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!
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.
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:
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).
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.
Archeomalacology is the study of mollusks in archeological contexts. Strictly speaking, this might include marine bivalves, marine snails, freshwater mussels, and various kinds of inland snails. In practice, though, I work only with snails (terrestrial, amphibious, and aquatic) from continental settings, along with some other kinds of very small invertebrate organisms that are sometimes recovered in snail sampling (pea clams, fingernail clams, and freshwater limpets).
There are two reasons why archeologists might want to commission studies of snails from archeological sites:
1) Snails are useful paleoenvironmental indicators.
2) In Central and South Texas, snails of the genus Rabdotus were a conspicuous food item beginning in the Early Archaic and perhaps peaking in exploitation in the Late Archaic.
Furthermore, snails can be used as a source of organic material for radiocarbon assay or epimerization studies, and have also been used for carbon and oxygen isotope studies.
Although to most archeologists, “snail” and “Rabdotus” are synonymous, in reality there are many native Texas land and amphibious species and perhaps as many as 41 aquatic species (although DNA studies are collapsing this number). Kathryn Perez estimates that there are as many as 185 contemporary and extirpated terrestrial species and subspecies, although I am skeptical that all these of these species reports are valid (many reports probably date from decades ago, when taxonomic splitting was rampant, and the real number of Texas natives is probably significantly lower). There are also a few species that have been extirpated since the Pleistocene, and around a dozen or so invasive Eurasian land or aquatic species. The native terrestrial species differ widely in habitat preference and body size, from the tiny Carychium mexicanum (adult shell height, 1.7-2.0 mm) to Rabdotus alternatus (adult shell height, up to 4.3 cm). In archeological sites where habitats were favorable and proper sampling is done, generally about two to three dozen taxa can be expected. In Texas, the Lubbock Lake site holds the record for diversity, with just under four dozen taxa.
Image: Here are two of the most common micro-sized terrestrial snail species in Texas (these examples are from Berger Bluff, in Goliad County). Neither will be captured in quarter-inch mesh. Image courtesy of Ken Brown.
The past two weeks involved hands on work that I was able to do on the rehousing project of our naturally preserved mummy. Working with cardboard boxes, duct tape, and other tools, I was able to come up with my first rough idea for both the outer box and inner sled. Upon further work, both Kerri and I decided that an additional inner sled would be needed. Hope to keep you all updated as we make more progress!
Check back later in the week as Truc continues to design and engineer protective long-term housing for this delicate set of remains as she continues her research into best practice for creating stable, preservation micro-environments for organic objects.
Sometimes even the smallest of creatures can provide big insights. Dr. Ken Brown, an archeologist and TARL Research Affiliate, has been on the trail of snails for decades. From these seemingly inconsequential mollusks, a wealth of data about past environments at archeological sites can be gleaned. Simply put, different species of snails can thrive in different environmental conditions. By determining which species were present at a given time, he can reconstruct what the climatic conditions were like over time. His observation of snails (species, habitat requirements, species densities and distributions, etc) allow him to contribute invaluable insight into site formation and transformation over time, evidence of bioturbation, possible signs of cultural utilization, and especially paleo-environmental reconstruction.
The processes involved in snail analysis is painstaking and often tedious, involving screening sediment samples through a series of increasingly fine-grained mesh, picking out the shells, sorting by size, and finally identifying them. Good eyesight is a must for this job: some snails in his samples are less than a millimeter across, and specimen storage is in gel caps, not plastic bags. For archeologists, however, this sort of information can be invaluable—and often the only available indicator of past environments.
Ken’s research interests are hardly limited to snails, however. He also is a specialist in prehistoric wooden artifacts, having studied (and identified) dozens of the snares, traps, curved sticks, dart shafts and other enigmatic items from TARL’s perishable collections. His detailed drawings, descriptions, photos and lab notes of these remarkable artifacts now fill very large ring- binders—the makings of a publication long awaited by other archeologists.
Ken’s interest in archeology can be traced back to his teen years participating in Texas Archeological Society field schools. He has been at it ever since. Awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, he has worked in the field for nearly 40 years and mostly at sites in Texas, but also in New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois and New York. Ken’s dissertation on the Berger Bluff site in Victoria County provides unique insight into the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene climatic history of the coastal plains of Texas. For that site—and many of the others he’s worked on—he did multiple types of analyses, analyzing not just mollusks, but myriad other fauna, lithics, etc.
