Preserve Texas’ archeological legacy with your year-end giving.
The Friends of TARL is a membership organization that supports the work of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory. In this time of funding cuts for research and education, your support can help TARL preserve archeological collections, provide educational opportunities for students, protect endangered archeological sites, and build public awareness and engagement in archeology.
If you haven’t joined the Friends of TARL yet, now is a great time!
From now through December 31, we’re offering 10% off all Friends of TARL memberships.
Member benefits include our quarterly newsletter, discounts on TARL merchandise, scholarship eligibility (for students), and invitations to TARL events. Membership costs are tax-deductible. All funds from Friends of TARL memberships will be used directly for scholarship and public outreach costs–not for salaries or overhead.
Regular Membership:$50(NOW $45)
Retiree Membership:$30(NOW $27)
Student Membership:$20(NOW $18)
(Currently enrolled undergraduate or grad students only, please)
This week’s volunteer spotlight post is an interview with some of TARL’s long-term volunteers, who turn up every week to work on collections from the Texas Archeological Society’s annual Field Schools. The TAS and TARL are lucky to have these wonderful ladies around!
Lauren: How long have y’all been volunteering here and what do you do as volunteers?
Jonelle: I think I started around 2004 volunteering for the Gault project, who occupied this very building at that time. I was working on a collection that was recovered by a Texas A& M field school that was held at the Gault site one summer. So we were naming and labeleing artifacts that had been recovered and doing the paperwork necessary that hadn’t been done, and we set up a big table right over there. All the Gault people would come and go, and they had various little office spaces in this building, and I got to meet a lot of interesting people. And then Gault left and they went to San Marcos.
After they vacated this building, then Laura Nightengale came to me and said, something to me about how would I like this space, you know, for a TAS lab? That was fine. This is kind of a holy room because this is where all the Gault goodies were locked up! Under lock and key. Cameras and all that. Without having all that here anymore, it’s just kind of exciting to be working in the same space occupied by the mammoth jaw and all that important stuff. Now it really was! I got to know all those people, they’re very fine folks, and they must be doing well as far as I know. But anyway that’s how we inherited this workspace. And that was beginning in maybe 2010 or later. I’ll have to check and find out when Gault moved…. And as time went by, we worked on different field school projects here in this room.
Lauren: (to Bunny and Pat) So did you guys start out volunteering for Gault also?
Pat: No, that was before my time in this lab, and I can’t remember how long I’ve been volunteering out here… three years?
Jonelle: I don’t know, it just seems like forever.
Pat: It does. I want to say three years. I’ve been a member of TAS since 2003. I learned about it after I had retired from teaching and started going to the field schools. I enjoyed going to the field schools, and I learned that Jonelle could use some volunteers working on the Hondo artifacts from the Eagle Bluff area. And so that’s how I got started here. And I learn a lot every day, and you get to see such beautiful artifacts and meet all the wonderful archaeologists working here, so it’s been a real growth experience. I love it. And I love the campus too. There’s something about driving onto this little bit of sanity in this big city, that every time I make that corner—although it’s a very scary turn! (laughter)—I feel peace. It’s just peaceful.
Lauren: How about you, Bunny? How long have you been volunteering?
Bunny: I’ve been volunteering here about a year and a half. I came in the summer last year, early summer when we were washing all those artifacts from the field school and we needed lots of people to help with the washing to get it going forward. But I just kinda… stayed around. I just kept showing up like an old bad penny! (laughter)
Pat: Because I’m old, I would have said you’ve been here at least three months! (laughter) So I think I’ve been here longer than three years. Multiply by two!
Bunny: Every time I think it’s a certain time, it’s usually double. But this I do remember. It’s been about a year and a half. My first field school was at the Devil’s River in 2012? And that was exhausting and very very hot because I was working in a field on a burned rock midden. But now when I go to the field school I work in the lab. I really enjoy seeing all the artifacts come through.
By profession I’m an artist and I work in ceramics, so I’ve always been interested in toolmaking and how things are shaped and made. So that gives me an additional interest in why things are shaped the way they are, and I really love it. I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here, and that’s one day a week, not even a full day, and it’s such a joy that you get back for that little bit of time.
Lauren: So tell me about some of the coolest and most fun things that y’all have found in the lab.
Pat: Oh golly!
