16th-century Spanish objects in Mississippi

Many of the objects found had been repurposed by the Chickasaws into tools and ornaments

Archaeological work at Stark Farms, a cluster of sites in north-eastern Mississippi, has uncovered more than 80 metal objects believed to be connected to Hernando de Soto’s expedition through the American South-East in the 16th century.

The team of researchers, commissioned by the Chickasaw Nation to identify and preserve ancestral sites, discovered the items through metal-detecting and excavations between 2015 and 2019. The high concentration of finds is unusual, as Europeans avoided exchanging or gifting large numbers of metal objects to Native Americans in this period, in order to avoid devaluing the material.

Jeff Gage The presence of military objects like this cannonball supports the suggestion that these metal goods were collected from the battlefield. IMAGE: Jeff Gage – Florida Museum of Natural History.

It has been suggested that the abundance of metal objects here may be the spoils of a 1541 battle between the Chickasaws and a group of Spaniards led by Hernando de Soto. De Soto was a key figure in the destruction of the Inca Empire in South America, after which he travelled through North America. Tensions between the Native American Chickasaws and de Soto’s party – which consisted of around 600 people, as well as hundreds of pigs and horses – escalated during the months they spent in Mississippi over the winter of 1540. The Spaniards’ violence and increasing demands for resources culminated in a Chickasaw attack on de Soto’s winter camp at Chickasha.

The suggestion that the high quantity of metal goods found at Stark Farms is the result of this conflict is supported by the presence of several unusual military items, like lead shot and a small cast-iron cannonball, that are not usually found as trade objects. As no evidence of burning or animal remains have been identified, it is thought that the sites where the objects were found probably represent a nearby village whose inhabitants collected objects left behind on the battlefield, rather than the site of the battle itself. It is also probable that some of the metal did originate from small-scale trade, which occurred in the months before this event.

Many of the objects found had been repurposed by the Chickasaws into tools and ornaments, or modified to suit local needs and traditional styles, providing important evidence of a stage of Native American experimentation with foreign objects and materials. These cultural practices are the subject of a paper recently published in American Antiquity, led by Charles Cobb of the Florida Museum of Natural History.