Ken also has contributed substantive content to Texas Beyond History, including the McFaddin Beach exhibit (“This Site Is All Washed Up!”) http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/mcfaddin/index.html and a “mini-exhibit” on Berger Bluff http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/st-plains/images/ap5.html. In the past several years, he has also served as a TBH reviewer; his broad expertise and eagle eye as an editor have been greatly appreciated. His current work is focused on a project at the Genevieve Lykes Duncan site in Brewster County, one of only a few sites with Paleoindian-age deposits in the Trans Pecos.
In subsequent blog posts, Ken will share some of what he has learned about snails… and many other subjects, we hope!
Hello! My name is Truc Nguyen and I am an undergraduate currently finishing up my last semester at the University of Texas at Austin. I will hopefully graduate in May with a B.A. in Anthropology and a minor in French. My academic focus for the past few years has been mostly physical anthropology, particularly with human osteology.
I have had the great opportunity to work with many of the faculty and staff members both on the main campus and here at TARL. Currently, I am part of an Undergraduate Research Internship with Amber Heard-Booth. I am assisting her with her doctoral dissertation looking at variations in longitudinal arch in humans. This internship has allowed me to work closely with great technology, such as 3D scanners and software. Working with a graduate student has also given me insight on life in academia.
I am also working with Dr. John Kappelman as part of an independent study class. This has given me the opportunity to work here at TARL and explore the many collections here. Under the patient guidance of Kerri Wilhelm, I hope to gain experience and knowledge from working with such a vast amount of materials. I hope to be involved in as many projects as I can and I am so excited to be here!
I’ve been working with one of our visiting researchers in the Human Osteology collection to provide information that may assist them in determining potential descendant populations of the Akikosa and Atakapa. Making use of resources such as Texas Beyond History, our indispensable site files and archeological reports, as well as publicly available resources drawn from the UT libraries, the THC’s documentation on tribal claims and contacts (http://www.thc.state.tx.us/project-review/tribal-consultation-guidelines/tribal-contacts) and the online NAGPRA Native American Consultation Database, I can help researchers make connections between archeologically represented indigenous people and potentially descendant modern Native American groups. Being able to make those connections allows researchers to investigate topics like cultural evolution, affiliation and identity, gene flow and admixture, and provides a larger context for their specific research goals. It’s really exciting when the collections at TARL support what the documentation is telling us and a clearer image of the past begins to take shape.
There is a group of people who self-identify as being descendants of the Atakapa who are currently in the process of applying for federal recognition as a Native American tribe (“Atakapa-Ishak Nation”).
“We were called Atakapa by the Choctaw. The name was used by the Spaniards and French colonizers in Louisiana, as a slur word to refer to the Ishak people. This gave us a reputation and rumor of being “man eaters”, which continues through today. We, the descendants of the Atakapa-Ishak Indians exist unrecognized and misnamed under various names of choice like Creoles, Creole Indians, and Creoles of Color. The term “colored” has clouded our racial identity. Atakapa-Ishak descendants show a wide range of complexions which is attributed to the genes for light or brown complexions. Many Atakapa-Ishak no longer know their correct racial identity.”
TARL has long served as ‘the facility’ within the state of Texas where archeological collections of every size, in every state of preservation imaginable, and with any number of associated files (or the loudly-cursed lack thereof) have come to curated down through the decades as Texas archeology has evolved in theory and methodology from the large-scale excavations of the WPA era to satellite imagery and LIDAR of remote piloted drones conducting survey. As modern methodology in the field of archeology takes us further and further away from the days of ‘collect everything as you go’ toward an uncertain future where acrheological data and interpretive value are measured in terabytes, server space and 3D printing potential, we here at TARL carefully consider the research value and volume of the collections resting on the shelves. Unlike the tiny digital footprint resulting from the virtual reconstruction of an excavation, the collections here range in footprint from the Herrera Gates to a 15′ long dugout canoe, to 40lb. metates and countless projectile points. It can take your breath away if you stop to consider what lies inside the drawers here…4,000 years of human occupation caught in a snapshot, framed with carefully spun cordage, meticulously worked (and reworked) projectile points, and rabbit sticks worn smooth by countless calloused hands. To the archeologically-uninitiated the drawers hold curiosities made of stone, wood and bone. To those of us who have the privilege of calling TARL our “place of employment” these curiosities are the remnants of a distant past that was recorded in rock art and pictographs as opposed to cellulose and pixels. But it takes time and resources to curate these irreplaceable artifacts of human history from our great state. We are a small staff dedicated to the care of millions of artifacts and miles of site reports and archeological records. As we have done so many times before, we are looking for volunteers.
