I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Texas at Austin. My focus of study is in archaeology, with a particular emphasis on human osteology and the ancient Maya. My dissertation research is a bioarchaeological assessment of human burial traditions and life experiences of the ancient Maya throughout time periods and different sites in Northwestern Belize. Outside of my dissertation work, I am also very interested in and passionate about public outreach and education in archaeology. I greatly enjoy working with local and descendant communities and providing educational opportunities in archaeology with students of all ages.
I received Bachelor’s degrees in Anthropology and German from the University of Iowa, and received my Master’s at UT Austin in 2011. I hope to defend my dissertation in 2015. I have 10 years of experience conducting archaeological field work, analysis, and research, and have worked with various Cultural Resource Management firms in Iowa and Texas. My first archaeological field school experience was at a historic homestead in Iowa, and I have since participated in field schools in Texas and Belize. I currently serve as Project Bioarchaeologist for the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project in Belize, and enjoy the joint opportunities to work with human remains from various ancient Maya sites and to also work alongside and instruct field school students in proper burial excavation and analysis techniques.
For the past few months I have enjoyed the opportunity to volunteer in the Human Osteology lab at TARL. For this project I am working with human remains to complete inventories and profiles of the individuals housed at TARL. I utilize basic osteological analysis techniques to identify the bones present within each collection and create assessments of sex, age at death, and any other special characteristics each individual skeleton exhibits (such as diseases and traumas experienced during the life or at the time of death of the individual). This analysis will aid in the creation of a database which will allow researchers to access and contribute to useful information regarding ancient populations in Texas.
The ability to work so closely with well preserved and curated remains has been profoundly valuable for my studies, my research, and my educational and personal pursuits. Since working with these remains, I have improved upon and learned new techniques for osteological analysis. I have developed a better understanding of efficient documentation processes and intend to implement similar methods in my own dissertation work. I have also been exposed to special technologies to which I have not previously had access. In particular, Kerri Wilhelm has been extremely supportive in demonstrating the use of some of these technologies and helping to guide me through particularly difficult specimens. I am grateful to her and Marybeth Tomka for this opportunity and experience.
My experience volunteering in the Human Osteology laboratory at TARL has greatly benefited my current research. Preservation conditions in Belize are not kind to bone, so the ability to study the relatively well-preserved collections at TARL has been extremely beneficial. While bones in Belize are often fragmentary and severely damaged by the natural environment, I have been able to further familiarize myself with characteristics of human bone that are not as observable in poorer preservation conditions. While conducting inventory and analysis on the TARL collections, I have not only improved my familiarity with skeletal analysis, but also with methods and techniques that I intend to implement in my own dissertation research and in the field school’s analysis process in Belize. Finally, my growing ability to identify more uncommon characteristics present in some of the skeletal collections (such as various trauma or pathological conditions or taphonomic processes) is primarily due to the patience and guidance of Kerri Wilhelm, who greets every question I bring to her (and there are many!) with a smile and helpful answer. I look forward to seeing what information will be gleaned from future research on the TARL collections and have personally benefited greatly from my own experiences therewith.
With every new administration, comes some change. Well, I’m no different. Since getting (back) to TARL in July, I have considered and made some alterations to the way a collection is to be submitted. It’s not because I am compulsive, okay, not all due to that, but these changes reflect a way to increase the effectiveness of TARL’s database system to make doing research easier for you, the user!
I am currently collecting names and contact information from people interested in participating in the training seminar and will be announcing a date in March soon. Meanwhile, check out the new TARL web site (http://www.utexas.edu/cola/orgs/tarl/) that has updated stipulations for both records and collections as well as new forms. Here’s a breakdown of the significant changes to the collections policy:
All organics to be stored in General Collections – cost will reflect new storage area.
All materials to be kept in analytical categories regardless of storage space. Bags of separated categories to contain tag no smaller than 6 x 8 in size with same information as the current box tag. Leave room for TARL accession number.
No bulk bone, shell or metal to be labeled.
Discontinue use of tag sleeves – replace with double bagging.
Fifty percent of debitage and ceramics larger than a US quarter only to be labeled.
All metal to be separated by object type – miscellaneous metal bags will not be accepted.
All unique items to be bagged separately: e.g., do not bag all bifaces together.
Artifact tags must have analytical grouping clearly written on tags and room left for the addition of the TARL accession number.
Samples that have be reduced for analysis must have original weight, sample weight, and remaining weight clearly identified in the accompanying records and the appropriate value listed on the tag.
Discontinue labelling the boxes, but place label inside box – cardboard boxes will be discontinued.
Collections Inventory worksheets will be required for isolated finds/general project materials.
An excel file will be submitted with the records that mirrors the Collection Inventory Worksheet. Template will be produced and distributed in early 2015.
So, see you at the seminar and I will explain the craziness of a curator.
Editor’s Note: The NAGPRA Specialist will be attending the proposed training as well. She will be seated at the very back selling small effigies of the Head of Collections, and large needles, for those of you inclined to express your dissatisfaction with having to learn new standards. <j/k MB!….I will only sell the little needles!> 😉
About this post’s featured image, provided courtesy of Texas Beyond History: Probably associated with the small amount of Late Prehistoric material from 41VT1, this small collection of prehistoric ceramic sherds is illustrated to show the general variability and represents the entire prehistoric ceramic collection from the site. These materials await further analysis and description.
The redesigned official TARL website is now up and available for traffic. Presently, the bulk of the information is the same. Our hope is that users will find the new format cleaner and the functionality streamlined. We will be adding new content to the website as staff time and resources permit (remember, there are only a few of us!). The new website also reflects the staff changes that have occurred over the last year. We have been working with the university’s IT offices in the College of Liberal Arts (LAITS) to provide more direct access to TARL’s online resources and information on our services in a virtual theme that is reflective of our status as a research arm of the University of Texas at Austin. We hope the new website continues to provide you and the rest of the archeological community with the information you need.
In cooperation with Becky Shelton at the State Archeologist’s office at the Texas Historical Commission, I am working to develop a historic ceramics workshop. We are planning to have a seminar this spring, date to be announced, and depending on its appeal, we will continue having them yearly. There will be limited space, about 20 people with preference given to stewards.
If you want to know more about historic ceramics, their varieties and nuances, consider this workshop as a fun and cooperative learning experience.
Stay tuned to the blog as we move forward with planning the details of this wonderful, hands-on learning opportunity that will be presented here at TARL on UT’s Pickle Research Campus. We will provide workshop details as they evolve.
Oh, the featured image above is of the texts that we will be using for training during the workshop. We look forward to sharing our experiences with you at the workshop, and at those we hope to offer in the future.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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: