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.
Thanks to the efforts of our very own Rosario Casarez, TARL’s involvement with UT’s educational ‘open house’ program was a great success this past Saturday! Despite the rather chilly and overcast beginning to the day downtown on the main campus, the sun eventually put in an appearance and warmed us up as we manned our tables, answered questions, warded off loaded paintbrushes, made corn husk dolls and handed out information about archeology in Texas. Arriving early, we put up our tables and mingled with the dedicated anthropology graduate students and then ferreted out the nearest Starbucks (1st floor of the SAC!) to properly fortify ourselves for the morning.
Jonathan Jarvis, our Associate Director, and Susan Dial, editor and project manager of Texas Beyond History, both presented talks in a classroom on the first floor of the CLA building.
As taken from the official Explore UT 2015 schedule: Archaeologist Jonathan Jarvis describes how archaeologists use historic maps and discusses the role of accurate mapping in archaeology today. See how using geospatial tools to locate man-made features below the earth’s surface can help future research.
And Susan’s talk was a “Detectives into the Past” presentation with Dr. Dirt in which she focused on reconstructing the diet of ancient Texans based on the study of coprolites (preserved human fecal remains).
To get a sense of the kind of turn out that we were a part of at Explore UT please check out this brief video, provided courtesy of UT anthropology graduate student Luisa Aebersold (who also provided the featured image for this post!), on her Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/luisaaebersold/media
First, there was ‘getting organized:’
Rosario had this to say about her very popular activity this year: “The rock art activity consisted of several images of Texas rock art printed on card stock that visitors could paint. The only colors I made available for painting were colors used by Native Americans. So the colors were red, black and as close to ochre as I could mix. They also used white… pigments were made from berries, roots, stones, etc. and I was asked throughout the day if I had made my own paint. I will say no berries were harmed for this activity, but there’s this wonderful stuff called tempera paint! The most popular image the children wanted to paint was the bird, I actually ran out of them. I don’t know what it is about this bird from 41RE14 in Real Co., but it is well liked.”
The image from the site that was so popular?
There was also a tremendous amount of excitement about TxDOT staff archeologist Chris Ringstaff being in attendance to demonstrate flint knapping for the people who attended. Chris was wonderful at not only demonstrating the various techniques that would have been used by the prehistoric knappers who inhabited Texas, he did a great job of explaining why they did what they did: why they chose the stone they chose, used the tools they used and worked the various kinds of flakes in various ways. His demonstration was well-attended and all of us took an opportunity to stop and watch this professional archeologist and researcher explain his craft.
This year’s Explore UT was an opportunity for those of us who work at TARL to make what we do accessible to the public, especially as pertains to using archeology to teach science and social studies to children. Archeology offers tangible, understandable lessons about the evolution of man, his culture and his technology and TARL staff look forward to other opportunities to work with schools, educators and students to help them appreciate and utilize the wealth of material culture that, in many ways, originated in their own backyards. Thank you to everyone who came out to contribute and who participated in making this an opportunity for TARL to renew its ties to the anthropology department and main campus. We look forward to many more years of educational contributions.
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!
TARL is gearing up for Explore UT on March 7th. Explore UT is touted as “The Biggest Open House in Texas”. It’s a campus-wide event with hundreds of activities for visitors to enjoy. TARL is participating in the festivities after a few years’ hiatus, but we are back in full force with lots to do for young and old. And we will be joining forces with a group of dedicated UT anthropology graduate students who have carried the archeology torch for the past couple of Explore UT’s.
Rosario expertly demonstrating the technique for making cordage during Explore UT to a group of children…who were carefully gauging younger siblings and asking astute questions about tensile properties.
Here’s a sampling of what we’ll have to offer: pottery mending, corn-husk doll making, rock-art painting (on cardstock), Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphic writing and an artifact “ooh and ahh” table. We will also have several grinding stations set up with manos and metates, so you can try your hand at corn grinding. And there will be a skeleton show-and-tell table. (The skeleton will be a replica; unfortunately, no mummies will be participating.)
Besides these outdoor activities, there will be two indoor lectures presented by TARL staff:
– Susan Dial, our Texas Beyond History editor, will talk about what ancient Texans ate in “Texas Beyond History: Detectives Into the Past”.
– Jonathan Jarvis, TARL’s associate director, will present “The Role of Maps in Archeology: Past, Present and Future.”
So come out and pay us a visit; we’ll be on the east side of the main UT campus in the Liberal Arts Building Courtyard. The talks will be held in the Liberal Arts Building, room 1.104. Here’s more information about this event – https://exploreut.utexas.edu/.
On January 1, 2015, TARL changed its collection policies, including separation of collections and required forms. These changes to the policy and associated forms are now posted on our new website. The old url should redirect you, if not, this is the address: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/orgs/tarl/.
On Tuesday, March 24 at 1 PM, I will be holding a short overview of the new requirements, as well as explaining the reasons for the changes, and providing some limited training in how to prepare a collection. We will also have a short segment on records if anyone would like a review of those stipulations. I ask that you all download the policies and review them before the meeting. We will meet in the conference room upstairs in the main TARL building unless we get inundated in which case we will move to the “A” portable.
I’d appreciate a heads up on who is likely to attend. Please email me with a confirmation of attendance for the workshop if you plan to attend. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you should have any questions about the amended collections policies, the workshop or getting to TARL.
I look forward to speaking with you all at the workshop!
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.”
This semester our Associate Director, Jonathan Jarvis, is instructing a course here at TARL entitled “Digital Data Systems in Archeology (ANT 324L).” It is a hands-on course introducing students to the digital equipment and basic geospatial software used in the field to collect archeological location data. Jonathan provides students an introduction to GIS and an over view of near-surface sensing techniques, technical skills that archeologists should be able to successfully apply while conducting field work. Jonathan’s focus is providing these UT students the fundamentals of instrument operation and data capture in simulated archeological field conditions. CRM firms seek to hire the most qualified recent graduates and Jonathan’s course gives students their first real introduction to what will be expected of them when considering a career in archeology: a firm foundation in location mapping and working with geospatial data.