Jonelle: Well we find interesting things every day. Today’s joy is that bottle. We have a complete bottle, this is stuff from the trash pile, and we found a complete bottle that wasn’t in pieces. It was hand-blown into a mold, and we learned all about it from Elton. We didn’t know any of this stuff.
Bunny: And last week he told us about the bitters bottles, the log cabin bitters bottles, because we found some fragments.
Lauren: Oh, wow! That is so cool! That’s so cool looking!
Pat: Yeah we found a bunch of pieces in this collection, probably a whole bottle if we put it back together.
Jonelle: People used to drink bitters because alcohol was a bit of a no-no, so they just got their alcohol from bitters.
Bunny: They could call it medicine and have a good time. (laughter)
Pat: I think we’ve seen the whole gamut, from working at least on the previous Hondo stuff, the whole gamut, or at least early Archaic artifacts all the way up to historic artifacts. It gives you a much more tangible sense of history. I have a much more tangible sense of history now, and it’s really broadened my interest in learning more about historic times. I was always more interested in prehistory, but now I’m really becoming more and more interested in the last three hundred years, I would say.
Lauren: That’s so interesting, that archaeology would be what brings you to that, because you might think that it would increase your interest in prehistory rather than the historic period.
Pat: It made me see how it’s all just one continuous evolution.
Jonelle: Well, you know, so you come here and you have doors opened for you, and you weren’t expecting it, and things happen that just sort of, gives perspective to what you’re doing.
Lauren: So let’s see. What about your field experiences? Can you tell me about any really fun or super memorable field experiences that you guys had?
Lauren: You can’t talk about them? (Laughter)
Bunny: I went on the death march down at the Devil’s River.
Lauren: That sounds horrible!
Bunny: It was horrible! We all got a “treat” a couple, three times a week, to go on a walk to go see something special. It was organized and you signed up for these different treats they would set up for you. So Peter and I signed on to go see the painted under-cliffs, I can’t remember what that particular one was called.
Pat: Was it the crab? Or a sunrise?
Bunny: Yeah there was a sun there.
Pat: Rock art.
Bunny: And we got there after our sack lunch that we brought that day, because we finished working at noon, because it was so hot, we weren’t working until one o’clock. So we quickly ate our sack lunch we brought and we showed up at the parking lot and met our guide, with the group of people who had signed up. And it was a hundred and two in the parking lot. So we proceeded to walk pretty slowly about a half a mile to this archaeological site that was stunning and beautiful, but I tell ya, we almost lost someone along the way! We had to really go really slowly with lots of breaks. This poor woman almost didn’t make it. Anyway, by the time we got to dinner that night about five-thirty in the evening, people were already talking about the death walk (laughter). And I said, “oh, is that what it was called? I was on that!” It was a hundred and six when we got back to the hotels. So they canceled those tours until they could figure out a short cut to drive the cars in. We were really working with very difficult temperatures.
Lauren: That doesn’t seem like a treat.
Pat: Well in retrospect it really becomes one of your most memorable experiences because you survived it.
Bunny: Yeah, that’s right.
Pat: Most of my most memorable experiences are all weather-related. (Laughter)
Jonelle: I can understand that.
Pat: I was very happy, my goal at Devil’s River was to survive. I was on survey. I’d never been on survey before, and you’re going down in to the canyons and up the sides.
Bunny: Wearing your snake guards.
Pat: Yes, we were just looking carefully and trying not to get lost from the group. I really quit looking for artifacts, I just looked at my feet the whole time. All I saw were my feet, because I was watching where I was putting them. But my favorite thing, and this is… one of my favorite things is discovering how adaptable archaeologists are, the people that go to field school. At Perryton, which is a death trap for tornadoes, and bad storms, oh tents were destroyed one year. My car levitated, actually, while I was in it once. But it hailed…
Jonelle: (Laughs) Yes it did!
Pat: The hailstones were as large as softballs.
Jonelle: Yes they were!
Pat: And it was crazy, chaos for a while. Then it’s all over, it passed pretty rapidly, and then all the archaeologists come out, and they’re gathering the hailstones to put in their ice chests, because then you don’t have to go buy a bag of ice! (laughter) And I just thought, I love it! I love these people. It’s like, oh, that was bad, look at my truck, it’s all dented up, BUT! I’ve got ice.
Bunny: And this is all volunteering, but at field school we actually pay money for it! (Laughter) And then we volunteer on top of it!
