[Nameplate] A Few Clouds ~ 51°F  
High: 74°F ~ Low: 49°F
Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Bead offers glimpse into region's past

Thursday, October 13, 2005

reading time: Archeologist Jeffrey Mitchem (left) thumbs through the book Tatham Mound, a fictional depiction of an Indian mound he excavated in Florida. Photo/Jared
The beautiful gold bead was too tempting to pass up.

As the young American Indian girl pushed a thread through one end of the bead made of gold, little did she know she was sealing her own doom.

Within a few weeks her lifeless body would be buried inside Tatham Mound in western Florida, with the golden bead still attached to her neck.

She lay there for five centuries until Dr. Jeffrey Mitchem discovered the girl's skeletal remains in 1985.

"It was either a gift from Hernando DeSoto (Spanish conqueror who explored Florida in 1532) or a spoil of battle when DeSoto's men fought the Indians," Mitchem said of the golden bead.

Mitchem spoke Oct. 6 about the Tatham Mound, an Indian mound he discovered, during the Spring River Gem and Mineral Club meeting at the Omaha Center in Cherokee Village.

The bead didn't kill the girl, but a disease, probably influenza, brought by the Spaniards to the area, was the culprit, said Mitchem.

Mitchem is now the station archeologist at Parkin Archeological State Park near the St. Francis River.

The Safety Harbor Culture, the people with whom DeSoto made contact with in Florida, buried their dead in mounds of earth, Mitchem said.

"We found 110 bodies that were buried around the time DeSoto came through," Mitchem said.

Not all the people buried at the mound died from disease, he said.

"At least three of the bodies showed signs that they had been severely cut with a sharp instrument," Mitchem said.

Throughout his career, Mitchem has traced DeSoto's path across the southeast United States.

In 1541 DeSoto visited the American Indian village of Casqui, which was located inside the current Parkin State Park.

"It was probably one of the few times DeSoto encountered natives and there wasn't a fight," Mitchem said.

Instead of fighting with DeSoto and his men, many of the American Indians who lived in Casqui converted to Christianity and were baptized, Mitchem said.

The natives erected a large wooden cross as a symbol of their newfound religion, he said.

DeSoto didn't travel to North America to convert American Indians to Christianity; his purpose was to find gold and silver, Mitchem said.

Before leading his expedition across the North American continent, DeSoto served as an army general for the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizzaro.

Pizzaro, with DeSoto's help, conquered most of South America.

The golden bead found at the Tatham Mound came from an Incan gold stash in South America, Mitchem said. DeSoto never found gold or silver in North America, but his visit had a profound effect on the natives.

Millions of American Indians died after contracting diseases spread by DeSoto's expedition, Mitchem said.

American Indians living in Arkansas also constructed mounds, but they served a different purpose, Mitchem said. Arkansas mounds were built for the Indian chief so he could look over his village.

His work at the Tatham Mound was expensive, Mitchem said.

He said author Piers Anthony, who wrote the fictional Xanth series of books, funded his research of the Tatham Mound.

"I was a part of a local archeological society and we started looking for funding for the project," Mitchem said. "Anthony said he would pay for the project. I think he did it as a tax write-off."

Originally, Mitchem and his crew thought it would cost $20,000 to excavate the mound, but it cost more than $80,000 to complete the project, Mitchem said.

Anthony later wrote a book called Tatham Mounds, a fictional account of the history of the mound and the tribes that lived near it.

Mitchem said his experience with burial mounds extends beyond American Indian mounds.

In 2001 and 2002, Mitchem was a member of an archeological team that excavated a tell in Jordan. A tell is the Hebrew term for a mound cities were built upon multiple times throughout the centuries.

Mitchem said he studied beads and church architecture while he was in Jordan. He said he would like to continue his studies, but the war in Iraq has made Jordan a dangerous place for foreigners.

"From the tell you could see Syria in one direction and Iraq in the other," Mitchem said. "When I first got to Jordan everyone was relatively friendly towards us, but it is much less safe now."

Until he is able to return to Jordan, Mitchem said he will focus all of his attention at Parkin State Park.

He said many objects recovered by he and his crew need to be cataloged and recorded.

"I've got a lot of work to do," Mitchem said. "I think these things have been in the ground long enough."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: