Category Archives: Projects & Research

Petrography and Micromorphology of Caddo House Floor Material from 41LR2, Lamar County, Northeast Texas, by Dr. David Robinson

Dr. Robinson is a visiting researcher at TARL who spends a good deal of time here working on various collections from around Texas. This article is from TARL’s December 2016 newsletter. 

Recent research in the TARL microscopy lab has placed a highly magnified focus on a small section of a prehistoric Caddo structure from 41LR2, the Sanders site, a mound site in the Caddo country of northeast Texas.  The material is silty clay layers of two colors which came from the West mound.


The specimen was found by Tim Perttula, Mark Walters, and Bo Nelson, archeologists with ongoing research interests in the Sanders site.  They noticed that the item was in two colors, a yellowish brown (10YR 7/4; very pale brown) of the immediate floor about one cm thick; and a darker, grayish brown (10YR 3/2; very dark grayish brown) color above the floor surface, starting about 2.3 cm thick in the specimen (this is not the full thickness of the original deposit).  The specimen has a surface with rain cracks and a clear stick impression near one edge.  This may or may not indicate a structural floor surface.


All the microscope work was accomplished in the TARL microscopy lab on the Olympus BH2 polarizing light stereoscopic microscope.  The initial examination and transect counting were made at 100X magnification.

Possible structure floor surface fragment from 41LR2.
Possible structure floor surface fragment from 41LR2.


As of this writing, the microscope work has been finished except for follow-up checks as needed.  All the counts need to be added to a spreadsheet that will facilitate the making of graphs and statistical comparisons.


The analysis returned a wealth of data on the micromorphology and mineral composition of the sample.  Particles and bodies identified in the specimen include silt quartz, hematite, hornblende, micas, pyroxene, feldspar, voids, and organic materials.



The specimen shows no petrographic difference between the materals of different colors.  The material is technically a clayey silt rather than a clay, but it is rich in additional particles and bodies.  These additional minerals and organic bodies may provide additional information on the structures in the mound.

Thin section slide showing transect.
Thin section slide showing transect.


The work reported here has been carried out entirely at the TARL microscopy laboratory, a facility that is proving flexible to address a variety of research topics.  Marilyn Shoberg of TARL manages the microscopy lab under the direction of Dr. Brian Roberts.  The outsized sample thin section was the result of customized work by National Petrographic Service of Houston, Texas.


Reference Cited

Folk, R.L.

1980          Petrology of Sedimentary Rocks.  Hemphill Publishing Company.  Austin.

The Paul T. Seashore Basket Collection, by Judith W. Finger

Judith Finger is a visiting researcher at TARL studying Southwestern basketry from the prehistoric and historic periods. This article is part of TARL’s December 2016 newsletter.

In October, 2016, I visited TARL to study baskets in the Paul T. Seashore Collection of Native American baskets. The baskets, most dating to the early 1900s were donated to the Texas Memorial Museum in 1950. The Collection includes baskets from many California, Southwest, and Northwest Coast tribal groups as well as other less well known groups. There are traditional, utilitarian baskets, made for the Indians’ own use in addition to fancier, made-for-market ones, those to be sold to tourists and collectors as the Native Americans became part of the dominant Anglo cash economy.

For the past ten years, Dr. Catherine Fowler, Professor Emerita of the University of Nevada, Reno, and I have been researching the baskets collected by Helen J. Stewart, a pioneer rancher in Las Vegas, Nevada. She amassed a collection of 550 baskets, focusing on baskets woven by neighboring Southern Paiute and Nevada Shoshone women.  The informative TMM publication on the Seashore Collection, which we came across during our research, contained four baskets that we were able to identify as being from the Stewart Collection based on historic photographs of the Collection.

Helen Stewart with some of her basket collection. Two of the baskets shown here are now in the TARL collections.
Helen Stewart with some of her basket collection. Two of the baskets shown here are now in the TARL collections.

Thanks to the cooperation and assistance of Marybeth Tomka and Lauren Bussiere, I was able to spend time with the Seashore Collection and examine the four baskets, and several others I requested, with my own eyes and hands, to identify materials and get a better sense of construction techniques and design layouts. While I hoped to find detailed collection history in the accession file, beyond a typed list of the collection objects, there was not much else. However, information on this inventory did provide important historical context for some of the other baskets, such as a Hopi coiled plaque, woven on Second Mesa, and collected by Paul Seashore. The large plaque with a geometric design originally came from the collection of Heinrich (Henry) Voth, a Mennonite missionary and minister, born in Southern Russia, who lived with the Hopi in the 1890s. This basket was dated to the late 1880s.

Hopi coiled plaque from the Seashore Collection. Image: TARL Archive.
Hopi coiled plaque from the Seashore Collection. Image: TARL Archive.

Discussions with the TARL staff alerted me to the fact that there might well be additional files still in storage due to the move of the baskets from the Texas Memorial Museum to TARL about 10 years ago. As we continue our research and the TARL staff works through the containers still in storage, better, more detailed information may be discovered. In the meantime, Dr. Fowler and I are still looking at museum collections that include Helen Stewart’s baskets in preparation for a publication about Southern Paiute basketry and the Stewart Collection.

An Examination of Two South Texas Archaic Lithic Collections, By Christopher Ringstaff

Chris Ringstaff is Staff Archeologist at the Texas Department of Transportation and a visiting researcher at TARL. This article is part of TARL’s December 2016 newsletter.

As part of my continuing research into lithic technology of the South Texas Archaic sponsored by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), I have been conducting a study of bifaces from the A.E. Anderson collection and Lino Site (41WB437) collections over the past few months. The A.E. Anderson collection was chosen as it provides a large multi-county sample of Lower Rio Grande stone tools and may provide insight into regional technological and raw material variability. The Lino Site was selected as it is one of few stratified archeological sites in the region and offers a glimpse into diachronic change in Archaic period stone tool technology.

A.E. Anderson Triangular Points from Zapata County.
A.E. Anderson Triangular Points from Zapata County.

This ongoing study constitutes one aspect of TxDOT’s alternative mitigation project for site 41ZP191. The collections review is largely focused on the Middle Archaic triangular tradition and consists of a metric and technological analysis of complete and use-broken specimens as well as triangular preforms and staged bifaces. The data collected will be used to compare with specimens recovered from 41ZP191 and other excavated sites from the region. In addition, data from the staged bifaces and preforms are being used as a comparative control for a recent experimental lithic study also associated with the 41ZP191 Project. The experimental study explores the use of debitage analysis to examine biface production features and estimate labor expenditure.

The occasional distraction in the A.E. Anderson collection: a translucent dart point.
The occasional distraction in the A.E. Anderson collection: a translucent dart point.

The collections housed at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory offer incredible research opportunities for professional archeologists, graduate and undergraduate researchers, and avocational archeologists alike. As a visiting researcher, I found the staff at TARL knowledgeable, courteous, and helpful. They not only assisted me with locating collections and provided me lab space but made me feel welcomed as a fellow colleague, my sincere thanks to you all.

3D Scanning at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, By Dr. Robert Z. Selden, Jr.

Dr. Selden is a visiting researcher from the Center for Regional Heritage Research, Stephen F. Austin State University. The following article is part of TARL’s December 2016 newsletter. 


Over the course of 2016, my 3D scanners and I had the opportunity to visit the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL) on two occasions. Both of those projects are focused upon collecting data for the ongoing shape analyses (geometric morphometrics) of Caddo vessels; however, I always try to scan other artifacts and specimens as they are available. Those scans rarely get the attention that they deserve, and I thought this a proper forum to engage in a short discussion regarding one of these artifacts; a large biface from the George C. Davis site (41CE19) in East Texas (Figure 1).


Figure 1. TARL-41CE19-4078-63A, curated at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory.
Figure 1. TARL-41CE19-4078-63A, curated at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory.

This specimen (4078-63) comes from Feature 134 at the Davis site, and was associated with Skeleton 5. There is something adhering to the biface; according to Shafer (1973), this may be the remains of a leather sheath. He noted that edge smoothing and some polishing occurs almost around the full perimeter of the biface, which may have resulted from being carried in (and lightly abrading against) a loose sheath of bark or leather (Shafer 1973). This material is still present on the biface, and can also be seen on several of the Gahagan bifaces from the George C. Davis site. The biface is an impressive 480 mm (48 cm) in length.

3D Puzzle

Using those data from the 3D model, the biface was made into a 3D puzzle (Figure 2); you can download the plans here. There are 37 puzzle pieces that can be cut out from five sheets of 8.5×11″ paper; thus there is no need for a 3D printer. This puzzle is a bit more challenging than the ceramic puzzles. There are 754 triangles and 380 vertices–to put that in perspective, the decimated (50%) 3D model has over 2,400,000 triangles and 1,200,000 vertices. As you build the puzzle, take some time to ponder the skill, care and craftsmanship that the original Caddo maker took to create such an incredible tool.

Figure 2. 3D puzzle of the large biface from the George C. Davis site (Selden 2016).
Figure 2. 3D puzzle of the large biface from the George C. Davis site (Selden 2016).

Contact TARL and we’d be happy to send you an interactive 3D PDF file of Figure 1, so you can see the 3D scan from all angles. For more on how to engage with a 3D PDF, visit


Recent Research at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, by Timothy K. Perttula

Dr. Perttula is a visiting researcher who spends a good deal of time working with ceramics and other artifacts from TARL’s collections. The following article is part of TARL’s December 2016 newsletter. 

In addition to examining ceramic collections at TARL from Caddo sites across East Texas—including the ceramic vessels and sherds from the platform mound at the Hatchel site (41BW3) and sherds from more than 30 sites collected by Gus Arnold during his Works Progress Administration (WPA) survey of East Texas sites—I recently completed analyses of the ceramic sherd assemblage from the Harrell site (41YN1) in the upper Brazos River basin. The Harrell site was excavated by the WPA) in 1938 and 1939.

One of the characteristic material culture remains recovered from the Harrell site in WPA excavations were sherds from a number of plain (or minimally decorated) shell-tempered vessels. Shell-tempered vessels were relatively abundant in archeological deposits of Late Prehistoric age at the site, being associated with Harrell and Washita arrow points. My concern was to determine the stylistic and technological character of the ceramic sherds and other clay artifacts from the Harrell site, based on the recent reanalysis of the rehabilitated WPA collection by sherd type, temper, surface treatment, firing conditions, sherd thickness, rim and lip character, orifice diameter, and decorative elements. This information on the sherd assemblage data was employed to more completely characterize the range of ceramic wares at the site, and then compare them to other southern Plains ceramics in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma.

The assemblage includes 578 ceramic vessel sherds as well as fragments of a figurine and clay bead. The sherds are almost exclusively (96 percent) from shell-tempered vessels. There are shell-tempered, shell-hematite-tempered, thick (14-19 mm) non-tempered or bone-tempered paint cups, and other non-tempered or bone-tempered sherds not from paint cups. Most of these sherds are from plain vessels, but 7.5 percent shell or shell-hematite-tempered sherds have decorations, as do 53.3 percent paint cup sherds. The shell-tempered and shell-hematite-tempered vessel sherds have appliqued, brushed, brushed-incised, incised, punctated, incised-punctated (Figure 1), and red washed decorative elements; the latter are from thin-walled bowls, and not from paint cups. The paint cup sherds from Harrell are not corncob-impressed, the main style of paint cups in Plains Village sites in the southern Plains. The paint cup sherds from the site are the southernmost occurrence of this distinctive vessel in North Central Texas and southern and western Oklahoma, and suggests a close association between the Harrell site aboriginal occupants and Plains Village settlements on the Red River in North Central Texas and Washita phase settlements in southern and western Oklahoma (see Brooks and Drass 2005).

Figure 1. Selected decorated sherds and a sherd with a loop handle in the assemblage from the Harrell site: a-a’: Unit O9, 19 inches bs (No. 1493); b: Unit G6, 18 inches bs (No. 573); c: Unit T12, 24 inches bs (No. 3930); d: no provenience (No. 10096); e: Unit F13, 23 inches bs (No. 4263); f-f’: no provenience (No. 10095).
Figure 1. Selected decorated sherds and a sherd with a loop handle in the assemblage from the Harrell site: a-a’: Unit O9, 19 inches bs (No. 1493); b: Unit G6, 18 inches bs (No. 573); c: Unit T12, 24 inches bs (No. 3930); d: no provenience (No. 10096); e: Unit F13, 23 inches bs (No. 4263); f-f’: no provenience (No. 10095).

The Harrell site ceramic vessel sherds comprise a distinctive but far from homogenous aboriginal assemblage in the upper Brazos River basin in the Rolling Plains of North Central Texas. The detailed analysis recognized three separate ceramic wares—shell-tempered, shell-hematite-tempered, and non-tempered and bone-tempered paint cups—with their own characteristic ways in which vessels were shaped, tempered, smoothed, decorated, and fired, not just Nocona Plain vessel sherds. The paint cup sherds are the best available clue to the cultural and social relationships of the Harrell site aboriginal occupants and contemporaneous Plains Village settlements on the Red River in North Central Texas and southern and western Oklahoma and settlements in the Washita and Canadian rivers in southern and western Oklahoma.

Tracing Clovis Morphology: The “Other Occupation” of TBH’s Heather Smith

Heather Smith serves not just as Web Developer and Associate Editor of Texas Beyond History, but–having completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology at Texas A&M University—now teaches lithic technology and archeological field methods. Her research into Paleoindian behavior and technological adaptations, particularly fluted points, has taken her far afield: from Texas to Alaska and Siberia for fieldwork, and to museums and repositories across the U.S. and Canada to examine collections. A nine-year veteran with the TBH staff, she brings a variety of talents and experience, including photo communications and graphic design, in addition to her knowledge of archeology, to the website. In a new TBH Spotlight feature, she presents some of her findings on Clovis technology using geometric morphometric analysis.


Graphic designed by Heather Smith for the new TBH Spotlight feature highlighting her geometric morphometric study of fluted projectile points. The sample for the study included more than 100 points from 23 sites across the country, including several Clovis caches and a sample of Clovis points from the Gault site.

By Heather Smith

My fascination with Paleoindian archeology began while an undergraduate student studying anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin and as an intern doing web and graphic design for Texas Beyond History. From that early point in my academic career, my interests became focused on late Pleistocene hunter-gatherer research and First Americans studies. As a graduate student at Texas A&M University, I began to sharpen my major research questions on ways human technology and behavior were adapted to past environments. I became curious as to how prehistoric peoples organized their lithic technology, beginning with the acquisition of raw materials, to the manufacture and maintenance of tools, to the loss or discard of tools. On a larger scale, I wanted to research the timing and means of human dispersal events that resulted in the occupation of the American continents.

One of my projects involved collecting metric and geometric morphometric data on early fluted projectile points and subsequent statistical analyses of this information. Although this research required me to travel to numerous museums and curation facilities across North America, a major focus was TARL, where one of the most important assemblages of Paleoindian artifacts was being studied: Clovis projectile points from the Gault site. Now as an archeologist, university instructor, and Associate Editor of TBH, I am continuing my research in this exciting field.


Clovis points from the Gault site used in the geometric morphometric study of fluted projectile points. Photo by Heather Smith, TARL.

In a new Spotlight feature on TBH, I explain how geometric morphometrics can be used in chipped-stone projectile point analysis. These and other analytical tools can help us understand stone-tool manufacture processes, variation in chipped-stone points, and provide evidence to help identify patterns in the movements and adaptations of people across the landscape. Interestingly, my findings suggest that Clovis points from the Gault site were more closely associated with other points from the southwest region, including Blackwater Draw in Clovis, New Mexico, and with those from the northwest, rather than with Clovis points from the northeast. Said differently, it appears that the same peoples who occupied southwestern places like Gault were the same cultural groups or closely related to those who occupied the northwest during this early time period.


