Tag Archives: Projects & Research

Ongoing Research in the Human Osteology Collections

by Kerri Wilhelm

Dr. Deborah Bolnick, genetic anthropologist and associate professor in UT’s Anthropology Department, visited the TARL Human Osteology collection with one of her doctoral students, Austin Reynolds, recently as they begin their identification of osteological elements for aDNA.  Most interested in intact adult molar-dentition, which may provide the valuable genetic material for their testing, they made their way carefully through the collections and handled each element with great respect.  The research that Dr. Bolnick and her student are working on (and more specifically, will publish on) will provide much needed insight into the genetic impact of the earliest Spanish colonial contact with Native Americans in Texas.

TARL has been very willing to work with Dr. Bolnick and her students for a number of reasons, not the least of which is her preference to attempt to obtain the necessary genetic material through a non-destructive technique involving a ‘bath’ for the element selected for aDNA sampling.  Lead author on an article in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology published in 2012, the collaborative journal article describes this non-destructive process.  You can find the article abstract at:


Nondestructive sampling of human skeletal remains yields ancient nuclear and mitochondrial DNA

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2012 Feb;147(2):293-300. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21647. Epub 2011 Dec 20.

Dr. Bolnick is very aware of the sensitive nature of the collections she is accessing and utilizing in her research.  She works with us to ensure that TARL as a UT research entity, and the collections she is working with specifically, are all compliant under NAGPRA laws and regulations.  She has also made clear her willingness to discuss the nature and significance of her research with those Native American communities that have expressed interested in gaining this scientific perspective.  Please follow the status of her projects and publications on our blog as she continues to work with TARL staff and collections, expanding our understanding of the prehistory of Texas and its early inhabitants.  We look forward to her continuing research!



Always, the Work Continues…

Ongoing Collections Management Efforts at TARL

by Kerri Wilhelm

One of TARL’s many functions, and secondary only to its role as an archeological research facility at UT Austin, is serving as a repository for archeological collections derived from permitted excavations in Texas.  It is in TARL’s capacity as a state-certified repository that our staff expends a great deal of time and resources performing the intake tasks associated with reviewing inventories of submitted collections and associated records.  Marybeth Tomka, our new Head of Collections, tries to make the most of the intake process by offering to train students interested in CRM archeology in proper artifact laboratory methods and collections processing techniques.  This is a great opportunity for students interested in learning artifact identification and analysis, especially as relates to ceramic and point typologies, to work with different artifact classes and to learn from knowledgeable staff about their classifications and significance.

This photograph shows PhD. candidate Debora Trein (left) and volunteer Elizabeth Martindale (right) meticulously confirming submitted inventories against their collections they.  In particular Debora is confirming the inventory of a  contractor-submitted collection.  Following her check of the collection, and a review of documentation by Marybeth and Rosario, the collection will be placed into TARL’s permanent curation space.  Elizabeth Martindale is also confirming the inventory against the collections for a submitted collection.  However, following her review the collection she is working on will be sent to another repository for permanent curation.

Keep checking back on the blog as we continue to chronicle the work on the various duties and projects we undertake.  If you’re a college student and interested in archeology, collections management or archives and information management, you’re encouraged to contact Marybeth about opportunities we have for contributing to projects.  Send her an email and let her know that you’re interested in volunteering or in carrying out an internship.  She’ll be glad to discuss these opportunities with you!




Research on the Horizon

Wilson-Leonard Remains to be Revisited

by Kerri Wilhelm

The remains of the individual discovered in Williamson County near Leander, TX are in the process of being assessed and re-examined by two University of Texas researchers who are also on faculty in the Anthropology department.  TARL has loaned the cranium to Dr. John Kappelman for research into whether new CT imaging technology and techniques can reveal more of the original anatomical orientation of the vault fragments which were brushed with an adhesive in situ to prevent any loss during recovery in the field.  The partially jacketed cranium, including the vault fragments, could potentially all be scanned using computerized tomography (CT) equipment and then reconstructed in software back into the orientation they would have occupied during the life of this archeologically significant individual.   Dr. Kappelman also came by TARL in the fall, with some of his undergraduate students in tow, to assess the state of preservation of the post-cranial material for  CT scanning.  It is our hope that digitizing this material will provide new data sets and anatomical information that can be utilized to increase our understanding of the physiology, physical and environmental stressors and any indicators of trauma and pathology endured by this Paleoindian young woman.  Further study will allow anthropologists like Dr. Kappelman to fit the Wilson-Leonard woman into the larger spectrum of the prehistoric-modern evolutionary timeline that will shed light on the origins of the first people in North America.