Jonathan was kind enough to invite me to speak to his students to recruit student bloggers. These students are being introduced to the technology and software programs that continue to evolve in scope and application even as they progress through the semester. I wanted to take an opportunity to get some feedback from the students about their perspectives on the increasing role, and perhaps, increasing dependence, on technology to carry out field data collection and synthesis. I offered the following topics to them as potential blog post material as they work their way through the course:
“Posts can range in topics from the macro (how trends in technology are being represented in the field of archeology) to the micro (what are the advantages and disadvantages of using ‘satellite archeology’ to define archeological sites and what are the limitations). Other topics to be considered can include:
how are recent technologies changing the roles archeologists play in defining history?
are software applications, like GIS, more reliable for publishing data in archeology or less reliable because it assumes a level of computer proficiency that the field of archeology may still be trying to catch up with?
how has technology changed the role of the archeologist in the field over the last 100 years?
does social networking have the potential to increase the relevance and value of archeological data and interpretation? How?
what are some good examples of technology providing archeologists with tools and data that they would not have otherwise obtained?
how can technology be applied to existing archeological collections to obtain more or better data, re-interpret findings or provide more access to researchers who cannot afford to physically visit the collections?”
As we continue to invite more and more students to join us out here at TARL, we not only want for them to learn the ins-and-outs of processing archeological collections or the necessity for strict policy to guide the management of collections of artifacts that number in the tens and hundreds of thousands, we also want them to use the skills they are acquiring out here to apply in their critical thinking as they approach the various sub-disciplines within archeology that will govern their professional paths. TARL is a resource at many levels, and not just for the massive volume of collections or the depth of time they represent. TARL is also a resource based on the knowledge that staff bring to bear in helping to teach the next generation of archeologists. The students in Jonathan’s archeology class represent the most digitally-based generation of future archeological researchers yet. It will be interesting to read their posts and to hear their thoughts about the role that they foresee technology playing in their future professional careers.
In cooperation with Becky Shelton at the State Archeologist’s office at the Texas Historical Commission, I am working to develop a historic ceramics workshop. We are planning to have a seminar this spring, date to be announced, and depending on its appeal, we will continue having them yearly. There will be limited space, about 20 people with preference given to stewards.
If you want to know more about historic ceramics, their varieties and nuances, consider this workshop as a fun and cooperative learning experience.
Stay tuned to the blog as we move forward with planning the details of this wonderful, hands-on learning opportunity that will be presented here at TARL on UT’s Pickle Research Campus. We will provide workshop details as they evolve.
Oh, the featured image above is of the texts that we will be using for training during the workshop. We look forward to sharing our experiences with you at the workshop, and at those we hope to offer in the future.
One of TARL’s many functions, and secondary only to its role as an archeological research facility at UT Austin, is serving as a repository for archeological collections derived from permitted excavations in Texas. It is in TARL’s capacity as a state-certified repository that our staff expends a great deal of time and resources performing the intake tasks associated with reviewing inventories of submitted collections and associated records. Marybeth Tomka, our new Head of Collections, tries to make the most of the intake process by offering to train students interested in CRM archeology in proper artifact laboratory methods and collections processing techniques. This is a great opportunity for students interested in learning artifact identification and analysis, especially as relates to ceramic and point typologies, to work with different artifact classes and to learn from knowledgeable staff about their classifications and significance.
This photograph shows PhD. candidate Debora Trein (left) and volunteer Elizabeth Martindale (right) meticulously confirming submitted inventories against their collections they. In particular Debora is confirming the inventory of a contractor-submitted collection. Following her check of the collection, and a review of documentation by Marybeth and Rosario, the collection will be placed into TARL’s permanent curation space. Elizabeth Martindale is also confirming the inventory against the collections for a submitted collection. However, following her review the collection she is working on will be sent to another repository for permanent curation.
Keep checking back on the blog as we continue to chronicle the work on the various duties and projects we undertake. If you’re a college student and interested in archeology, collections management or archives and information management, you’re encouraged to contact Marybeth about opportunities we have for contributing to projects. Send her an email and let her know that you’re interested in volunteering or in carrying out an internship. She’ll be glad to discuss these opportunities with you!
One of the many wonders of working at TARL again after so many years, is coming across sites and materials that made impacts in my life during my student years. Since I am just learning the locations of all the collections, I was surprised when I opened a cabinet to look at one collection and found a familiar one right next to it. Such was my pleasure December 15, 2014.
In 1981 I was a senior looking forward to graduation in May, field school in New Mexico and graduate school in the fall. I had been working at TARL on my professor’s project for almost a year and having the time of my life. One of the TARL staff members mentioned that a phone call had come in from the THC and some burials had been disturbed by trenching for a phone cable near Houston. He and another graduate student were going to meet a representative from THC on Saturday and maybe, with the Houston Archaeological Society’s help, there would be a salvage excavation. Since it was still early on in the semester, I didn’t need to study (yet!) so I asked to go along.
I was going on my first excavation with two graduate students; I thought I was impressive having finished my osteology class in the fall of 1980. Boy, did I get a lesson in humility. But what an experience! I got to excavate a site, work a transit (for you young folk – the forerunner of a total data station where you actually have to know geometry!), and the best part, work alongside experienced avocational and professional archaeologists. I worked on the site for several weekends in January and February and then again in August when I got back from field school.
I am sure that in the coming days, weeks, months, years ahead, I will find more that has my present intersecting my past life at TARL.