NAGPRA, the law that protects human remains and associated artifacts, applies to human burials or remains that can be confidently affiliated with a modern, federally-recognized Native American group. What do archeologists do, though, when remains are found to date back many thousands of years in the past?
TARL Head of Collections Marybeth Tomka was featured in this article In the Summer 2017 issue of American Archaeology. Read the full PDF:
This week, TARL is sad to say goodbye to one of our staff. Dr. Stacy Drake, TARL’s Staff Osteologist and NAGPRA Coordinator, has left us for a great new opportunity to work at the Field Museum in Chicago. Stacy will be working on osteological analysis and NAGPRA consultation and repatriation work at the Field Museum.
During her time at TARL, Stacy oversaw the rehabilitation and analysis of many human remains in the TARL Human Osteology Laboratory. She also mentored numerous students and volunteers, and assisted with several tribal consultations on NAGPRA and repatriation issues. Stacy will be greatly missed at TARL but we wish her all the best in her new position!
For the time being, all inquiries regarding human osteological research or NAGPRA should be directed to TARL’s Head of Collections, Marybeth Tomka (email@example.com).
What a year it has been at TARL! We’ve had some amazing research done using our collections, had some wonderful students come through here as work-studies, interns, and volunteers, built our community of volunteers and supporters, and brought our love of archeology to hundreds of people through our public outreach.
Thank you to everyone who has helped us with all these activities, and especially to those who have volunteered their time to help us out. We could never have accomplished what we have without you!
TARL’s offices will be closed for the winter holiday beginning December 23, 2016. We will reopen on January 2, 2017. We wish you all a lovely holiday and a happy new year.
TARL Student News
TARL Staff Osteologist and NAGPRA Coordinator Stacy Drake completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology from UT. Her dissertation topic was an analysis of more than 120 burials from various sites in northern Belize, identifying various mortuary patterns. We are so proud of you, Dr. Drake!
TARL Human Osteology Lab Intern Lauren Koutlias graduated this December with special honors in Anthropology. She plans to pursue graduate education beginning next school year. Way to go, Lauren!
TARL Collections Intern Sheldon Smith will take over as President of the UT AnthroSociety in the spring 2017 semester. We look forward to you recruiting more volunteers for us, Sheldon!
Public Outreach at TARL
In 2016, TARL reached more than a thousand individuals through our public outreach efforts. These activities included:
Hands-on activities at the annual university-wide open house, Explore UT.
Guest lectures and workshops by TARL staff at UT and Texas State, as well as for the UT AnthroSociety.
Hands-on activities at the annual Girls in STEM Conference as well as at summer camps hosted by local STEM education nonprofit Girlstart.
A new tradition: the Texas Archeology Month Tailgate, leading up to the Texas Archeology Month Fair, both in partnership with the Texas Historical Commission and other groups.
Participating in Russell Lee Elementary’s career fair for 3rd-6th graders.
TARL also had the honor of hosting representatives from various Native American tribes and nations, and participating in a joint meeting with multiple tribal representatives from throughout the US Southwest and South. We are dedicated to improving working relationships with Native American communities and we are grateful for the perspectives and involvements of these various groups.
January 4-8, 2017: Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Conference, Ft. Worth, Texas.
January 7: Public Archaeology Day at SHA, Omni Hotel, Ft. Worth, Texas.
January 14-15: TAS Canyonlands Academy, Langtry, Texas. Registration deadline is January 2.
Now through February 25: “Tutankhamun: Wonderful Things from the Pharaoh’s Tomb” exhibit at Texas Museum of Science & Technology, Cedar Park, Texas.
February 25-26: TAS Ceramics Academy, Jacksboro, Texas. Registration deadline is February 10.
March 4: Explore UT, Main UT Campus, Austin, Texas.
April 29-30: TAS Technology in Archeology Academy, Fredericksburg, Texas. Registration deadline is April 14.
June 10-17: TAS Field School at San Lorenzo de la Cruz, Camp Wood, Texas.
Have news to share?
New job? New research? Plans for graduation or retirement? We want to hear from you!
We are also looking for stories about your experiences at TARL from the 1960s to the 2000s.
Email us or comment below to submit your news and stories.
Recently some of TARL’s staff members had a unique opportunity to visit the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University—informally known by the public as the “body farm” but referred to as the “decomposition facility” by the researchers—and learn about the amazing research going on there. This facility and its associated labs are the home of some of the most cutting-edge forensics research happening in Texas. A huge thank-you to Dr. Michelle Hamilton, Courtney Siegert, and the rest of the staff and students at Texas State who took the time to show us around and share their research.