Smith photographing Clovis points at the National Museum of Natural History.

To see the TBH Spotlight feature, visit:


The Harrell Site Revisited: Collections Rehab Work at TARL

By Lauren Bussiere

Last year, TARL received a grant from the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Preservation Trust Fund grant program to conduct a collection rehabilitation project on one of our oldest collections of archaeological material. For this project, TARL chose the collection from the Harrell Site, a fascinating site in North Texas that was excavated by the WPA in 1938-1939. This rehab project was designed to make sure that the site collection is preserved for many years to come, and catalogued in such a way that it can be studied by future researchers. The rehab efforts also served as a pilot project to establish effective and efficient rehab procedures for use on other collections here at TARL.

The Harrell Site excavation was one of the largest projects conducted by the North Texas WPA team. Sitting on bluffs above the Brazos River, the site included a massive midden and hearth feature, known as the “Great Midden,” as well as numerous smaller hearths and burials. Two main occupations, dating to the Late Archaic and Late Prehistoric periods, are seen at the site, with continued usage of the site in the intervening period suggested as well. The Harrell site is the namesake for the Harrell Point, a small arrow point, and was considered the type site for the Henrietta Focus by archaeologist Alex Krieger, who analyzed the site collection in 1945. Read more about the Harrell site excavations here.

Harrell_points Scrapers
Harrell Points and Thumbnail End Scrapers from the Harrell site.

The WPA excavations of the 1930s and 40s were conducted in partnership with UT, and many of the materials recovered were brought to the University back in the 1940’s. But, curation standards in 2015 are much different than they were 75 years ago! While our newer accessions are stored and catalogued using modern practices, many of our older collections are still stored in the same condition they have been in for 30 years, or 50 years, or longer.

Our grant from TPTF was a rare and important opportunity to dedicate resources and staff time to bringing these collections up to modern standards. Eventually we hope to apply what we’ve learned from this project to all of our older collections.

TARL’s Harrell site rehabilitation project consisted of three main components:
1. Digitizing, inventorying, and improving storage for all of the field notes, reports, maps, and other records associated with the Harrell site’s excavation and subsequent analysis;
2. Cataloguing, photographing, and repackaging all of the artifacts remaining in the Harrell site collection, and re-analyzing the human remains from the site; and,
3. Creating a searchable, state-of-the art database that contains all of the data relating to the site artifacts, features, and records.

RecordsRecords2 Harrell site records before and after rehabilitation.

As a result of these rehab efforts, the 2,300+ artifacts that comprise the Harrell collection are now individually tagged and repackaged, and their storage conditions will ensure that they are safe for a much longer time. All the site records are organized, protected, and available for digital viewing. And, our database will make it simple to see what excavators found at the site, what we still have, and where to find every single artifact within TARL’s collections. This work has paved the way for future analysis of the Harrell site collection, and for our future rehab efforts on other collections.

Bone_and_shell Packaging Bone and shell tools from the Harrell site before and after rehabilitation.

Rehabilitating the Harrell collection has also been a valuable opportunity to revisit some of the past work that has been done on the site. The artifact assemblage plainly shows that many of the cultural practices inferred by Krieger and others were clearly present at the site: residents were grinding food with manos and metates, probably practicing s ome horticulture or agriculture, and utilizing the abundant mussels from the river as a major food source. Numerous projectile points of many sizes and types were used for hunting during both major occupation phases. Ceramic pipes and ochre indicate that ceremonial or ritual activity took place at the site, and intrusive burials suggest that the locations of earlier grave sites were preserved in cultural memory over some length of time.

TARL’s rehab work on the Harrell site collection has opened the door for future work on the site significant contributions to our understanding of North Texas in prehistory could be made by researchers:
• conducting usewear analysis of the stone tool collection,
• studying the assemblage in comparison to other sites, or
• close analysis of the ceramics, mussel shell, or bone artifacts.