Pat: I just love that in those people.
Jonelle: You just make the best of it. And everybody looks out for everybody else, you know. If your tent blows down and you’re in town or something, you come back and it’s properly put up for you again. It’s like summer camp for grown ups.
Pat: It really is, only we’re nicer to each other than children. (laughter)
Lauren: You have a good field school story, Jonelle?
Jonelle: Well, nothing stands out in my mind. My first field school was 1990 and I’ve been to every one except one. I missed 1999. But every year, seeing your old friends and just making new friends every year. Tent camping was a wonderful experience. I did that many years, I guess until 2009. Eight. 2008, switched to a camper. I worked on digging crews all those years, and switched to lab when I started the newsletter, so that would be… 2003 I switched to lab. I wanted the flexibility of being able to get up and walk out and take pictures for the newsletter, and have a little more freedom than you have when you’re on a work crew. So I”ve been in the lab ever since.
So after that first field school, I just met the most wonderful people, you know, right off the bat, and I’m still friends with everybody, and it’s just kind of been a good experience for me. I’ve met the neatest people I’ve ever known in my whole life in this TAS group.
Pat: Me too.
Jonelle: The most interesting, exciting, vibrant, funny, smart. Just…
Jonelle: Oh, strange is the norm.
Pat: And I would say in addition, ditto to all that, and I think the bottom line is just sort of a humanity. There’s no B.S. There’s just a down to earth way of looking at life, accepting people from all walks of life. The levels of education vary from… All levels, and yet everyone’s considered equal.
Jonelle: No one’s better than anyone else.
Pat: No one’s better than anybody. One of our resident scholars is the man who knows all about insects.
Pat: He comes to field school, and they call him Bug Man, and he’s proud to be called bug man. And I think he works as a maintenance guy. And I’d put him up with any Ph.D. entomologist in the world. So I just love that about it.
Jonelle: You wanna know what this bug is, you go find Mark and he’ll tell you all about it.
Lauren: Even though he’s not a research scientist at a university, he’s the guy.
Pat: I think you’ve described it there. It’s the passion. It’s the passion you’ve got for something, and he’s got it, and it’s self taught.
Lauren: So just two more questions. First question is, what advice would you give to young people, students or young professionals, who are working in archaeology or want to be working in archaeology?
Jonelle: Besides its importance, and some of us do think it’s important, it’s fascinating, it’s interesting, and you meet the best people in the world out there who are interested in this work. But it’s like any other job, parts of it you like, and parts of it you might not like as much. But it all needs to be done, it’s all part of the big picture.
Pat: I agree, ditto to all that. Plus, volunteer as much as you can, whenever you can, because you never know who you’re going to meet or what they’re going to know, or how they can lead you to areas that you never anticipated. So, what’s that called? Network. Network, network.
Jonelle: Very important. Join the professional organizations so that you can network, and keep in touch with what other people are doing out there in the field, researching and whatnot. It’s all who you know.
Bunny: Well I don’t have children, but I have nieces and nephews, and I tell them, learn something new every day, and I take that very seriously. I think you should be very curious about the world around you and seek out knowledge. And obviously you’re going to seek out knowledge that of the most interest to you, that’s a fine thing.
Pat: And I think it could apply in any field, but, do something that, if you can, is just a little bit outside of your comfort zone. Some things are very easy, even a new thing, oh that’s easy for me, I’ll do that. But sometimes there’s something that you have to be a little bit afraid to try, and that’s when you really learn the most.
Jonelle: Field school has been that way for me. All the time.
Pat: Yeah me too. I was terrified the first time.
Jonelle: “Here, do this,” “Who, me?” “Oh, it’s easy, we’ll show you how.” The first time I was crew chief I was thinking, what, me? (laughter) I was scared to death, you know. But all it was, was filling out a lot of paperwork that other folks didn’t have to do. (laughter) That’s part of it. But you learn. And sometimes they want you excavating, like, “ooh, I get to do this one? This is going to be hard.” But you just get in there and do it. And it gets done. And when you have a cooperative crew that certainly makes all the difference. Everybody comes pretty much eager to get going and do the work. It’s therapeutic, you know, getting out there in the dirt. All your cares and your worries just melt away. You’re communicating with the earth down there, and thinking about what you’re doing and what you’re looking for and what it’s all about. It’s a neat thing.
Lauren: Last question. So when I started this job, I think it was my first week here or my second week maybe. The first time that I met you guys, this group of ladies, you were having a conversation that really let me know that this was the right place for me. (laughter)
Pat: (whispers) Oh, no.
Lauren: And the topic of conversation was, which archaeologists have the cutest butts? (Laughter)
Pat: Really? Oh I’ve forgotten that. I can’t remember that at all. What did I say?
Lauren: Well I don’t know, so what’s the answer? (laughter)
Pat: Which archaeologists have the cutest butts?
Jonelle: The ones that show up! (laughter)
Pat: In my age group?
Bunny: Does that mean instead of the plumber’s crack we were talking about the archaeologist’s crack?
Jonelle: Well if your jeans are too tight, you can’t squat down, so I don’t know. But it’s just kind of nice to meet a person younger than you, and is excited about what they’re doing, and will check in with your unit to see how you’re coming along, and get you involved in doing things out in the field and in camp too. Camp life is really important at field school. You really get to know people then. The good, the bad, & the ugly. We just keep coming back every week, can’t get enough. We love it here.
Lauren: This project wouldn’t be the same without you ladies at all. This work wouldn’t be getting done, and it needs to be.
Bunny: I have to say, that was a pretty big education for me, of how detailed and layered this process is. Of course I knew that archaeologists went out into the field and found things, and wrote them down, and then eventually something might be published about it. But I had no idea the gap in between and what that entailed. And we need volunteers.
Pat: We need a lot of volunteers.
Bunny: It’s a lot of work that goes into that operation.
Jonelle: And that’s why I do this, because otherwise we’d get hung up. It comes in from the field and then what? It languishes. You don’t follow through with it, and I was aware of all this, like the collections you’ve been working with, and other collections too, that so much needed to be done, that wasn’t getting done, and I thought, well, I can do that. I know how to do that, I’ll do that. And you can give an association money, but that doesn’t necessarily get the work done, you know. So I just don’t mind coming up here, and doing the grunt work, and making friends and having a good time.
Bunny: It’s a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned.
Jonelle: Gets me out of the house and I get to meet new people.
Bunny: And we always find something to laugh about.
Jonelle: If someone were to come out here and be grumpy, that wouldn’t go over at all.
Pat: Well I just don’t think it would attract a grumpy person.
Jonelle: They wouldn’t like the work.
Pat: They wouldn’t like us!
Jonelle: You don’t see the humor in the work… (laughter)
Bunny: That’s right, Jonelle, you have to see the humor in being down in some pit where it’s a hundred and five degrees and you’re scraping a layer out.
Jonelle: Thinking, what am I doing here? Look at my nails!
Thank you very much to Jonelle, Pat, and Bunny for taking the time to do this interview, and for all the time that you volunteer to help TAS and TARL take care of these collections. It is a pleasure to have you around!
In last week’s TARL history post, we talked about the early days of UT’s archeological collections. By the 1950s, UT had gathered massive and impressive collections of archeological artifacts and other materials, but these were scattered across various locations including the Anthropology Museum in Pearce Hall, the Texas Memorial Museum, and UT’s Little Campus. As the River Basin Surveys and Texas Archeological Salvage Project added more and more artifacts to the collections, it became clear that the collections needed a new home.
In 1960, the choice was made to begin a new organization, which would become TARL, and the following year, the TMM, TASP, and Department of Anthropology began TARL (then called TARC) as a cooperative venture. Many of the University’s various archeological collections and records were moved to TARL’s new facility at the Balcones Research Center (now the J. J. Pickle Research Campus) in 1962-4. Since those early days, TARL’s mission has remained fairly consistent: to house and protect archeological artifacts and records, to train and educate new researchers, to provide research opportunities, and to disseminate information about archeology.
Homegrown archeologist Dee Ann Story was appointed as the first Executive Director of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory in 1963. Story was a UT student and got her early training at some of the most important archeological sites in Texas, including Kincaid Rockshelter. She was one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and ran the archeological laboaratory for the University of Utah while also running excavations in Glen Canyon. Her mentors at UT convinced her to return to Austin, where she was instrumental to the establishment of TARL.
Over the course of her career, Dr. Story contributed some of the most influential publications in Texas archeology, most notably the Handbook of Texas Archeology. She led field schools at the George C. Davis site, the Chupik site, the Loeve-Fox site, and many others throughout the 1970s, working with and training a huge number of Texas archeologists. Dr. Story’s work as TARL director set the tone for our existence and her legacy continues to this day.
Under the Directorship of Dr. Story in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, TARL was a thriving center of learning and independent research. Dr. Story’s many students filled the halls and brought their ideas and knowledge together, documenting the prehistory of Texas. Many of her students went on to become professors or professional archeologists, making their own important contributions to Texas archeology. Dr. Story retired in 1987.
In our next TARL history installment, we’ll look at the late 80’s and 90’s, when a major boom in archeology spurred huge amounts of new research and publication.
Today’s spotlight post is about former TARL intern and current volunteer Lauren Koutlias, who studies bioarchaeology and osteology.
My name is Lauren Koutlias. I am an anthropology major at UT focusing on biological anthropology and archaeology. My internship at TARL started in September of 2015, so I have been helping in the human osteology lab for over a year. My current project at TARL is doing the re-inventory, and ultimately re-analysis, of individuals analyzed using now-outdated forms back in the 1980s.
As an honors student, I also have the privilege of pursuing an honors thesis and original research utilizing TARL skeletal collections. My research focuses on differences in paleopathology rates among juveniles at the Morhiss, Crestmont, and Ernest Witte mortuary sites on the Western Gulf Coastal Plains of Texas and making inferences about diet, including weaning age, and how infectious disease is impacted or exacerbated by nutrition. My supervisor and second reader are Drs. John Kappelman and Maria Wade, respectively.
TARL is not my only internship focusing on human skeletal material. I am also an intern in the eAnthro Projects lab in the Department of Anthropology at UT. Utilizing a NextEngine scanner, ScanStudio Pro, and Blender, I create 3D digital files of skeletal individuals for the new eAnthro project, eForensics.
This past summer, I participated in the Belize Archaeological Field School through UT. I excavated larger structures at La Milpa as well as smaller Maya water conservation sites near La Milpa. I was also able to assist the project osteologist with bioarchaeological excavations of Maya burials, which was an extremely interesting and necessary experience for me and my future!
Finally, I am the current president of the Anthropological Society at UT (AnthroSociety). My goal this semester is to help foster better research relationships between undergraduates and faculty members, specifically sociocultural and linguistics researchers. The AnthroSociety has a history of favoring archaeology and biological anthropology members and professors. We are striving to show all our professors that our undergraduate members are interested in learning about their research. Another goal is to offer more graduate application and writing help for those members that know they want to pursue graduate school.
I am hoping to continue on full-force into graduate school in fall of 2017. I am most interested in the programs at UC Santa Barbara, Texas State University, and Vanderbilt University. My plans are to continue my research on juvenile osteology and childhood nutritional paleopathology in a graduate context.
P.S. Come check out the Anthropological Society booth at the Texas Archaeology Fair! We’ll be doing an art “rock” wall where you can paint your own rock art and/or anything else you feel is representative of archaeology and anthropology!
Today’s Student Spotlight is an introduction to TARL work-study student Alyana Fernandez, who helps with TARL’s GIS mapping and site assignments. Alyana’s work demonstrates how archeology is an interdisciplinary field that relies on people with a wide range of interests!
My involvement at TARL is as a Sr. Student Associate in the Records department. Working with digital databases such as TexSite, I assist in assigning new site trinomials, as well as searching through existing archaeological site files, in order to document the geographic locations of archeological projects and artifacts throughout all Texas’ counties. Using the program ArcGIS in addition to printed maps of Texas quadrangles from centuries past, I record each site for use. During my time at TARL, I am gaining additional experience with ArcGIS, USGS topographic maps, and the various files in the TARL Records collection.
I am a geography major and geology minor at the University of Texas at Austin. I am interested in the physical environment; my desire to expand my knowledge of Texas’ environment and gain research experience has lead me to my interest in archaeology. The study of archaeology is very broad and interdisciplinary. What interests me most about it is how you can relate archaeological findings to many other disciplines and discover innumerable characteristics of the area you are focusing on; including climate, natural resources, etc.
Following graduation next spring, I aspire to find opportunity in a field similar to environmental consulting, surveying, or research. Additionally, I intend on furthering my education by attending graduate school after spending some time in the work force.
Thanks, Alyana! We’re glad to have you on our team!
