This week, TARL held the first workshop in a series about archaeological methods! We worked together with the UT Anthropology Department to further TARL’s educational goals and provide a collaborative space to enhance UT graduate students’ field skills. TARL Head of Collections Marybeth Tomka, and TARL staff Stacy Drake and Debora Trein led a 2 hour seminar on principles of osteology in archaeology, which included an in-depth discussion of topics such as NAGPRA legislation, cultural sensitivity awareness, and the duties of archaeologists to the state, the public, and stakeholder communities in private and academic settings. Best practices in excavation, analysis, and curation of human remains was also a topic of great discussion, as most workshop participants have had experience with human remains in archaeological contexts from all over the country and the world.
After the essentials of bone and teeth analysis were discussed, workshop participants were given the opportunity to hone their analytic skills by examining a number of specimens under TARL’s curation. The study of ancient human remains is an extraordinarily informative field, giving archaeologists a window into a person’s life. Human remains provide information that may include a person’s age, lifestyle, diet, place of dwelling, occupation, among and other highly significant knowledge about ancient lifeways. Importantly, human remains can also be employed to study entire populations over time. Human remains can provide archaeologists information about long-term trends such as the impact of the introduction of agriculture on a population’s health and nutrition, for instance.
This was the first of many workshops, which will hopefully be just as informative! Stay tuned for next week’s workshop on survey.
Earlier this month, TARL staff had the pleasure of collaborating with Girlstart, an organization focused on empowering girls through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) educational programs. The conference brought together women experts from many STEM disciplines and approximately 600 girls aged 9 to 14 from all over the United States. The main goal of the Girlstart conference is promote STEM disciplines as a way to solve many of the world’s current issues, and to encourage young girls to become invested in STEM electives, majors, and careers. Girlstart’s mission is particularly important given the disparity between the recent increase of STEM jobs (currently growing three times faster than in non-STEM careers) and the absence of women in STEM disciplines (only 24% of STEM workforce is female)*.
As a lot of archaeological work is scientific in nature, we were more than happy to help Girlstart out! TARL staff Stacy Drake and Debora Trein, along with several amazing UT Anthropology and Geography graduate students, participated in the 10th Annual Girlstart Girls in STEM conference, bringing archaeology to two classrooms full of girls at Travis High School in a session called “Dig It! Adventures in Archaeology”.
The Dig It! Team at Girlstart. From left: Debora Trein (TARL and UT Anthropology), Emily Dylla (UT Anthropology), Robyn Dodge (UT Anthropology), Angelina Locker (UT Anthropology), Samantha Krause (UT Geography), Stacy Drake (TARL and UT Anthropology), Luisa Aebersold (UT Anthropology), and Nadya Prociuk (UT Anthropology). Courtesy of Luisa Aebersold.
Luckily for us archaeology is a very exciting discipline, so it was not hard to get the attention of the students! We created two exercises that gave the girls a taste of archaeological research: mini-excavations with mock burials complete with burial assemblages; and a microscope station, with several “samples” to examine.
Stacy Drake and Emily Dylla at the “commoner” mock burial. Courtesy of Luisa Aebersold.
Debora Trein and Robyn Dodge at the “elite” mock burial. Courtesy of Luisa Aebersold.
We set up two mock burials with two sets of reproduction remains and burial goods (one “elite” and one “commoner”). We asked the students: “How old was this person?”, “Do you think that they were a man or a woman?”, “Do you think that they were rich or poor?”, “What do you think they did for a living?”, and other questions that form part of archaeological inquiry. Most importantly, we also asked “Why?” they came to their conclusions. This exercise was intended to get students to go through the archaeological thinking process by assessing all of the available evidence. After getting over the excitement of seeing reproduction human remains and artifacts, it was heartening to see the girls analyzing an archaeological deposit and defending their interpretations!
Samantha Krause at the microscope station. Courtesy of Luisa Aebersold.
At the microscope station, the girls experienced the flip side to field work, which is laboratory research. Using three microscopes, students examined many types of materials, including fabric, beads, shell, and sediment thin sections. The girls were able to see how clues that help us explain the lives of people in the past can be microscopic, and that every part of an archaeological context is important to a complete understanding of past societies. They also got to go through our tool kits and handled compasses, trowels, and rock picks!
Nadya Prociuk answering questions. Courtesy of Luisa Aebersold.
At the end, we held a Q&A session for the girls. It was important for us to relay that in addition to love of discovery, knowledge about people in the past can only come from hard work (both physically and intellectually), collaboration, and respect for material remains that we handle and the people they represent. Archaeology is fun, empowering, and it is definitely for women!
We are looking forward to the 2016 Girlstart Girls in STEM Conference! Bring it on!
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.
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.