FACTS and its associated facilities provide training opportunities for law enforcement officers, and they collaborate with outside researchers studying taphonomic processes, recovery methods, and more. They also offer a great training and research program for Texas State students interested in forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology. Much of the research at FACTS uses the remains of people who donate their bodies. Learn more about FACTS and their various programs on their website.
One of the most interesting programs going on at FACTS is their Operation Identification or “OpID” program, which works to identify the remains of individuals who have died crossing into Texas from the Mexican border. The OpID staff and students analyze these remains and collaborate with other organizations, including the Border Patrol, FBI, NGOs, and international groups, to match the remains with reported missing persons and eventually return the remains to their families. Since 2013, the program has completed analysis of approximately 100 individuals, with 10 positive IDs made and returned to their families. Although it was heartbreaking to hear the stories of these migrants who perished while searching for a better life, we are humbled by the hard work and dedication of everyone who volunteers their time and effort to contribute to this important work. Find more information on OpID, including volunteer opportunities, through their Facebook page.
We at TARL are always glad to have the chance to get out and see what our colleagues and counterparts are doing, so that we can learn about new research and begin new collaborations.
Jessie, Marybeth, Lauren, Stacy and Jonathan at the TAS meeting
Recently TARL’s staff braved torrential downpours, high winds, and sketchy hotel continental breakfasts to attend the 86th Annual Meeting of the Texas Archeological Society in Houston. We all greatly enjoyed sharing our work with our friends and colleagues, meeting new folks and spending time with old friends.
During the meetings, TAS honored TARL Associate Director Jonathan Jarvis for 20 years of membership, and Texas Beyond History director Susan Dial for 30 years of membership in the TAS. We are reminded of how fortunate TARL is to have such dedicated and knowledgeable members of the professional community leading our team!
TARL staff had a great time presenting our work at our symposium session, “TARL Today: Projects and Prospects,” and we are grateful to everyone who took the time to come listen to our presentations and offer their feedback on our work. TARL Associate Director Jonathan Jarvis presented on “The Legacy of A. T. Jackson,” providing a fascinating look into the history of TARL’s collections and particularly the many assemblages that were excavated during the WPA era of Texas archaeology. Head of Collections Marybeth Tomka and Curatorial Assistant Lauren Bussiere shared their pilot project—rehabbing one of these WPA-era collections—in their talk “WPA Archaeology: Revisiting the Harrell Site Collections.” TARL Osteologist and NAGPRA Coordinator Stacy Drake discussed her findings regarding “Skeletal Pathologies of Prehistoric Individuals at Falcon Reservoir,” providing a fascinating look into the challenges of salvage projects, and TARL Osteology Intern Jessie LeViseur demonstrated the wealth of new information that can be gained from re-analyzing old collections in her talk, “The Harrell Site: A New Perspective of a Prehistoric Cemetery.” Finally, TARL Director Brian Roberts discussed TARL’s current state and plans for the future in his presentation, “TARL Today.” We hope that our session provided an interesting look into the various projects that keep us busy here at TARL.
We were all also glad to have the opportunity to hear about the great projects our colleagues across the state have been conducting. TARL would like to extend our thanks to all the presenters for sharing their work, to our audience members for their interest in TARL and support of our work, and especially to the organizers of the TAS meetings: the Houston Archeological Society, Fort Bend Archeological Society, and Brazoria Archeological Society. Their hard work made this year’s meetings a fun and educational experience for all of us!
Lauren at the Roman site of Jerash in northern Jordan, 2011.
As TARL’s new Curatorial Assistant, I’m excited to get to work rehabbing some of TARL’s great old collections and helping make all that material and information accessible to other researchers.
My background is mostly in Mesoamerican Archaeology, but I’m a Texas girl at heart and a Texas State alum (go Bobcats!). I have a deep love for Central America, Mexico, and the desert Southwest, which inspires me to help preserve the cultural patrimony of these areas and to help ensure that their stories are a part of our shared world history. As one of the largest repositories of cultural material from sites across Texas and beyond, TARL plays an important role in conserving invaluable material and information, facilitating dialogue, and promoting innovative research—and I am honored to be part of this great team!
