Consulting with the Smithsonian

Taphonomy vs. Pathology in the Archeological Record

by Kerri Wilhelm

As the in-house human osteologist I am responsible for conducting the biological profiles for the numerous sets of human remains that comprise TARL’s Human Osteology (HO) collection.  Biological profiles here consist of creating documentation that becomes part of the permanent records for this sensitive collection.  Following completion of a physical inventory I attempt to include pertinent information on sex, age at death, stature and ancestral affiliation when possible as revealed through the discriminant functions of FORDISC.  I attempt to include information as pertains to evidence of pathology and/or trauma in the remains: healed fractures, lesions, enamel hypoplasia in the dentition, etc.  In the fall of this past year I was reviewing several sets of remains in the collection which originated from a cave context.  Presenting with what at first appeared to be lytic process affecting the outer table of bone at various locations across the two sets of remains, I was excited that we might potentially have related cases of some identifiable pathology.   I was also aware that these ‘lesions’ could also potentially be the result of some taphonomic process that I was unfamiliar with personally.  So, what does one do when in need of some human osteological identification assistance?  I contact one of my former professors who happens to be a forensic anthropologist and the Physical Anthropology Collections Manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in D.C.

I contacted Dave and let him know that I needed his assistance to identify the type and nature of a specific ‘signature.’  I forwarded him photographs of the signature as taken at various locations on the two sets of remains.  After about a week of back-and-forth, and some research into comparable signatures that could present like a lesion, Dave pointed out that the ‘cavitations’ in the bone progressed from the outer table of the bone inward toward the medullary (marrow) cavity, as opposed to the reverse, originating from the medullary cavity outward.  In this instance the former proved to be an indication of a taphonomic process, while the latter would be attributed to a pathologic process such as that which occurs in multiple myeloma (cancer of plasma cells).  Now that is was narrowed down to a taphonomic process…what kind was it?

We had to consider the archeological context from which the remains would have originated.  A trip down into TARL’s Records Room for the original field notes and final report which resulted from the field investigation revealed that the burial environment was damp, at least seasonally.  I also researched the types of scavenging fauna that could potentially produce the ‘cavitations’ while living in the environment in which the burial occurred.  The result of the research and identification assistance provided by Dave Hunt, in conjunction with the specific signature observed in the bone, led to an identification of “terrestrial snail activity.”  Despite no longer having him as a professor, Dave is still teaching by means of sharing his invaluable experience as a physical and forensic anthropologist.  Now our collections documentation can include the identification of the signature on the remains and future researchers here at TARL can benefit from a new tool to better interpret the taphonomic processes involved in the archeology of human burials.

You can learn more about Dave Hunt (photographed above while providing a tour of the NMNH’s ‘mummuy vault’) and his responsibilities, in addition to his research interests and projects, at the National Museum of Natural History website:  http://qrius.si.edu/expert/david-hunt

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/bone-specialist-on-call-102684307/?no-ist=

Below is an image of the ‘cavitations,’ the result of post-mortem snail feeding (rasping) activity on bone, taken using TARL’s portable digital microscope in the Human Osteology Lab:

lateral right tibia midhsaft_1

 

 

 

Ongoing Research in the Collections: Dr. Deborah Bolnick

by Kerri Wilhelm

Dr. Deborah Bolnick, a molecular anthropologist and associate professor in UT’s Anthropology Department, has been accessing TARL’s Human Osteology collection at various points over the course of the last few years.  In October 2014 she made two visits to the HO collections with Research Fellow Jennifer Raff, also of the Anthropology Department at UT, following allocation of project funding and support provided by the Rock Art Foundation.  During these visits, they selected skeletal elements that appeared to best meet the criteria for a specific type of DNA sampling: aDNA.  This kind of DNA, “ancient DNA” or aDNA, is characterized as DNA that can be isolated from prehistoric specimens such as mummified soft tissues, skeletal remains and intact teeth.  Dr. Bolnick is investigating the biological ancestry of the prehistoric inhabitants of the Lower Pecos region of Texas.  Her research will create a genomic map of these populations and identify genetic diversity of these groups, ostensibly allowing scientists to determine genetic associations, as well as rates and direction of gene flow into and out of this culturally rich region spanning the landscape between Texas and Mexico.  Recently she was a part of a well-publicized genetic study of a prehistoric adolescent, whose remains were recovered from an underwater cave in Mexico and relative dated to the late Pleistocene (12,000-13,000 years ago).  Called “Naia,” and also known as the “Hoyo Negro Girl,” the remains of this female teenager included a tooth which was analyzed by researchers, including UT’s own Dr. Bolnick, for DNA.  For the interesting story of Naia and what her prehistoric DNA is revealing about the origins of paleoindians and Native Americans for science, please visit: http://www.futurity.org/native-americans-cave-teen-ancestry/.

