Above, one of the nearly 100 coins from the early 1500s found at the site on White Farm.

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ECU alumnus finds treasure right under his feet

Ashley White ’86 has traveled the globe to investigate some of the world’s most sensitive archaeological sites, but for the second time in his life he found a priceless treasure in his own backyard.

He was inspecting erosion around his family’s 700-acre farm near Ocala, Fla., after a series of storms in 2005 when he discovered a trove of coins, tools, military implements and shards of beautiful glass pottery. He determined the site was an encampment of the conquistador Hernando de Soto as he advanced through the interior of Florida in 1539 in search of treasure for the Spanish crown.

White’s farm yielded more than 100 Spanish coins, including rare King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella related coins, as well as intricately decorated glass beads, musket balls and bits of chain mail armor. One coin (right) was minted between 1471 and 1474.

Digging deeper, White, whose expertise is the impact of Old World diseases on New World populations, learned the land had been occupied by the Timucua people for a thousand years before de Soto arrived.

After other experts authenticated the artifacts, they were curated and placed on display at the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala. The exhibit, “New World Treasures: Artifacts from Hernando de Soto’s Florida Exhibition,” opened in February and will run through the end of the year.

If White gets his wish, the exhibit will come to North Carolina next year for a joint display with items from the Sir Walter Raleigh expeditions. “Wouldn’t that be cool to have the two oldest known New World settlements in one room?” he asks.

The first time White found a treasure in his own backyard was in 1982 in the ocean a few miles off the Outer Banks.

He grew up on the water in Washington, N.C. The summer before college, some people from ECU came to town asking about old shipwrecks in the Pamlico Sound and around Pine Knoll Shores.

“We met some of the graduate students and took them out to some debris piles that had at least 15 cannons, a couple of large anchors and hundreds of ballast stones near Bogue Banks.

We had been out to that wreck dozens of times. It had been found by some locals back in 1939 when a hurricane pushed out the tide, but it had never been officially recorded.”

The shipwreck later was identified as the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s ship that sank in 1718.

White majored in biochemistry and continued exploring shipwrecks with a group called the ECU Dive and Historical Survey Team. Over four years the team explored 20 other wrecks and several German U-Boats, White said.

From ECU, White went to dental school at UNC Chapel Hill and then for post-graduate research in archaeology at Duke. His medical specialty is maxillofacial surgery and surgical pathology.

His research focus is on ancient diseases and how early civilizations were impacted by repeated plagues. He’s examined skeletons in catacombs throughout Europe and South America and has been researching ones from Rome circa 177 AD when the capital of the empire was hit by a wave of epidemics. “Five thousand people a day died in Rome then,” he said.

As an expert in the emerging fields of bioarchaeology and paleopathology, White became a trustee of the Archeological Institute of America.

In 2009 he authored Physical Signs in Medicine and Surgery: An Atlas of Rare, Lost and Forgotten Physical Signs. The book has become an unintended guide for doctors confronting ancient maladies in places like Afghanistan suffering from war and natural catastrophes.

White also works with the Brussels-based International Committee of the Blue Shield, an association of museums around the world founded in 1996 to protect cultural heritage sites threatened by wars and natural disasters.

He met his wife, Dr. Michelle White, while the two were in school in Chapel Hill. She has worked with international aid groups and is the author of five medical mystery novels. They live with their son on their Florida ranch.

White said he relishes his college years and “remembering things like living up on College Hill in those old brick dorms and doing crazy things like jumping off the top of the Grimesland Bridge.”

He returns to the area regularly to visit his parents, who still live in Washington.

For more information about the de Soto exhibit, visit the Appleton Museum of Art or call 352-291-4455.

White as a teenager snorkeling in the Pamlico Sound