As a graduate student in Anthropological Archaeology at the University of California, San Diego, I conducted field research in Belize, Mexico, and Jordan, as well as some CRM work in California. My Master’s work focused on warfare and defensive structures in the northern Maya Lowlands, building off my excavation of the site perimeter wall at the Late and Terminal Classic site of Chichén Itzá. My post-M.A. research included looking at intra-site exchange patterns across households at a minor Maya site in Belize, as well as research into chemical analysis methodologies for stone tools at Bronze Age sites in Jordan.
Working on such a range of projects, I gained a strong appreciation for the importance—as well as the difficulty—of ensuring that archaeological data is precise, detailed, organized, compliant, and most importantly, easy to interpret by future researchers. Part of my challenge here at TARL is to consolidate records from old projects, bring them up to contemporary standards, and organize them to facilitate future analysis. Meanwhile, I’m also working to update artifact inventories and ensure that these irreplaceable artifacts are stored in such a way that they will be preserved for many years to come. This is no easy task, given that some of TARL’s collections date from the days when archaeology was in its infancy!
In my spare time, I enjoy running, yoga, hiking, spending time with my husband and two cats, and gardening. I am also a hobby beekeeper, so please call me if you see a swarm that needs a good home!
This week, TARL held the first workshop in a series about archaeological methods! We worked together with the UT Anthropology Department to further TARL’s educational goals and provide a collaborative space to enhance UT graduate students’ field skills. TARL Head of Collections Marybeth Tomka, and TARL staff Stacy Drake and Debora Trein led a 2 hour seminar on principles of osteology in archaeology, which included an in-depth discussion of topics such as NAGPRA legislation, cultural sensitivity awareness, and the duties of archaeologists to the state, the public, and stakeholder communities in private and academic settings. Best practices in excavation, analysis, and curation of human remains was also a topic of great discussion, as most workshop participants have had experience with human remains in archaeological contexts from all over the country and the world.
After the essentials of bone and teeth analysis were discussed, workshop participants were given the opportunity to hone their analytic skills by examining a number of specimens under TARL’s curation. The study of ancient human remains is an extraordinarily informative field, giving archaeologists a window into a person’s life. Human remains provide information that may include a person’s age, lifestyle, diet, place of dwelling, occupation, among and other highly significant knowledge about ancient lifeways. Importantly, human remains can also be employed to study entire populations over time. Human remains can provide archaeologists information about long-term trends such as the impact of the introduction of agriculture on a population’s health and nutrition, for instance.
This was the first of many workshops, which will hopefully be just as informative! Stay tuned for next week’s workshop on survey.
Earlier this month, TARL staff had the pleasure of collaborating with Girlstart, an organization focused on empowering girls through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) educational programs. The conference brought together women experts from many STEM disciplines and approximately 600 girls aged 9 to 14 from all over the United States. The main goal of the Girlstart conference is promote STEM disciplines as a way to solve many of the world’s current issues, and to encourage young girls to become invested in STEM electives, majors, and careers. Girlstart’s mission is particularly important given the disparity between the recent increase of STEM jobs (currently growing three times faster than in non-STEM careers) and the absence of women in STEM disciplines (only 24% of STEM workforce is female)*.
As a lot of archaeological work is scientific in nature, we were more than happy to help Girlstart out! TARL staff Stacy Drake and Debora Trein, along with several amazing UT Anthropology and Geography graduate students, participated in the 10th Annual Girlstart Girls in STEM conference, bringing archaeology to two classrooms full of girls at Travis High School in a session called “Dig It! Adventures in Archaeology”.
The Dig It! Team at Girlstart. From left: Debora Trein (TARL and UT Anthropology), Emily Dylla (UT Anthropology), Robyn Dodge (UT Anthropology), Angelina Locker (UT Anthropology), Samantha Krause (UT Geography), Stacy Drake (TARL and UT Anthropology), Luisa Aebersold (UT Anthropology), and Nadya Prociuk (UT Anthropology). Courtesy of Luisa Aebersold.
Luckily for us archaeology is a very exciting discipline, so it was not hard to get the attention of the students! We created two exercises that gave the girls a taste of archaeological research: mini-excavations with mock burials complete with burial assemblages; and a microscope station, with several “samples” to examine.
Stacy Drake and Emily Dylla at the “commoner” mock burial. Courtesy of Luisa Aebersold.
Debora Trein and Robyn Dodge at the “elite” mock burial. Courtesy of Luisa Aebersold.
