New Research at Spirit Eye Cave, By Dr. Bryon Schroeder

Dr. Bryon Schroeder is a Research Associate at the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross University. This article is a part of TARL’s June 2017 newsletter. 


Spirit Eye (41PS25) is a prehistorically occupied cave system located in Presidio County, Texas just north of the Chinati Mountains (Fig. 1). The cave system is situated on the lowest level of a North/South trending limestone cliff. Access is possible via two entrances, lower and upper entrances that lead to a central U-shaped main chamber that connects with a smaller internal horizontal and vertical shaft system. Extensive prehistoric use of the cave is evident on the well-developed cultural talus deposit laden with thousands of pieces of debitage, various ground and chipped stone tools, and a distinct black anthropogenic soil. There are also historic food and beverage containers on this talus slope, remnants of years of looting into the rich and well-preserved prehistoric deposits.

Figure 1. Overview of Center for Big Bend Studies excavation at Spirit Eye Cave, spring 2017.

The deposits within Spirit Eye are not pristine. Evidence of looting is clear: outside both entrances mounds almost three meters tall of screened cave fill are the first indicators of the destruction. As you move into the internal chamber, the portion near the lower entrance resembles a mineshaft from untold looting exploits, and near the upper entrance from the back wall of the cave to the opening is a large stratified mound over a meter tall comprised of looted cave fill. The persons that mined Spirit Eye were all after the same thing–the unique perishable artifacts that this cave preserved (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Atlatl throwing stick fragments and hafted foreshafts looted from Spirit Eye, just one example of the perishable artifacts taken out of the cave.

The artifact assemblage from Spirit Eye offers a unique and holistic view into technologies that made prehistoric adaptation to the Chihuahuan Desert possible. In an effort to salvage some of this valuable information, the Center for Big Bend Studies of Sul Ross State University began the first systematic excavations in the cave in early May of this year. In operationalizing the excavation, we knew it would be important to understand the periods of looting, and what has emerged is a complex and storied history. By the 1960s, artifact collectors at Spirit Eye conducted intense periods of excavation fueled by both black market values and personal curiosity. Understanding this history has enabled us to relocate and claim orphaned collections in curational facilities like TARL and private collections, all of which contain unrivaled artifact assemblages. These looted collections, including many artifacts and a mummified set of human remains recovered from a private collector in the 1990s and now housed at TARL, will be one aspect of our investigations.

Our goal is to understand how the years of unsystematic excavation progressed and to develop research methods that can be used to salvage data from this and other extensively looted archaeology sites. Although our work is still ongoing, we have already recovered thousands of artifacts discarded by collectors, most of them perishable. Not surprisingly, these include domestic artifacts like quids, human coprolites, cordage, various kinds of processed plant fiber, faunal artifacts, foodstuffs, and carved wooden artifacts (Fig. 3). The site, while severely impacted, holds far-reaching research potential that requires an unconventional research design. We are very much at the beginning stages of this research, but it is obvious that we can use Spirit Eye as a laboratory to push the possibilities of research in perishable artifact analysis.

Figure 3. Recently recovered rodent mandible wrapped in organic cord, various cordage examples, whittled stick, and fireboard all from looted cave fill at Spirit Eye.

 

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