These are just a few examples of the types of work that could be done using this collection. We hope that this work will spark interest in additional research on this site and other WPA-era collections housed here at TARL.

We hope to have a full report on our rehab work—including an online database with photos—available to the public through the TARL website very soon. We are extremely grateful to the THC for making this important work possible!

TARL at the 86th Annual Meeting of the Texas Archeological Society

by Lauren Bussiere


Jessie, Marybeth, Lauren, Stacy and Jonathan at the TAS meeting

Recently TARL’s staff braved torrential downpours, high winds, and sketchy hotel continental breakfasts to attend the 86th Annual Meeting of the Texas Archeological Society in Houston. We all greatly enjoyed sharing our work with our friends and colleagues, meeting new folks and spending time with old friends.

During the meetings, TAS honored TARL Associate Director Jonathan Jarvis for 20 years of membership, and Texas Beyond History director Susan Dial for 30 years of membership in the TAS. We are reminded of how fortunate TARL is to have such dedicated and knowledgeable members of the professional community leading our team!

TARL staff had a great time presenting our work at our symposium session, “TARL Today: Projects and Prospects,” and we are grateful to everyone who took the time to come listen to our presentations and offer their feedback on our work. TARL Associate Director Jonathan Jarvis presented on “The Legacy of A. T. Jackson,” providing a fascinating look into the history of TARL’s collections and particularly the many assemblages that were excavated during the WPA era of Texas archaeology. Head of Collections Marybeth Tomka and Curatorial Assistant Lauren Bussiere shared their pilot project—rehabbing one of these WPA-era collections—in their talk “WPA Archaeology: Revisiting the Harrell Site Collections.” TARL Osteologist and NAGPRA Coordinator Stacy Drake discussed her findings regarding “Skeletal Pathologies of Prehistoric Individuals at Falcon Reservoir,” providing a fascinating look into the challenges of salvage projects, and TARL Osteology Intern Jessie LeViseur demonstrated the wealth of new information that can be gained from re-analyzing old collections in her talk, “The Harrell Site: A New Perspective of a Prehistoric Cemetery.” Finally, TARL Director Brian Roberts discussed TARL’s current state and plans for the future in his presentation, “TARL Today.” We hope that our session provided an interesting look into the various projects that keep us busy here at TARL.

We were all also glad to have the opportunity to hear about the great projects our colleagues across the state have been conducting. TARL would like to extend our thanks to all the presenters for sharing their work, to our audience members for their interest in TARL and support of our work, and especially to the organizers of the TAS meetings: the Houston Archeological Society, Fort Bend Archeological Society, and Brazoria Archeological Society. Their hard work made this year’s meetings a fun and educational experience for all of us!

Finding Microwear Patterns on Stone Tools: Marilyn Shoberg, TARL Microwear Analyst

Featured image: Microwear analyst Marilyn Shoberg examines a stone tool under a microscope in the TARL laboratory. She typically makes observations at magnifications ranging from 50X to 500X and captures potentially diagnostic wear traces with a digital Moticam camera.

by Marilyn Shoberg

After receiving my MA in Anthropology from UT-Austin,  I joined the Gault Project at TARL in 2000 and began doing microwear analysis, looking at experimental tools and archeological tools from the Gault Site. Some of the stone artifacts in an archeological assemblage are formal tools that have recognizable shapes such as projectile points, bifaces, or endscrapers. Many more artifacts appear to have been used, however, and unless we look at them under the microscope we can only guess at what their function may have been.

When a stone tool is used the edge is gradually worn away by the loss of flakes and abrasion, and the surface is modified by contact with the worked material so that it appears shiny or polished.  Microwear analysis is a systematic process of recording wear traces such as edge flaking, the surface characteristics of polish, and the orientation of striations on a stone tool in order to determine how that tool was used.

The research microscope used at TARL for this analysis is an Olympus BH2 reflected light microscope with Nomarski optics. Observations are made at magnifications from 50X to 500X.  Images of potentially diagnostic wear traces are captured with a digital Moticam camera.