Today, the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory houses archeological materials from more than 10,000 sites, including sites from across Texas, in other states, and outside of the U.S. We also care for site records for more than 78,000 archeological sites; our records and collections are a living history of the legacy of Texas archeology.
TARL’s history goes back nearly 100 years. This essay is a brief look at the early years of archeological research in Texas and the collection and curation of archeological materials at UT–before TARL was even in existence.
The birth of UT’s Anthropological Laboratories can be traced back to 1918 when J. E. Pearce, then with the Dept. of History, received $58.10 from the UT Institutional History Fund for an archeological excavation near Austin. This was the first of many excavations conducted by UT over the following decades. Pearce’s vision of a world-class archeological and ethnographic museum led to the University acquiring its first, and still some of its best, collections.
In addition to fieldwork, Pearce acquired collections through donations, loans, purchases, or exchanges with other individuals and institutions. He contacted high school teachers throughout Texas and inspired them to look in their areas for important sites. With funding from the Smithsonian Institution, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, The University of Texas, and private individuals, Pearce undertook a statewide survey and collections program between 1919 and 1938. His effort resulted in an unparalleled collection of material relating to the history and prehistory of Texas.
To house this collection, the UT Anthropology department established its Archeology Museum in Pearce Hall in 1932. When the Texas Memorial Museum was created in 1938, with Pearce as its director, many of the archeological collections were moved to its new facility. Other collections were housed at various locations around UT.
UT’s archeological collections continued to grow throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, with many private individuals donating their personal and legacy collections, and massive archeological projects taking place across Texas. Many of TARL’s collections derive from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the period of 1936-1941. WPA projects in Texas, most of which were done under the supervision of the University of Texas, included massive excavations in the central, eastern, and coastal parts of the state, as well as other investigations in west Texas and north Texas.
WPA funding ended with the advent of World War II, and archeology in Texas almost came to a complete halt. After the war ended in 1945, the federal government embarked on a massive program to construct dams and reservoirs across the country. In 1947, through a program known as the River Basins Survey (RBS), the National Park Service, assisted by the Smithsonian Institution, established four offices across the country to study archeological sites that would be affected by the construction of dams and reservoirs.
One of these offices was established at the university to pursue an archeological salvage program in the Texas region (Texas Archeological Salvage Project or TASP). From 1947 to 1958, the RBS conducted substantial reconnaissance of twenty-seven reservoirs. Collections from these and other research efforts were housed in various locations at the university. In 1961, these holdings were combined with the UT Museum of Anthropology collections in a cooperative venture of the TASP, the Department of Anthropology, and UT’s Texas Memorial Museum (TMM). In our next TARL history post, we’ll talk about the founding of TARL, the consolidation of UT’s archeological collections, and TARL’s first director, Dee Ann Story.
Special thanks to former TARL Director Darrell Creel, whose past research was the source of the historical facts used in this post.
Today’s Spotlight feature is an introduction to one of our student volunteers.
Elizabeth exploring the Maya site of Lamanai in Belize.
My name is Elizabeth Coggeshall and I am a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. I currently work at TARL as a volunteer, under the supervision of Stacy Drake in the Osteology Lab. Some of the projects I have been pursuing are cataloging the collection of human remains and comparative analysis of the remains.
My background is in Biological Anthropology. I’ve taken various courses, such as human osteology, human evolution, primate evolution, primate behavior and ecology, conservation, and some genetics. Archaeology became one of my interests after I took human osteology and discovered an interest in bioarchaeology and primate morphology. I went to the Belize Field School this past summer and worked in the field with Stacy Drake and Annie Riegert excavating human remains. This archaeological experience confirmed my interest in studying human burials practices and documenting human remains.
After I graduate in spring 2017, I plan on returning to field school and eventually pursuing a Ph.D. in Primatology. My experience working at TARL and in the field has showed me that I love fieldwork, lab work, and working with remains. I hope to be able to study extant primates, use my knowledge of osteology and apply it to their morphology, and continue to work as a bioarchaeologist studying human burials.
Volunteers make so much of TARL’s work possible. Thank you to Elizabeth and all the students and community members who volunteer their time to help us preserve Texas’ archeological resources.
As part of TARL’s Texas Archeology Month series, we’re introducing some of our great student workers, interns, and volunteers.
Excavation of structure in Belize. Part the Programme for Belize Archaeological Research Project 2016.