Dr. Bolnick’s next round of research will involve sampling of other prehistoric sites represented here at TARL in the HO collections.  Along with one of her PhD. students, Austin Reynolds, Dr. Bolnick will be selecting prehistoric skeletal elements for aDNA sampling and then performing the sample retrieval process at her lab on UT’s downtown campus.  These samples will become part of her ongoing research into Native American genetic diversity following European contact in North America.  In addition to her work with prehistoric remains and aDNA, Dr. Bolnick has also published research that pertains to modern commercial DNA testing and what the general public should know about interpreting the results of such tests in terms of validity and limitations.  To read the article about Dr. Bolnick’s perspectives on the new fad of commercially available DNA tests, what the results can actually be used to determine, and how this trend could necessitate redefining ethnic identities and ancestral affiliations, please read the 2007 feature story here: http://www.utexas.edu/features/2007/ancestry/.

Dr. Bolnick has consistently made herself available to meet with staff to discuss her ongoing research, her sampling and testing methodologies and laboratory processes, and is also helping us to understand the value of the knowledge gained through such research.  Well-versed in the sensitivities inherent to working with both modern and prehistoric human remains, Dr. Bolnick is a proponent of NAGPRA (Public Law 101-601, http://www.nps.gov/nagpra/mandates/25usc3001etseq.htm) and congenially responded to all of our questions and concerns born of our evolving dedication to NAGPRA here at TARL.  An advocate for open dialog with tribal communities and the sharing of knowledge that results from her research efforts with cultural, academic and scientific entities, Dr. Bolnick well recognizes the value of collections like those at TARL.  We in turn recognize that collections are best utilized when they continue to serve as resources for the progression of knowledge and understanding, providing researchers like Deborah Bolnick the means to further our understanding of our origins and, ultimately, ourselves.

Dr. Deborah Bolnick (foreground) and Research Fellow Jenny Raff (background) selecting human skeletal elements at TARL for aDNA micro-sampling back in her lab on campus.  This sampling visit was one of several undertaken by Bolnick and her team as they compile aDNA samples in creating genomic profiles of various prehistoric populations of Texas.   Photo courtesy of Anna Donlan, The Alcalde.
Dr. Deborah Bolnick (foreground) and Research Fellow Jenny Raff (background) selecting human skeletal elements at TARL for aDNA micro-sampling back in her lab on campus. This sampling visit was one of several undertaken by Bolnick and her team as they compile aDNA samples in creating genomic profiles of various prehistoric populations of Texas. Photo courtesy of Anna Donlan, The Alcalde.

 

 

Throw Me a Bone!

by Kerri Wilhelm

Diane Ruetz and I have been volunteering at the Pflugerville Animal Shelter for about seven months now.  As ‘dog walkers’ we’ve come to know the various quirks and distinct personalities of the long-term shelter dogs pretty well.  Recently, one of the dogs who had been at the shelter for more than a year and who was often overlooked by visitors, was on a walk with a volunteer.  Shelby, a sweet and playful mixed-breed dog, has a fondness for playing fetch in the water.  No matter how small the pebble you throw into the creek for her to retrieve, she would consistently come bounding out with large rocks.  One day she brought up something a lot more interesting than a rock.  Read about Shelby’s ‘find’ and how the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory contributed to the story…and, we like to think, to her adoption by a loving family.

Shelby’s story on KXAN News (Austin area):

The below information was provided by TARL NAGPRA Specialist, Kerri Wilhelm, to Pflugerville Pets Alive following the discovery of the bone by Shelby.  PPA hoped that the discovery, and the prehistoric perspective attributed to the find by TARL staff, might help to inspire some positive exposure for Shelby.  They were right!

This is a photo of Shelby’s bone (on the right) compared to the same element from a species of bison excavated at the Bonfire Shelter archaeological site (near Langtry, TX).
This is a photo of Shelby’s bone (on the right) compared to the same element from a species of bison excavated at the Bonfire Shelter archaeological site (near Langtry, TX).  Both exhibit the percussion fractures with beveling consistent with human processing in the immediate postmortem interval.  These fracture patterns on the proximal and distal aspects of long bones of the large Pleistocene (and modern) herbivores are generally attributed to “marrowing,” a technique of retrieving the nutrient-rich bone marrow for consumption by utilizing a hammerstone.

