All posts by Dorothy Riegert

An Update on Research at Spirit Eye Cave

 

By Bryon Schroeder

A recent collaboration between the Center for Big Bend Studies of Sul Ross State University and the Texas Archeological
Research Lab focuses on advancing the analysis of both plant and human DNA at Spirit Eye Cave. The impetus for the maize
research follows from the results of radiocarbon dated cobs that confirm the presence of Late Archaic maize at the cave.
Housed at TARL are additional corncobs from a private collection that was recovered in the late 1990s from a collector in
California. The morphology of the cobs in this collection are consistent with older examples from southern New Mexico
and it is possible they are older than previously dated examples. In addition to dating the specimens housed at TARL, BioArch
at the University of York is sequencing the DNA so we can understand the phylogenetic history of this maize in regards to
previously sequenced specimens from the American Southwest and Mexico.

This is important because the role of maize in Late Archaic groups in the eastern Trans-Pecos is assumed to be minimal.
As Mallouf (2005:239) suggests “the use of cultigen was cursory at best, possibly serving only as a dietary supplement, and
may have been restricted to occasional, relatively haphazard and experimental plantings in suitable soils near springs or along
segments of larger drainages …” However isotopic analysis from several eastern Trans-Pecos burials suggests opposite trophic
patterns. As a general statement Piehl (2009:81) states, the Late Archaic individuals look, “similar to incipient agriculturalists in
the Jornada-Mogollon region” whereas the Late Prehistoric individuals, some presumed to be agriculturalists, look like Archaic
populations, “outside of the eastern Trans-Pecos or Lower Pecos regions, rather than incipient agriculturalists or those relying
on maize agriculture.” Although Piehl’s results were limited, they indicate maize may have had a longer and more significant role
in the region than was previously assumed.

Sampled Cob from Spirit Eye Cave

In addition to the maize research, we extracted samples to sequence the DNA from an individual that was part of the Spirit Eye
Cave collection recovered in California. Much like the maize research, the combination of mtDNA and radiocarbon data will help
us understand the individual’s phylogenetic history and provide a step forward for future collaboration for both descendant
communities and researchers grappling with heavily looted sheltered sites in Texas.

ONE BURNED PRICKLYPOPPY SEED AND A FEW OTHER THINGS WE DIDN’T EVEN KNOW WE HAD

Leslie L. Bush

Macrobotanical Analysis

 

 

Last fall, an archeologist working at TARL recognized a rare opportunity to look for plant remains from a site that had been excavated nearly 80 years ago. The site is the Rob Roy Site (41TV41), located in western Travis County, Texas on a terrace of the Colorado River. Austin residents will recognize the name for the residential subdivision that now overlooks the site. University of Texas personnel led by Dr. Kalvero Oberg excavated at Rob Roy from December 1938 to April 1939 with funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Artifacts and notes were sent to TARL, but as attention turned toward World War II, the materials were never properly analyzed or written up.

 

Regular readers of the TARL blog know that retired archeologist Dan Prikryl is currently working on the Rob Roy collections (December 2016, December 2017). He originally planned to use two charcoal samples from Rob Roy for radiocarbon dating, but he quickly realized that the soil collected along with the wood charcoal could contain small seeds or bulbs from foods and other useful plants. These could be parts of food plants that were accidentally burned during cooking, medicinal plants discarded after being used in poultices or teas, or debris from plants used for objects like baskets that were disposed of by burning in a campfire. Only plants that have been carbonized (turned to charcoal in a fire) can survive in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years at a site like Rob Roy where the deposits aren’t protected by cave walls and where the climate is humid enough that fresh plant parts decay into compost within weeks, months, or decades.

 

It’s not quite clear why Dr. Oberg directed workers to save charcoal samples from the Rob Roy site. WPA-era excavators working on large mound centers like the George C. Davis Site collected burned corn cobs and beans but not usually wood charcoal. Radiocarbon dating, which is often done on wood charcoal, hadn’t been invented in the late 1930s when excavations were going on. The principle of flotation processing, the method for extracting small seeds from archaeological soils, was known but didn’t come into common use in archeology until the 1980s. It’s possible Dr. Oberg knew about early studies in dendrochronology and dendroclimatology and decided to collect samples in case they turned out to be useful for tree ring dating or understanding past climate and weather patterns.

 

Since I specialize in identifying wood, nutshell, seeds, and similar plant material from archeological sites, Dan showed me the two charcoal samples from Rob Roy in the spring of 2017. I was able to select and identify a few fragments of wood charcoal for radiocarbon dating. Even in that quick scan, I could see that two types of wood had been burned in Feature 1, live oak (Quercus fusiformis; Figure 1) and an oak of the white group (Quercus sect. Quercus, which includes post oak, Q. stellata). Feature 2 contained white group oak, but it wasn’t clear if any other kind of plant material was present.

Figure 1: A fragment of live oak wood charcoal from Feature 1.

 

The size of the sample from Feature 1 was 4.1 cubic decimeters, about a gallon, and it included loose soil as well as charcoal. At 0.1 cubic decimeters, the sample from Feature 2 was smaller, roughly ½ cup, but it also included some soil. Dan and I judged that flotation processing would allow us to recover small seeds or bulb fragments that might be present but not readily recognizable among all the dirt and wood charcoal. Dan was interested in knowing what kinds of foods might have been cooked in the earth ovens at Rob Roy. Bison was abundant at the site, but plant foods are commonly cooked in earth ovens, too (Thoms et al. 2018). Many bulbs, roots, and tubers are more palatable and nutritious after the long slow cooking that earth ovens provide (Wandsnider 1997). In central Texas, these include wild onions and garlic (Allium spp.), eastern camas (Camassia scilloides), and scurfpea (Pediomelum spp.). We also hoped to recover plant material such as grass stems, grape leaves (Vitis spp.), and pricklypear pads (Opuntia spp.) that would have been used to provide moisture and insulate the food plants from the ash and charcoal in the fire. Dr. Steve Black, another archeologist associated with TARL (TBH co-editor) who has worked extensively on earth ovens, was also interested in seeing what, if any, plants might have been cooked in the earth ovens at Rob Roy. He provided a small grant to get the project underway.

 

TARL curator Marybeth Tomka prepared loan papers that allowed me to take the charcoal samples to my laboratory for processing and microscopic examination. Flotation processing is a water separation method where soil from an archeological site is placed in water to allow any bits of plants to float to the surface while soil particles and any artifacts sink to the bottom of the container. Floating plant material can then be poured off (decanted) into a fine mesh or scooped off with a fine mesh strainer. Flotation processing can be as simple as placing soil in a 5-gallon bucket and decanting plant material into the kind of fine mesh used in tent windows (Figure 2). Any heavier artifacts still in the soil can be separated by pouring the remaining sludge through a screen. This method is what I used for the Rob Roy samples. More elaborate flotation systems use devices like electric sump pumps, jet nozzles, and aerators to make flotation faster and easier. All three editions of Deborah Pearsall’s essential textbook, Paleoethnobotany, include extensive discussion of various flotation devices.

Figure 2: Flotation light fraction from the Eagle Bluff Site (41ME147), where light gastropods were decanted from the water surface along with modern rootlets and ancient charcoal. “24” is the number of this sample in the flotation log book.

 

Microscopic examination of the flotation samples showed that the archeological plants at Rob Roy consisted mostly of wood charcoal. Based on a sample of twenty fragments selected at random from each feature, Feature 1 contained about 85% live oak and 15% white oak. Feature 2 was at least 95% white oak, but a single fragment of wood charcoal was clearly not oak. The fragment was too small and brittle to identify conclusively, but the closest match appears to be povertyweed (Baccharis spp.), a weedy shrub that colonizes open areas near streambanks. Use of oaks for earth oven cooking makes a lot of sense both because they would have been common in the area even thousands of  years ago and because they are dense woods that produce hot, long-lasting coals (Collier and Turner 1981; Marcouiller and Anderson n.d.). Carbonized fungi and insect droppings (probably termite) identified under the microscope indicate that the oak wood had been dead for some time prior to burning (Figure 3). Fuelwood was probably collected from snags or fallen trees in the gallery forest along the Colorado River.