My name is Sheldon Smith and I am currently in my fourth year studying Archaeology at the University of Texas at Austin. This semester I have had the amazing opportunity to catalog and study figurines from ancient Mexico as part of my student internship at TARL. As a result, I’ve had the chance to interact closely with many different types of figurines from various sites including places like Teotihuacan. This internship has also vastly increased my knowledge concerning the ceramic technologies and culture of ancient Mexican civilizations, as well as the preservation and collection processes.
I have always enjoyed history, but my interest in Archaeology began when I found various early 20th century artifacts in association with the creek behind my house. When I started taking classes at UT, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to pursue a career in Archaeology. My sophomore year I joined the Anthropological Society, where, over the past three years, I have had the pleasure of interacting with like-minded students from all four subfields, and I am now honored to be their current Vice-President. The Anthropological society also exposed me to many different professors and researchers in the field, and opened my eyes to all of the archaeological opportunities the university has to offer. One such opportunity was when I worked with Dr. Peter Fix on the La Belle restoration project at the Bob Bullock Museum. I learned a great deal about conservation and gained insight into a very important part of Texas history that I previously knew very little about.
At that time, I still did not know exactly what aspect of Archaeology I wanted to focus on. That all changed this past summer, when I attended UT’s Belize Archaeological Field School, as part of the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project (PFBAP). There, I finally got to get my hands dirty and excavate at a Maya site named La Milpa. I rediscovered my passion for Archaeology and became very interested in architecture as well as ceramic technologies. I would like to work with these aspects of Archaeology in my future career, and plan on returning to the site next summer as a junior staff member to gain more knowledge about these topics. After I graduate, I plan on taking a year or more off to work in Cultural Resource Management, in order to gain more field experience. Then my plan is to apply to graduate school in order to pursue a Ph.D. in Archaeology. My hope is that I will someday work in Mesoamerica doing what I love, so that I can gain a greater insight into the lives of the people that lived there and preserve their history.
Archaeological excavation at the George C. Davis site in Texas.
As archaeologists, many of us tend to assume that others understand the intrinsic value of archaeological sites, and that in general, people want to protect archaeological resources. At the same time, we know there are many sites out there getting looted each day as well as a thriving market in antiquities. In this essay, we take a brief look at the ethics behind preserving archaeological sites, the difference between scientific excavation and looting, and how to talk to non-archaeologists about cultural heritage management.
One important reason to preserve and document archaeological sites is that, in some cases, it’s the law. In Texas, laws prohibit excavation on state land without a permit. Federal land has several statutes that apply to cultural resources including the disturbance of human remains.
What about sites not protected by state and federal laws? Sites on private property in Texas can, legally speaking, be excavated by anyone at the discretion of the landowner. So why not dig them up? Isn’t that what archaeologists do?
It sounds disingenuous, but as archaeologists, we actually want to do as little archaeology as possible.
We know that without our intervention, some sites are very vulnerable and can be destroyed either through construction, natural disasters such as floods, or natural processes like erosion. Because archaeological materials are a non-renewable resource (we can’t go back in time to make more sites), we absolutely want to document any sites in danger of being destroyed. Other than those sites in immediate danger, though, archaeologists typically only want to dig at sites that have a strong potential to answer research questions rooted in anthropological theory and fill in the gaps in our understanding of the past. Beyond that, we want sites to be left alone.
Doing a scientific excavation is costly, time-consuming, and destructive to the site. Responsible archaeologists are keenly aware of the fact that their work does irreparable damage to the site and that they only have one shot to get it right. They also know that, with new analytical techniques being developed at a rapid pace, future researchers may be able to learn much more about the same site–but only if there’s still something left to excavate. For these reasons, modern archaeologists typically try to do as little excavation as is possible to answer their research questions, and they collect as much data as possible from these minimally intrusive excavations.
Non-scientific excavators–looters–do the opposite of this.
To a trained archaeologist, an archaeological site is much more than the artifacts that come out of the ground. Often we are less interested in the potsherds or arrowheads and more interested in the chemistry of the soil, the sequence of construction, or the relationship of one object to another within the excavation. Removing artifacts from their context or digging with the sole purpose of recovering artifacts to collect or sell destroys all of this valuable information forever.