'Leanne' burial
One of the oldest and most complete human skeletons in the Western Hemisphere, the Wilson-Leonard burial known as “Leanne,” or the “Leanderthal Lady,” was found by TxDOT archeologists in 1982. A well-worn tool, used for grinding or chopping, and a limestone boulder—perhaps placed on the body as a marker or to secure a wrapping around the body—also were uncovered in the grave. Image courtesy of TBH.


Dovetailing with the loan of this important TARL collection is the potential for genetic analyses to be performed, should the state and manner of preservation support the requirements of this type of study.  Dr. Deborah Bolnick, genetic anthropologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at UT, will be meeting with me very soon to discuss the possibility and application of genetic testing of the Wilson-Leonard woman’s post cranial material.  Currently engaged in two other genetic investigations involving TARL collection materials, if testing is feasible, any resulting data could be used to contribute valuable information for research into the genetic origins of Paleo-Indians and the first inhabitants of Texas in particular.

These are just two of the research projects currently in discussion here at TARL.  Our collections, the breadth of cultural diversity and archeological depth of time represented in them,  makes them a good choice for researchers interested in investigating the numerous aspects of Texas archeology and history.  Please visit the Texas Beyond History virtual exhibits focusing on the Wilson-Leonard site and associated burial for more information about the significance of this site in Texas’ archeological record.


Check back with us regularly as we continue to post about the TARL collections being used in research, new and ongoing research projects and investigations, and highlights in the collections as we use artifacts to keep moving Texas history forward.



Caddo Connections at TARL

Research in the Collections

by Kerri Wilhelm

Dr. Timothy Perttula, owner and cultural resources director of Archeological & Environmental Consultants and author of both The Caddo Nation (1992) and Archaeology of the Caddo (2012), is accessing TARL’s vessel collection.  Citing it as one of the largest collections of intact prehistoric Caddo ceramic vessels, Dr. Perttula is documenting the vessels and their various stylistic and compositional design elements.  Aside from his visits to the TARL collections over the years, Dr. Perttula has also contributed to TARL’s virtual museum, Texas Beyond History, which presents the artifacts in their proper historical and archeological context.  Dr. Perttula wrote the Lake Naconiche Prehistory exhibit (http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/naconiche/index.html) with contributions from Bob Wishoff.  He serves on the Smithsonian Institution’s Native American Repatriation Review Committee in addition to being an Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology in the Anthropology Department at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX.  Specializing in Caddo ceramics and East Texas archeology, Dr. Perttula is also the tribal archeological consultant to the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma.  He has produced dozens of reports and publications and with TARL’s Head of Collections is engaged in coordinating the release of these valuable texts about the archeology of East Texas and Caddo archeology.

Efficiently documenting both the intact ceramic Caddo vessels, as well as the decorated sherds, Dr. Perttula is providing valuable new inventories of the materials excavated during the WPA era.  The documentation that he provides, in addition to his knowledgeable insights about the people who created these artifacts, will enrich our understanding of the Caddo, their history as a people and their continuing importance in the modern Texas cultural landscape.


Dr. Timothy Perttula.
Dr. Timothy Perttula.


Dr. Perttula's 2012 publication, The Archaeology of the Caddo.
Dr. Perttula’s 2012 publication, The Archaeology of the Caddo.


Dr. Perttula's most recent work, as a co-author of Caddo Connections, published in 2014.
Dr. Perttula’s most recent work, as a co-author of Caddo Connections, published in 2014.




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


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.