Microwear analysts learn how to identify the various attributes of wear traces by looking at experimental tools used in many different tasks on a wide variety of materials.  It is absolutely essential for every analyst to do experiments and to acquire a reference collection of tools used in tasks relevant to prehistoric human behavior.  The comparative collection of experimental tools we have at TARL is a terrific asset for analysis and teaching.  It has grown from the work of many former students here at UT, archaeologists and friends of archaeology.  The collection includes tools used on plant materials, several kinds of wood, bone, antler, elephant ivory, hide, and butchering a variety of animals.

Patterns of wear on replicated stone tools used for woodworking are shown at a magnification of 500X. The three tools--an adze and two flakes--were crafted by a modern knapper and used for different tasks on different types of wood. Experimental tools such as these provide a comparative baseline for discerning microwear patterns on ancient tools, determining how they might have been used, and on what materials.
Patterns of wear on replicated stone tools used for woodworking are shown at a magnification of 500X. The three tools–an adze and two flakes–were crafted by a modern knapper and used for different tasks on different types of wood. Experimental tools such as these provide a comparative baseline for discerning microwear patterns on ancient tools, determining how they might have been used, and on what materials.


In addition to a large number of Clovis tools from the Gault Site, I have analyzed artifacts from a number of CRM projects in Texas, and sites in Arizona, Illinois, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Belize.

In archaeology we attempt to understand past human behavior from material culture, however only a very small fraction of that material culture survives.  The things that people made from perishable organic materials such as plants, wood, bone, and skin are for the most part missing from the archaeological record.  The fascinating aspect of microwear analysis is that the tools used in the manufacture of the “missing majority” of that perishable material culture provide clues to the kinds of things people were making at particular places.

Among the most interesting tools I have looked at are a small Clovis age flake used to incise bone, tools used to pierce animal skin, perhaps in the manufacture of clothing or shelter, and small prismatic blade fragments used in fine cutting or scraping tasks on grass, reed and wood.  Sometimes you find an example of a recycled tool like a used-up projectile point re-purposed as a scraper or abrader on animal skin.

You are welcome to contact me to learn more about the research I conduct and to discuss my availability to contribute to projects under contract.  My contact information is below:

Marilyn Shoberg

Microwear Analyst

Texas Archeological Research Laboratory

The University of Texas at Austin

1 University Station R7500​

Austin, Texas 78712


A Masterpiece in Stone

Featured image:  This exceptionally well made corner-tang knife measures almost a foot in length and just over a third of an inch in thickness.  Because it derived from a burial context and appears to be unused, it almost certainly was a “ritual” or symbolic object, reflecting the special status of the individual with whom it was buried.  TARL Collections; photo by Laura  Nightengale.

by Susan Dial

More than 1500 years ago, an expert craftsman fashioned this unusual corner tang biface with an extraordinarily long, curved blade.  Based on the color and fine-grained texture  of the stone, the material he chose for this piece likely derived from the Georgetown  area in central Texas.  And based on the over-sized  proportions and lack of wear along the blade edges or other evident signs of use, the piece had not been  intended for utilitarian purposes.

In 1974, excavators from The University of Texas at Austin uncovered the biface along with numerous other items—including a second corner tang biface and shell ornaments—from the burial of a young woman in a prehistoric cemetery in Austin County, Texas.   Known as the Ernest Witte site (41AU36), the cemetery contained more than 250 burials, reflecting approximately 3000 years of use.  The burial group from which the biface was recovered dates to Late Archaic times, ca.  650 B.C. to A.D. 450, and was notable for evidence of violence within the remains (at least five individuals died from dart point wounds).   In addition, several artifacts from the same burial group were made from “exotic”, or nonlocal, materials, indicating the people were involved in a long-range trade network or “import-export” system during the Late Archaic.  For example, several boatstones (likely atlatl weights) and a gorget were made of stone from the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, hundreds of miles distant.

