Archaeologists working in north-eastern Mississippi have uncovered a range of Spanish artefacts reworked and repurposed by Chickasaw people living in the area. These finds possibly pinpoint the elusive site of their first contact with the Spanish in a 1541 battle with Hernando de Soto. Military items – like a cannonball, lead shot, apparent pieces of a sword, and a ramrod tip, which were rarely traded – were found at the site complex of Stark Farms, along with bits of horseshoes and other iron stock that had been refashioned into tools, and axe-heads that had been adapted into celts – used for cutting – of Chickasaw design. Other recovered items include an ornate medallion that probably adorned a horse’s bridle, and bits of copper and copper-alloy that may have been sewn on to clothing.
The research, published in American Antiquity, was carried out as part of a project – sponsored by the Chickasaw Nation, who were forced to move to Oklahoma in the 1830s – to identify the site of their first contact with Europeans. Through extensive metal-detecting at Stark Farms between 2015 and 2019, the team from Florida Museum of Natural History, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, the University of Mississippi, and the Chickasaw Nation, found more than 80 objects of 16th-century Spanish types and styles. Some of the typical finds, like crossbow bolt tips, that mark the presence of the de Soto expedition at sites further to the east were not identified at Stark Farms, however. The researchers suggest this is because the Spanish had not been resupplied as they journeyed across the South-east.
‘The received wisdom in the South-east up until this point has been that most of the objects that had ended up in Native American hands were gifted,’ said Charles Cobb from the Florida Museum of Natural History. ‘They’re prestige goods traded between de Soto and other leaders and their counterparts in Native American society.’ The abundance and range of objects at Stark Farms tells a different story. They may have been taken from the Spanish during battle, but also recovered from the battlefield afterwards, and possibly obtained through small-scale, unofficial trade with individual Spanish soldiers who were camped nearby.
Brad Lieb, director of Chickasaw archaeology for the Chickasaw Nation’s Heritage Preservation Division, explained the significance of the finds: ‘What it appears we have found is the nearest native village to the Spanish camp, which became the battle site in March of 1541. The roster of reworked iron and brass Spanish objects is different from any other Native site that we’re aware of.’
IMAGES: Florida Museum/Photo by Jeff Gage; courtesy of James B Legg/South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.