 

Figure 3: Carbonized fungus from Feature 1 at the Rob Roy Site

 

No evidence of bulbs or tubers that are commonly cooked in earth ovens or evidence of any material used to wrap foods during cooking was found in either sample. Feature 1 did produce seeds from one food plant and one medicinal plant, however.

 

The probable food plant remains consisted of three seeds and one seed fragment of goosefoot (Chenopodium spp.) (Figures 4 and 5). Seeds of goosefoot plants are edible, and two species, C. quinoa (yes, that quinoa!) and C. berlandieri, were domesticated for their edible seeds in ancient times by Native American Indians. At least four species of goosefoot grow in Central Texas today, including C. berlandieri (Figure 6). No evidence for domesticated C. berlandieri has been found in the area, and the seeds from Rob Roy have thick, wild-type seedcoats. Goosefoot, quinoa, and other chenopodium species are members of the spinach family, known for nutritious, iron-rich greens. Goosefoot greens as well as seeds may have been exploited by the ancient inhabitants of the Rob Roy Site. In addition, the flowering seedheads of chenopodium species are edible, raw or cooked, like modern broccoli (Glore 2006). Nutritional studies of various species of chenopodium show they can be important sources of protein, minerals (especially iron), anti-oxidants, and anti-microbials (Navruz-Varli and Sanlier 2016; Poonia and Upadhayay 2015).

 

Figure 4: Goosefoot (Chenopodium spp.) seeds and seed fragment from Feature 1, Rob Roy Site.

Figure 5: Chenopodium plants can be difficult to identify to species. This one, photographed in San Saba County on August 18, 2018, is either slim-leaf goosefoot (C. leptophyllum) or thick-leaf goosefoot (C. pratericola).

 

Figure 6: Fruits of pitseed goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri) from a wild stand in western Travis County, Texas.

 

The probable medicinal plant remains consisted of one seed and two seed fragments of pricklypoppy (Argemone spp.) (Figures 7 and 8). To the author’s knowledge, this is the first pricklypoppy recovered archeologically in central Texas, although it is known from the Tres Metates Site in the Trans-Pecos (Dering 2008). Among historic Native Americans, use of pricklypoppies was almost always medicinal, and seeds were typically the plant part used. Paiutes, Shoshones, Kawaiisu, and Washoes used a salve containing the crushed seeds for cuts, sores, and burns (Moerman 1998:89-90). Shoshones used the salve to kill lice as well. Shoshones and Comanches used an infusion of pricklypoppy seeds to treat sore eyes, and Shoshones also ate pulverized seeds as a more general medicine (Moerman 1998:89-90). An American native, pricklypoppy is now widespread in warm regions worldwide, and its seeds, leaves, and roots have been used by many people to treat ailments from toothaches and eye problems to cancer (Cheatham et al. 1995:448-458).

 

Figure 7: Pricklypoppy seed from Feature 1, Rob Roy Site

 

Figure 8: Prickypoppy (Argemone sp.) photographed in western Travis County, Texas.

 

Although it was disappointing not to find evidence of typical earth oven plants like camas bulbs, scurfpea tubers, or prickypear pads, the information gained by processing and examining the flotation samples is still useful. First, we discovered evidence that the ancient inhabitants at the Rob Roy site were using pricklypoppy, probably medicinally, and eating the leaves, seeds, and/or flowering seedheads of goosefoot. As to what was cooked in the earth ovens, the lack of bulbs, tubers, or packing material suggests either that the people at Rob Roy were such very careful cooks that no plant foods or packing material were accidentally charred or that the earth ovens were used to cook something other than plant foods. Given the abundance of bison bone at the site, pit cooking of bison is a strong possibility.

 

Insights from plant remains at the Rob Roy Site highlight the long-term research potential of the extensive WPA collections at TARL: eight decades on the shelf and still yielding new data!