Marybeth Tomka, the Head of Collections at TARL, is interested in accepting volunteers to help her carry out the ongoing collections management tasks that allow these artifacts to retain their significance in history and prehistory. Collections, and artifacts at the individual level, are only of research value if they are properly recorded in documentation and entered carefully into a relational database that retains this critical information and makes it work for the researchers. Marybeth is responsible for seeing that all of the archeological collections which have been collected over many decades continue to be well-cared for and continue to be accessible to visiting researchers and archeologists. Students who volunteer at TARL are provided hands-on training in archeological collections processing, artifact identification and some laboratory methodologies (when she has the time). If you are a student interested in archeology, anthropology and/or museum collections management, the skills she can teach you through her volunteer program will assist you in your future professional endeavors. Don’t let the off-campus location deter you. The experience will prove well worth it and you’ll have the chance to work various prehistoric and historic collections and learn valuable skills from a trained professional archeologist. If you get your geek on the same way we do, if you want to have the chance to see the drawers that hold the history and contribute to our ongoing projects, contact Marybeth Tomka, Head of Collections at email@example.com.
Above image: Forrest Kirkland’s watercolor depiction of the art at Rattlesnake Canyon in the Lower Pecos is one of the dozens in TARL’s collections that have been scanned for viewing online on Texas Beyond History.
In 1933, artists Forrest and Lula Kirkland began a study of the extraordinary rock art of Texas. Working chiefly on weekend camping trips, the couple’s interest developed into a mission that was to span 10 years. Their epic journeys took them across much of the state, from the mountains of the Trans Pecos, to rocky bluffs along the clear streams of the Edwards Plateau, to the rugged canyonlands of the Lower Pecos. Wherever prehistoric peoples had found a stone canvas for their expression, the Kirklands traveled to examine and document the artwork. Early on, the two perfected the recording techniques that allowed them to capture the ancient pictographs and petroglyphs on canvas: Forrest carefully measured and sketched the art to scale in pencil, then adding water color to match the paintings on rock. Lula, meanwhile, drove, scouted for sites, photographed the art, and performed many camp chores.
The dozens of watercolor paintings that emerged from this near-Herculean effort are preserved at TARL for researchers to examine and compare to the ancient art today. Because of the careful documentation techniques the Kirklands employed, these paintings—now over 80 years old—constitute a critical record of the ancient art and are treasures in themselves. Much of the rock art observed and painted by Forrest Kirkland has since been damaged if not destroyed by natural forces and human vandals. Small details and even whole sections of paintings copied in the Kirkland watercolors no longer exist today.
The great majority of the Kirkland watercolor collection have been digitally scanned and is available for viewing on TARL’s website, Texas Beyond History, along with substantive discussion about the prehistoric and historic period painters and their cultures. Galleries of Kirkland’s renderings of the monumentally scaled Lower Pecos rock art can be viewed in detail at http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/plateaus/artistic/trail.html; that of the surprisingly diminutive works at Hueco Tanks in the Trans Pecos can be seen at http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/hueco/gallery.html. Further discussion is provided in a section on artistic expression of the Trans Pecos: http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/trans-p/artistic/index.html and Lower Pecos http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/plateaus/artistic/index.html. Spanning at least 4,500 years, Texas’ ancient rock art paintings are a window into the spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions of the past. At the other end of the spectrum, we can view through native artist’s eyes the coming of early Spanish explorers and priest and mull the cultural upheaval that lay in store at that long ago time.
Did You Know?
The first paintings done by Forrest Kirkland were of Paint Rock in central Texas. Not knowing who to consult about them, the artist sent J. E. Pearce, then chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas, black and white photographs of the paintings. Pearce was enthusiastic about Kirkland’s work and invited the Kirklands to visit him in Austin before archeologist A. T. Jackson left for a summer in the field. Jackson was then collecting data for his work on The Picture-Writing of Texas Indians and Pearce thought a meeting of the two men should be profitable for both. Lula Kirkland wrote:
“We went down and showed him the original paintings and enjoyed a very pleasant visit with them. Mr. Jackson considered getting Forrest to go with him on field trips as an artist, to paint the pictographs. But we preferred to go out on our own during our vacations.”
From The Rock Art of Texas Indians by Forrest Kirkland and W. W. Newcomb, Jr. (University of Texas Press, reprinted edition 1999).