 

This is the tag that is associated with the fossilized bison humerus we have here at TARL (Bonfire Shelter).
This is the tag that is associated with the fossilized bison humerus we have here at TARL (Bonfire Shelter).

 

This is a photograph of an intact humerus from Bison antiquus; the circle indicates the part of the humerus that Shelby brought up from the creek.
This is a photograph of an intact humerus from Bison antiquus; the circle indicates the part of the humerus that Shelby brought up from the creek.

 

This is a photograph taken of a fully reconstructed Bison antiquus skeleton on exhibit.  The red circle indicates where on the skeleton her find would have been located during the life of the bison.
This is a photograph taken of a fully reconstructed Bison antiquus skeleton on exhibit. The red circle indicates where on the skeleton Shelby’s find would have been located during the life of the bison.  Image of the Bison antiquus on display at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles.

For more information on the Bonfire Shelter archaeological site, where the comparative bison bone (Bison antiquus) was originally discovered and the different kinds of information such finds can tell archaeological researchers at TARL, please visit the Bonfire Shelter webpages on Texas Beyond History:

http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/bonfire/talkingbones.html#bones

Photograph of a drawer of bison remains recovered from one of the bone beds of the Bonfire Shelter bison jump.  Included in this drawer are faunal remains used to compare with Shelby's find.  TARL collections.
Photograph of a drawer of bison remains recovered from one of the bone beds of the Bonfire Shelter bison jump. Included in this drawer are faunal remains used to compare with Shelby’s find. TARL collections.

 

 

We’ve been noticed!

by Kerri Wilhelm

The January 2015 issue of the Texas Exes publication, The Alcalde, included an article written by Rose Cahalan entitled “The Things They Carried: Inside the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory.”  Ms. Cahalan of The Alcalde and photographer Anna Donlan recently visited TARL for a tour of our collections.  The article begins by describing their initial reaction to being shown the ‘Hunter’s Pouch’ collection of artifacts excavated by A.M. Woolsey in Val Verde County during 1936.  It continues with their experience of observing Dr. Deborah Bolnick selecting skeletal elements for aDNA sampling in our Human Osteology Collection (where we use only archival boxes, not “cardboard boxes”) and segues to their description of the Vessel Collection.

Reading Cahalan’s article was a good reminder for those of us  on staff that there is a very perceptible difference between the lens through which we view the collections as professional stewards and archaeologists, and the lens through which non-archaeologists view them.  Of course, we manage and break down the archaeological collections here to their most granular typologies, classifications and descriptions; identifying discrete flaking techniques utilized, ceramic vessel decorative phases by time periods and skeletal elements most likely to provide collagen viable for stable isotope and aDNA analyses.  It is easy enough for us to forget that, to the ‘uninitiated,’ TARL at first appears like a great many older campus locations: starting to show its age, relegated to the outer margins and slowly beginning a descent into obscurity.  This is the part where we urge you to look more closely.

The Alcalde article is a reminder to us that it is not only our task to serve as stewards of these irreplaceable archaeological and ethnographic collections; it’s also our job to step out from behind the boxes and endless research-driven academic minutia  to remind people why it’s important for us to do what we do.  We need to remind people why the objects here are as significant historically, culturally and temporally as we say they are.  We need to help make Texas archaeology, and its rich material culture, more accessible to everyone.  We here at TARL hope this blog helps to evidence this philosophy of increased access as we strive to bring you highlights from our collections, records and research being undertaken.  We hope that sharing these things, in addition to any shared insights by affiliated researchers or guest contributors, become something ‘you can carry with you.’

You can find The Alcalde article in its entirety here:

http://alcalde.texasexes.org/2015/01/the-things-they-carried

The staff here at TARL would like to thank Anna Donlan, a photographer who contributes to the Texas Exes publication, The Alcalde, for granting permission to display her photographs here.

Molecular anthropologist Dr. Deborah Bolnick and Research Fellow Jennifer Raff, both of UT Austin, examine remains from the Human Osteology Collection as part of an ongoing project undertaken by Dr. Bolnick in her lab.
Molecular anthropologist Dr. Deborah Bolnick (right) and Research Fellow Jennifer Raff, both of UT Austin, examine remains from the Human Osteology Collection as part of an ongoing project undertaken by Dr. Bolnick in her lab.  Photo taken by Anna Donlan of The Alcalde.

 

Marybeth Tomka, Head of Collections, providing a tour of the collections, including these spears in the ethnographic collection, for The Alcalde.
Marybeth Tomka, Head of Collections, providing a tour of the collections, including these spears in the ethnographic collection, for The Alcalde.  Photo taken by Anna Donlan of The Alcalde.

