TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ The state archaeologist may have discovered a 16th-century camp used by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto here, on a construction site near the Capitol.

''In my opinion, we've located one of the houses where Hernando de Soto spent his first winter in Florida,'' Calvin Jones said Monday. ''Of course, there'll probably be skeptics until we find something with de Soto's name stamped on it. But I think this is it.''

Jones said the most convicing evidence he had uncovered was metal links dating to the armor that 16th-century Spanish soldiers wore. He said he also found bits of Spanish pottery that predated the Tallahassee-miss ion period, which began in the 1630s.

The only explanation for the objects he found, Jones said, was that they came from de Soto's winter camp, long-sought by archaeologists.

Dating to 1539, barely a generation after Columbus' first voyage to the New World and 26 years before the founding of St. Augustine, de Soto's camp was presumably the scene of the first Christmas celebrated in what was to become the United States.

De Soto arrived in Florida with 600 soldiers, priests and followers. They spent 143 days locked in almost daily skirmishes with the Apalachee Indians until the explorer moved north to continue his quest for gold.

For decades, historians have been searching for the trail de Soto followed through Florida. Former Gov. Bob Graham had markers erected along U.S. 90 and U.S. 319 to Thomasville, Ga., that purportedly retraced de Soto's route, but state archaeologists had little hard evidence.

Last month, a Tallahassee contractor informed Jones of plans to build an office complex about a mile from the Capitol, giving the archaeologist a chance to dig for artifacts first.

A test dig uncovered several rusty pieces of metal links.

''I knew right away I had something,'' Jones said. For the past two weeks, he and a crew of volunteer workers have been filling brown paper bags with artifacts from the past.

''I'd had my eye on this spot for some time,'' Jones said. ''But I never thought it was de Soto I'd find here. I thought it would be one of the Spanish missions I'm still trying to locate.''

Contractor Chuck Mitchell said construction of the office buildings slated for the project won't begin until Jones is done.

''We're going to work hand-in-glove with whatever time they need,'' Mitchell said. ''This isn't an undisturbed site, like an Indian mound or something. But we think it's important to show how developers can be sensitive to historical landmarks like this.''