The rusty, diamond-shaped iron blade, its sharp point jutting from the dirt where it was discovered, could be a centuries old clue that sheds surprising new light on the obscure path taken by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto.
For archaeologist Dennis Blanton it has erased most doubts that the patch of ground in southeast Georgia was visited more than 460 years ago by some group of Spanish explorers — if not de Soto himself.
"It's pretty much case-closed," says Blanton, standing in a clearing among planted pines where his archaeologists have dug about 18 inches into the dirt in an area the size of a small house. "If you had to deduce the most plausible source, it would be de Soto."
But it also presents a mystery: The site is 90 miles from where most experts agree that de Soto traveled.
And it highlights the challenge of deducing the route taken by de Soto — an explorer who left few traces of his journey.
Hernando de Soto became the first European to explore the interior of present-day Georgia in 1540, when he and 600 men arrived nearly two centuries before the British founded the colony of Georgia in 1733.
Historians and archaeologists have long debated his exact path, and scant evidence of Spanish artifacts along his trail has been found. Blanton says, cautiously, his findings in rural Telfair County may provide some physical proof of de Soto's presence.
Blanton of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta and his team have been digging on-and-off for 18 months on private land used for growing pine trees in rural Telfair County, about 120 miles west of Savannah.
Along with shards of Indian pottery, Blanton's team has uncovered two scraps of iron and five ornate, pea-sized glass beads. Blanton says he's convinced the beads and iron were brought by Spanish explorers to trade with Indians.
However, the site where Blanton's team found its artifacts near the Ocmulgee River lies about 90 miles southeast of where most experts believe de Soto crossed the river near Macon. The few known written accounts by de Soto's companions are short on landmarks other than rivers and long-vanished Indian villages.
Archaeologist Charles Hudson spent a decade dogging de Soto's trail. The route he and two colleagues first published in 1984 remains the map of de Soto's course most accepted by experts. But Hudson says it's a pursuit fraught with uncertainty.
"They weren't modern men and weren't self consciously trying to leave an account of where they went," said Hudson, a retired University of Georgia archaeologist. "It's kind of maddening, because everything is enclosed in a fog of doubt."
In the summer of 2006, Blanton began digging in hopes of finding a remote Spanish mission established in the 1600s. Instead he found beads that experts agree were fashioned a century earlier by Italian glassmakers. Italy was known to trade the beads with the Spanish, who brought them across the ocean to the new world.
Historians agree de Soto and his men entered present-day Georgia near its southwest corner and worked their way northeast into South Carolina on the first leg of a winding trek that took de Soto 4,000 miles from northern Florida to Arkansas, where he died of fever in 1542.
In 1984, Hudson and fellow researchers Marvin T. Smith and Chester DePratter published a route for de Soto's Georgia travels that had him crossing the Ocmulgee River near Macon.