by Susan Dial
Sometimes even the smallest of creatures can provide big insights. Dr. Ken Brown, an archeologist and TARL Research Affiliate, has been on the trail of snails for decades. From these seemingly inconsequential mollusks, a wealth of data about past environments at archeological sites can be gleaned. Simply put, different species of snails can thrive in different environmental conditions. By determining which species were present at a given time, he can reconstruct what the climatic conditions were like over time. His observation of snails (species, habitat requirements, species densities and distributions, etc) allow him to contribute invaluable insight into site formation and transformation over time, evidence of bioturbation, possible signs of cultural utilization, and especially paleo-environmental reconstruction.
The processes involved in snail analysis is painstaking and often tedious, involving screening sediment samples through a series of increasingly fine-grained mesh, picking out the shells, sorting by size, and finally identifying them. Good eyesight is a must for this job: some snails in his samples are less than a millimeter across, and specimen storage is in gel caps, not plastic bags. For archeologists, however, this sort of information can be invaluable—and often the only available indicator of past environments.
Ken’s research interests are hardly limited to snails, however. He also is a specialist in prehistoric wooden artifacts, having studied (and identified) dozens of the snares, traps, curved sticks, dart shafts and other enigmatic items from TARL’s perishable collections. His detailed drawings, descriptions, photos and lab notes of these remarkable artifacts now fill very large ring- binders—the makings of a publication long awaited by other archeologists.
Ken’s interest in archeology can be traced back to his teen years participating in Texas Archeological Society field schools. He has been at it ever since. Awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, he has worked in the field for nearly 40 years and mostly at sites in Texas, but also in New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois and New York. Ken’s dissertation on the Berger Bluff site in Victoria County provides unique insight into the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene climatic history of the coastal plains of Texas. For that site—and many of the others he’s worked on—he did multiple types of analyses, analyzing not just mollusks, but myriad other fauna, lithics, etc.
Ken also has contributed substantive content to Texas Beyond History, including the McFaddin Beach exhibit (“This Site Is All Washed Up!”) http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/mcfaddin/index.html and a “mini-exhibit” on Berger Bluff http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/st-plains/images/ap5.html. In the past several years, he has also served as a TBH reviewer; his broad expertise and eagle eye as an editor have been greatly appreciated. His current work is focused on a project at the Genevieve Lykes Duncan site in Brewster County, one of only a few sites with Paleoindian-age deposits in the Trans Pecos.
In subsequent blog posts, Ken will share some of what he has learned about snails… and many other subjects, we hope!