 

Marybeth Tomka, Head of Collections, explaining the types and significance of the artifacts recovered from the Ft. St. Louis archaeological site.
Marybeth Tomka, Head of Collections, explaining the types and significance of the artifacts recovered from the Ft. St. Louis archaeological site.  Photo taken by Anna Donlan of The Alcalde.  For more information about the Ft. St. Louis archaeological site, with images of artifacts, please visit:

http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/stlouis/

 

Back to the Future for Marybeth

by Marybeth Tomka

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.

 

 

The George C. Davis Site

by Marybeth Tomka

The George C. Davis Site, Dr. Dee Ann Story (photo below), and TARL all resonate with Texas archaeologists. The site was originally recorded by the father of UT archeology, J.E. Pearce and systematically excavated during the Works Progress Administration in 1939-1941. Dr. Story worked on this site through the 1960s and 1970s and it is now administrated by the Texas Historical Commission as a state historic site. Many years of UT student archeologists have had the experience of working with Dr. Story at the Davis Site, located along the El Camino Real where present day Texas Highway 21 runs between the ceremonial mounds. This ceremonial center was utilized between AD 780 and 1260 as determined through the analysis of radiocarbon, but has evidence of earlier Paleo-Indian and Archaic peoples as well.

People living and using what was to become Caddoan Mounds State Historic site grew corn, cultivated or gathered wild plants, and hunted the forests of East Texas for their subsistence. The Caddo at this site were known to have trade networks with bison hunters to the north and west, exchanged materials with the gulf coast and peoples in present day Arkansas. Georgetown flint was traded from central Texas; it is a highly knappable and attractive chert varying from sky blues to very dark grays or blacks. In case you are wondering archaeologists call “flint” chert for reasons that make geologists cringe!

The featured picture accompanying this blog (above) illustrates the Caddo craftsmanship in chipping stone tools, working exotic stones into celts or adzes, and axes, stringing hand-made shell beads as personal adornment, and lastly what sets them apart from all other Native Americans, the elaborately engraved, incised and burnished ceramics in a variety of forms, but most recognizable as the bottle pictured here.  For more information on the Caddo Peoples, including descriptions of their origin stories, languages and ceramic vessels, please visit and explore the Texas Beyond History Caddo Fundamentals website at:  http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/tejas/fundamentals/who.html

DID YOU KNOW?
The archeologist who excavated the anthropomorphic figure during his field school many years later married the woman who made of replica of the figure for exhibit?

Dr. Dee Ann Story in 1964.  Dee Ann served as the Director of TARL from 1965-1987.

Dr. Dee Ann Story in 1964. Dr. Story served as the Director of TARL from 1965-1987.

 

 

 

 

 

Introductions!

Introducing TARL’s Current Student Contributor:  Debora Trein

by Debora Trein

I am originally from Brazil, and I was interested in the human past from an early age, an interest that manifested itself with a fascination with ancient mythology! I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to study archaeology at University College London (UCL) in the UK, where I achieved a Bachelor’s degree in archaeology followed by a Master’s degree in archaeology in 2006. In 2008, I entered the graduate program at the Department of Anthropology at UT Austin, and I am planning to defend my doctoral dissertation in 2015.

I have over 10 years of fieldwork experience, working in archaeological sites in the UK, Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, and Texas, leading and participating in a variety of projects, which included many archaeology fieldschools as well as excavation- and conservation-driven research. Since 2007, I have conducted research with the UT Austin-administered Programme for Belize Archaeology Project, one of the largest archaeological fieldschools in Mesoamerica, serving as assistant project director since the 2014 field season.

The projects that I am personally involved in entail the digitization and organization of some of TARL’s many collections of archaeological material and document. I have aided in the creation and compilation of a TARL “Loans” database, which records all loans coming to and from TARL from 1930s to the present. These loans may involve archaeological material, photographs, maps, slides, reproductions, and reports, information that is documented in the digital database. I am also analyzing the lending and borrowing practices of TARL through time, charting the changing relationships between TARL and borrowing institutions such as museums, private individuals, companies, and academic researchers. The reasons for loans, which may have included academic research, reporting, and educational events such as conferences and school talks, for instance, are also recorded. By managing the loan data in this way, we will be able to determine what parts of the collections and library are accessed the most, and by whom. Moreover, we will also identify which relationships between TARL and external agencies may be strengthened through a more robust material borrowing and exchange program, a strategy that will be made possible through TARL’s continuing commitment to greater accessibility.