 

 

 

References Cited

 

Cheatham, Scooter, Marshall Corning Johnston, and Lynn Marshall

1995 Useful Wild Plants of Texas, the Southeastern and Southwestern United States, the Southern Plains, and Northeastern Mexico, Volume 1: Abronia-Arundo. Useful Wild Plants, Inc., Austin, Texas.

 

Collier, Kathy, and Larry Turner

1981 Obtaining, Seasoning and Burning Wood, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service AEES-18. Lexington, Kentucky. https://www.bae.uky.edu/publications/AEES/AEES-18.pdf. Accessed March 27, 2015.

 

Dering, J. Phillip

2008 Ethnobotany of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. https://texasbeyondhistory.net/ethnobot/index.html. Accessed 9/15/18.

 

Glore, Angela Gordon

2006 Domesticated Chenopodium in North America: Comparing the Past and the Present. Ph. D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Washington University.

 

Marcouiller, Dave, and Steven Anderson

n.d.   Firewood: How to Obtain, Measure, Season, and Burn. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, NREM-9440. Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma. http://pods.dasnr.okstate.edu/docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-2507/NREM-9440web.pdf. Accessed March 27, 2015.

 

Moerman, Daniel E.

1998 Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.

 

Navruz-Varli, Semra, and Nevin Sanlier

2016 Nutritional and Health Benefits of Quinoa (Chenopodium Quinoa Willd.). Journal of Cereal Science 69: 371–376.

 

Pearsall, Deborah M.

2015 Paleoethnobotany: A Handbook of Procedures. 3rd ed. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.

 

Poonia, Amrita, and Ashutosh Upadhayay

2015 Chenopodium Album Linn: Review of Nutritive Value and Biological Properties. Journal of Food Science and Technology 52(7): 3977–3985.

 

Thoms, Alston V., Laura M. Short, Masahiro Kamiya & Andrew R. Laurence

2018 Ethnographies and Actualistic Cooking Experiments: Ethnoarchaeological Pathways toward Understanding Earth-Oven Variability in Archaeological Records. Ethnoarchaeology 10(2):76-98. https://doi/full/10.1080/19442890.2018.1510125

 

Wandsnider, LuAnn

1997 The Roasted and the Boiled: Food Composition and Heat Treatment with Special Emphasis on Pit-Hearth Cooking. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 16:1-48.

Thank You and Good Luck Lauren!

Dear friends and colleagues, 

Thank you so much for making my past few years at TARL some of the best years of my career. Although it’s time for me to move on, I have enjoyed working with and learning from you, and I’m deeply grateful to everyone who welcomed me and shared their expertise with me. TARL is a truly special place and I will miss being a part of it. This isn’t goodbye, though–you will all see me around at professional and community events, not to mention doing research in the TARL library! 

I wish you all the best,

Lauren

We would like to thank Lauren Bussiere, our curatorial assistant, for her wonderful work here since 2015. Lauren is leaving TARL to explore a new stage in her career with a commercial company  SEARCH, Inc. Lauren has been an invaluable contributor to TARL, adding constant dedication to her archival work ensuring the preservation of material in perpetuity and facilitating both student and public outreach. Within the Texas archaeological community, Lauren is highly valued and respected for her contributions both to TARL and its associated researchers. Her work is often marked by innovation and commitment to implementing the most up to date curatorial standards.  With the utmost enthusiasm valuing all that archaeology has to offer a community, Lauren frequently engaged in educational opportunities, oversight of undergraduate internships, and outreach through our blog, Facebook, and TARL newsletter.

As a true Texan, Lauren received her B.A. from Texas State University and then went on to earn an M.A. from the University of California, San Diego. With robust experience, her career includes work in Jordan, Mexico, Belize, California, and Texas. Her vast knowledge and capabilities will make her an excellent Laboratory Manager for SEARCH, Inc! While we will greatly miss Lauren, we wish her the best of luck and are excited for the possibility to work with her in a different capacity in the future!