Category Archives: News & Outreach

Consulting with the Smithsonian

Curating the Navajo Sand Paintings

by Kerri Wilhelm

One of my duties here at TARL involves assisting with any of the numerous collections-based projects that may be going on at any given time.  Given the tiny size of our staff, we all wear many hats and have to pitch-in whenever and wherever as needed to ensure that proper care of the collections is being achieved.  Over the course of this past summer Diane Ruetz and I were faced with ensuring the care of TARL’s very large collection of Navajo sand paintings.  Recognizing that this is a significant collection of ethnographic art, a type of non-archeological collection we don’t specialize in here at TARL, Diane and I set about performing the documentation necessary to build what will become the permanent files for this collection.  It was during documentation that we recognized the fragile nature inherent to this particular art medium: some of the sands had experienced color fade and the adhesives used in the construction of the plywood and particle board backers were leeching aldehydes through the front canvases and discoloring the paintings in places.  Also, at least one of the sand paintings was showing signs of the sand exfoliating away from the canvas, a process we were keen to prevent.  Informal condition assessments revealed that these pieces of two-dimensional art were in need of several things: 1.  more protection from ambient UV and 2. an archival storage solution that would help mitigate acid migration in the backer materials and prevent any further damage associated with chemical and mechanical changes wrought by damaging particulates, pollutants and fluctuations in relative humidity.  Diane set about gathering the dimensions for the paintings with the intent of researching the costs of purchasing ‘blue board’ curation boxes and I photo-documented the paintings.  We began to plan our ‘boxing’ of the sand paintings.

While we awaited the arrival of the archival boxes from Gaylord and continued with the photo-documentation, I got in touch with a group of people who I knew would have dealt with this specific type of ethnographic art before: the collections staff at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.  I was put in touch with Victoria Cranner who was then the Acting Collections Manager at the NMAI at the Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, MD.  Victoria had some really helpful advice about they store their Navajo sand paintings and why.  She was kind enough to include photographs of the storage techniques used by the NMAI which I have included below.  Victoria’s (paraphrased) advice:

1.  best to lay them flat, if you happen to be blessed with the space to do so

2.  make boxes for them out of archival blue board, lined  with volara or ethafoam and make little bumpers out of foam backer rod

  1. if dust is a concern, make sure the box for the painting has a lid

4.  high temperatures could potentially loosen the fixatives originally used to adhere the sand, so store the sand paintings in an environmentally stable location (about 70®F and 48%RH)

5.   off-gassing (of the aldehydes in the particle board) is possible, but since these (sand paintings) were made in the 1970’s most of the gasses have probably dissipated

Below are images provided by Victoria Cranner of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian illustrating the storage of Navajo sand paintings at the Cultural Resource Center.

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Victoria was a huge help in helping staff here at TARL identify the best means and manner in which to store our large collection of Navajo sand paintings.  Of course, placing the paintings into the boxes means that no one can see the beautiful artistry or enjoy the traditional Navajo chantway stories that are being told with the paintings.  It is the hope of staff here at TARL that we can locate a suitable institution interested in housing, and hopefully displaying, these beautiful works of art.  Below are images of our ongoing efforts to bring this collection up to current best standards in object curation.

  • Using one of our PEM2 envirrnmental loggers to monitor the climate in the room housing the paintings.
    Using one of our PEM2 envirrnmental loggers to monitor the climate in the room housing the paintings.
  • Since many of the paintings have large footprints, we had to carefully stack several of the larger boxes.  Since we didn't want people to have to open the boxes to determine catalog information, we adhered catalog cards with photographs to the exterior edge of the boxes to facilitate identification and inventory.
    Since many of the paintings have large footprints, we had to carefully stack several of the larger boxes. Since we didn’t want people to have to open the boxes to determine catalog information, we adhered catalog cards with photographs to the exterior edge of the boxes to facilitate identification and inventory.

 

 

 

 

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:

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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/