Currently, I am in the later stages of a project that entails the complete assessment of all dental material in all of TARL human remains collection. This kind of comprehensive evaluation has never been undertaken on a digital platform at TARL, and it will provide an invaluable resource in locating and quantifying human remains under TARL’s stewardship. Moreover, the level of qualitative detail contained in this database will include information such as the number and type of teeth in good preservation state, information useful to potential researchers wishing to examine ancient population dynamics in Texas.

DID YOU KNOW?
I am working towards my “black sash” in Choy Li Fut Kung Fu.

Debora Trein conducting excavation during a field season.
Debora Trein excavating during a field season.

 

 

Introductions!

Introducing TARL’s Head of Collections: Marybeth Tomka

We are pleased to announce that Marybeth Tomka joined the staff of the TARL in July 2014 as the Head of Collections.  Marybeth received her BA and MA from UT-Austin, and feels like she has come home to TARL.  Marybeth has over 30 years of professional experience in the field of cultural resource management. She has experience working in both the private and public sector, has completed analyses of lithic and ceramic materials, made contributions to archaeological reports, participated as the supervisor of archaeological lab and field crews, and served as a project manager while in the private sector.

She spent six years with TRC, six years with TPWD, and as a work study and later employee at TARL’s former contracting arm.  She comes to us from the Center for Archaeological Research (CAR) staff where from July 2000-July 2014, Marybeth served in two major roles as the laboratory director for contract projects and as curator.  She was the driving force to CAR’s 2006 acknowledgement as a THC certified repository coming as only the second institution to be certified.  She also served as the technical lead for outreach field schools work with community volunteers at the National Park Service’s Spanish Colonial site of Rancho de Las Cabras in Wilson County from 2007 through 2012 and taught UTSA’s field in 2008 and 2010. As an undergraduate, and then graduate student, Marybeth was a lab technician for the WS Ranch Project of the Anthropology Department under Jim Neely, and as a teacher’s assistant and area supervisor for the University of Texas (Austin) field school as part of her Master’s thesis research. Her research focused on the great kiva complex.

Marybeth’s interests are focused in the management of archaeological records and collections within the context of state and federal laws and sound museum practice. This interest as well as database administration, led her to pursue additional training and in June 2012, she received her Professional Certification in Collections Management from the University of Victoria (UVic).

Already somewhat versed in TARL’s massive collections, Marybeth is happily pursuing taking TARL into the 21st century with planned projects in collections care, collections management, and database construction management.  She will also be actively recruiting volunteers as we move forward.

Follow the blog and/or subscribe to the Friends of TARL Newsletter to keep track of Marybeth’s projects, her discoveries in TARL’s collections and her own blog entries as she gathers the reins and guides TARL’s collections along an exciting trajectory into the future.

DID YOU KNOW?

The artifact featured above in this post is made of shell.  Per Susan Dial, Editor and Project Manager of Texas Beyond History, this artifact is an:

“Engraved conch shell gorget with triskele design, ca. AD 1400. Excavated by the University of Texas in 1938 from the Mitchell locality (site 41BW4) in the Upper Nasoni Caddo village on Red River, Bowie County, Texas. Specimen 41BW4 (6-2-56); width 11 cm. To learn more about the Hatchell-Mitchell site, see the Nasoni exhibit at http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/nasoni/index.html.”

 

 

Greetings From TARL 2.0

Hello and welcome to the TARL blog!

Here at the Texas Archeological Research Lab we underwent some new and important changes over the course of 2014.  A new Director, a new Head of Collections, a new position created for a NAGPRA Specialist and a new sense of commitment to making the archeological collections and associated records available to the university and academic communities, CRM firms and various government entities.  Combining new staff, ideas and collections management approaches with the dedicated existing staff, organizational history and long standing position within Texas archeology as a center for research, TARL is moving forward into an exciting new era as an eminent steward of Texas history.  The purpose of this blog is to invite the public along with us on this ‘re-commitment’ as we undertake and encourage collections-based projects that will deepen our understanding of the cultural, historical and biological origins of our shared past.  We will post information about current and ongoing projects here, provide updates about their progress, introduce you to our staff and students, and give you insight into the deep time and broad cultural landscapes represented in the vast collections curated at TARL.  Being that blogs are inherently informal and more conversational, for more thorough information about any of the topics you read about here you should visit our organizational website, http://www.utexas.edu/research/tarl/, and also the comprehensive educational website Texas Beyond History at http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/.  The staff here at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory is extremely passionate about Texas archeology, making TARL’s collections available for research, and working with students and the public to expand their understanding of how the collections we steward here inform our understanding of the past, present and future.  We look forward to sharing that knowledge and passion with you!

Kerri Wilhelm

 

The Texas Archeological Research Laboratory