set out looking for a lost mission in Telfair County. Yet the Spanish artifacts his team found dated to about a hundred years earlier than expected. “It was a big head-scratcher,” says Blanton. The beads, for example, were originally from Venice, Italy, and would have been traded to Native Americans. The metal bits were pieces of tools such as awls and chisels. “These iron objects are very simple in our eyes, but to a Native American, they might as well have been a cell phone,” notes Blanton. The items were unearthed within the remains of a large council house, indicating that the site was not an established European mission, but a point of “first contact” between civilizations from two continents.
Blanton knew he had found traces of a Spanish explorer in the New World, with his lead contender being the conquistador Hernando de Soto. His findings have garnered national interest by revising the accepted route de Soto took into the South. (Traditional scholarship puts de Soto’s circa-1540 trek through Georgia farther north, near Macon.) Blanton’s dig also points to a heretofore-unknown Native American settlement. “There are many facets to what we’re doing that turn the received wisdom a little bit on its ear,” says Blanton. “It’s been sort of fun in a way. We’ve been the spoiler.” National Geographic Society has given Blanton a grant to continue his groundbreaking work. The exhibit runs until March 1.
Photograph by Dan Schultz, courtesy of Fernbank Museum