Once an artifact is removed from its archaeological context, its value to archaeological researchers is greatly reduced. While we all love looking at a beautiful artifact, there is much less information to be gained from an item out of context than one recovered with accurate provenience data. This idea seems straightforward, so why is there a persistent trend for folks to focus on the beauty of a few objects and ignore the site and context?
We could blame everyone’s favorite pop-culture archaeologist, who destroys entire temples to steal a single artifact. Or we could look at how we communicate.
To an archaeologist, it can be disheartening to watch someone’s eyes glaze over when you start to talk about phytoliths or microwear, only to see them perk up at the mention of ancient aliens. The public fascination with sensationalized archaeological ideas comes out of both a long history of sensational archaeology and the way archaeology is taught to the general public. Even up to the mid-twentieth century, archaeology was full of self-aggrandizing explorers on quests to find Atlantis or Mu, and early excavations were often massive, rushed, and focused on finding the most magnificent artifacts. Ever since Schliemann had his wife model the jewels of Troy, the public has had the perception of archaeology as not too far distant from treasure hunting. We can all agree that gorgeous ceramics, painted sarcophagi, and intricate weapons are just more captivating to look at than dirt and debitage.
Museums, as wonderful as they are, sometimes unintentionally contribute to this paradigm. Although the intent of most archaeology museums is to provide education, they are typically able to do this only through displaying artifacts–you just can’t move an archaeological site into a museum! The best museums provide lots of contextual information, which allows visitors to appreciate the artifacts for much more than their artistic value. When people only have access to archaeology through museums, it is no wonder they focus on the artifacts rather than the sites themselves.
It’s up to archaeologists to meet the public where they are and acknowledge our sensational past. As much as we want to roll our eyes at archaeological conspiracy theories or shoeboxes full of arrowheads, being dismissive even of misguided archaeological interests is counterproductive. We can channel folks’ enthusiasm into productive discussions about preservation, but only by first acknowledging that these artifacts and ideas are, in fact, really neat and fun to think about. We can talk about modern archaeology and resource management by sharing our passion for the “boring” aspects of archaeology–excitement, even about mundane things, can be contagious.
This October for Texas Archaeology Month, archaeological sites, historical sites, and museums across Texas are opening their doors to the public, to engage in exactly this kind of dialogue. Throughout this month, archaeologists across the state will be sharing their expertise and their life’s work with students, families, and anyone who wants to learn. We invite you all to join us as we celebrate archaeology in Texas and beyond.
If you want to learn more about responsible, scientific archaeology, there are lots of ongoing opportunities to engage with the local archaeological community. Check out the Texas Archaeological Society or a local society, or contact your local university. TARL also has lots of volunteer opportunities available and we’d love to have your help.
After several years of hiatus, TARL is excited and proud to reintroduce the Friends of TARL
Every day, TARL works to protect and document archaeological sites, collections, and historic records. We provide important educational opportunities to students so they can build their future careers. We ensure that millions of artifacts are cared for, that new sites are documented correctly, and that new research can be done.
We need your help!
Membership in the Friends of TARL is a way to show your support for the work we do at TARL, sustain our work through vital financial contributions, and stay connected with what’s new in Texas archaeology. The Friends of TARL Member benefits include:
Invitations to TARL events;
Discounts on TARL merchandise;
Subscription to our new quarterly e-newsletter.
Our goal is to have 100+ new members join during the month of October–Texas Archaeology Month. Join us today!
Join the Friends of TARL today as a Regular Member (one-time gift of $50 or just $4.17 per month for 12 months) or a Pedernales Member (one-time gift of $100 or $8.33 per month for 12 Months).
Special memberships are also available for current Students ($20) and Retirees ($30). Students who join will be eligible for Friends of TARL scholarships. Higher tier memberships are also available; see membership tiers below. Follow the instructions below to sign up as a Student, Retiree, or a higher tier member.
Ensure that the space labeled “Gift Area” reads “Liberal Arts, College of.”
Choose “Texas Archeological Research Laboratory” from the next drop-down menu, labeled “Sub Department.”
Enter your desired gift amount. The minimum to become a Regular Member is $50. Student memberships are $20 and Retiree memberships are $30.
In the Special Instructions box, please specify if you are a Student or Retiree. If you are a current UT graduate or undergraduate student, please enter your EID. If you are a currently enrolled student at another university, please list your university.
Click “Continue” to complete your payment information and submit your membership.