Corner tang knives are a distinctive artifact form, typically characterized by an off-center placement of the tang, or haft element, but varying considerably in size and blade shape. Edge wear on some suggests hafting for use as a cutting implement; others have been worn down through use and reworked into drills. Thought to originate in central  Texas  (based on numbers of recorded specimens in a 1930s study by J. T. Patterson), more recent tallies indicate their distribution extends as far north as Wyoming, although generally confined to the Plains.

The specimen from the Ernest Witte site is without question one of the finest and largest known examples of the corner tang type.  Measuring 28.8 cm in length and 5.1 cm in width, it is exceptionally well thinned, with maximum thickness of less than one centimeter.  The remarkable proportions of this artifact—its length and flatness—suggested to  Site Archeologist Grant Hall that the piece was made on a large chert slab which had been reduced to form a blank, rather than from a large flake.

Because of its context and because it appears unused, we can conclude that this grave offering carried special significance, a ritual or symbolic function. Indeed its large blade size relative to the diminutive stem almost certainly would result in a break if the tool were hafted and used for cutting, skinning, or some other process. Smaller corner tang bifaces found throughout central Texas show evidence of use such as worn or beveled edges and fractures.

Although very rare, large corner tang bifaces have been recovered from burials in other south Texas cemetery sites including the Morhiss Mound site in Victoria County and the Silo site  (41KA102) in Karnes County.

At Silo, three corner tang artifacts were found with the burial of a child who was interred beneath an adult male.  Like the Ernest Witte corner tang specimens, those from the Silo site appear to be unused.  Archeologists Cory Broehm and Troy Lovata wrote of the Silo Site items:   “The combination of quality, size, and context of these artifacts is exceptionally rare. These pristine artifacts suggest the child was held in very high esteem.”  Two additional specimens were associated with the burial of an adult male at the site.

It is interesting that at both the Silo site and the Ernest Witte cemetery, some of the females were interred face down in the grave.  Indeed, this rather unusual mode of burial was almost exclusively reserved for females, with only one male in Group 1 and one in Group 2 (the Late Archaic) interred in this fashion at Ernest Witte.  The exceptionally crafted corner tang biface from that site, shown at the top of the page, was placed in the grave of a woman who had been interred face down.  While we cannot know what these different practices and grave offerings meant to the groups who buried their dead at these and other south Texas cemetery sites, they are important reminders of the rich complexities of hunter-gatherer mortuary customs.


For more information:

Records and collections from the Ernest Witte site are curated at TARL and are reported in Allens Creek: A Study in the Cultural Prehistory of the Lower Brazos River Valley by Grant D. Hall (Texas Archeological Survey Research Report No. 61, The University of Texas at Austin, 1981).

Records and collections from the Silo site are curated at TARL and are reported by Troy Lovata in Archaeological Investigations at the Silo Site (41KA102), a Prehistoric Cemetery in Karnes County, Texas. (Unpublished M.A. thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin, 1997).

See also:

Broehm, Cory J. and Troy R. Lovata

2004 Five Corner Tang Bifaces from the Silo Site, 41KA102, a Late Archaic Mortuary site in South Texas. Plains Anthropologist 49(189):59-77.

Patterson, J. T.

1936 The Corner-Tang Flint Artifacts of Texas  by J. T. Patterson (University of Texas Bulletin No. 3618, Anthropological papers, Vol. 1, No. 4); Corner-Tang Stone Artifacts of the Plains.


Corner-tang bifaces from the burial of a child at the Late Archaic Silo site in south Texas.  Although not as large as the Ernest Witte specimen, they are of similar quality. TARL Collections.
Corner-tang bifaces from the burial of a child at the Late Archaic Silo site in south Texas. Although not as large as the Ernest Witte specimen, they are of similar quality. TARL Archives.


Small corner-tang artifacts with edge-wear and other signs of use. The tools likely were used for a variety of tasks. TARL Collections.
Small corner-tang artifacts with edge-wear and other signs of use. The tools likely were used for a variety of tasks. TARL Collections.