We set up two mock burials with two sets of reproduction remains and burial goods (one “elite” and one “commoner”). We asked the students: “How old was this person?”, “Do you think that they were a man or a woman?”, “Do you think that they were rich or poor?”, “What do you think they did for a living?”, and other questions that form part of archaeological inquiry. Most importantly, we also asked “Why?” they came to their conclusions. This exercise was intended to get students to go through the archaeological thinking process by assessing all of the available evidence. After getting over the excitement of seeing reproduction human remains and artifacts, it was heartening to see the girls analyzing an archaeological deposit and defending their interpretations!
Samantha Krause at the microscope station. Courtesy of Luisa Aebersold.
At the microscope station, the girls experienced the flip side to field work, which is laboratory research. Using three microscopes, students examined many types of materials, including fabric, beads, shell, and sediment thin sections. The girls were able to see how clues that help us explain the lives of people in the past can be microscopic, and that every part of an archaeological context is important to a complete understanding of past societies. They also got to go through our tool kits and handled compasses, trowels, and rock picks!
Nadya Prociuk answering questions. Courtesy of Luisa Aebersold.
At the end, we held a Q&A session for the girls. It was important for us to relay that in addition to love of discovery, knowledge about people in the past can only come from hard work (both physically and intellectually), collaboration, and respect for material remains that we handle and the people they represent. Archaeology is fun, empowering, and it is definitely for women!
We are looking forward to the 2016 Girlstart Girls in STEM Conference! Bring it on!
Featured image: This exceptionally well made corner-tang knife measures almost a foot in length and just over a third of an inch in thickness. Because it derived from a burial context and appears to be unused, it almost certainly was a “ritual” or symbolic object, reflecting the special status of the individual with whom it was buried. TARL Collections; photo by Laura Nightengale.
by Susan Dial
More than 1500 years ago, an expert craftsman fashioned this unusual corner tang biface with an extraordinarily long, curved blade. Based on the color and fine-grained texture of the stone, the material he chose for this piece likely derived from the Georgetown area in central Texas. And based on the over-sized proportions and lack of wear along the blade edges or other evident signs of use, the piece had not been intended for utilitarian purposes.
In 1974, excavators from The University of Texas at Austin uncovered the biface along with numerous other items—including a second corner tang biface and shell ornaments—from the burial of a young woman in a prehistoric cemetery in Austin County, Texas. Known as the Ernest Witte site (41AU36), the cemetery contained more than 250 burials, reflecting approximately 3000 years of use. The burial group from which the biface was recovered dates to Late Archaic times, ca. 650 B.C. to A.D. 450, and was notable for evidence of violence within the remains (at least five individuals died from dart point wounds). In addition, several artifacts from the same burial group were made from “exotic”, or nonlocal, materials, indicating the people were involved in a long-range trade network or “import-export” system during the Late Archaic. For example, several boatstones (likely atlatl weights) and a gorget were made of stone from the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, hundreds of miles distant.
Corner tang knives are a distinctive artifact form, typically characterized by an off-center placement of the tang, or haft element, but varying considerably in size and blade shape. Edge wear on some suggests hafting for use as a cutting implement; others have been worn down through use and reworked into drills. Thought to originate in central Texas (based on numbers of recorded specimens in a 1930s study by J. T. Patterson), more recent tallies indicate their distribution extends as far north as Wyoming, although generally confined to the Plains.
The specimen from the Ernest Witte site is without question one of the finest and largest known examples of the corner tang type. Measuring 28.8 cm in length and 5.1 cm in width, it is exceptionally well thinned, with maximum thickness of less than one centimeter. The remarkable proportions of this artifact—its length and flatness—suggested to Site Archeologist Grant Hall that the piece was made on a large chert slab which had been reduced to form a blank, rather than from a large flake.
Because of its context and because it appears unused, we can conclude that this grave offering carried special significance, a ritual or symbolic function. Indeed its large blade size relative to the diminutive stem almost certainly would result in a break if the tool were hafted and used for cutting, skinning, or some other process. Smaller corner tang bifaces found throughout central Texas show evidence of use such as worn or beveled edges and fractures.
Although very rare, large corner tang bifaces have been recovered from burials in other south Texas cemetery sites including the Morhiss Mound site in Victoria County and the Silo site (41KA102) in Karnes County.
At Silo, three corner tang artifacts were found with the burial of a child who was interred beneath an adult male. Like the Ernest Witte corner tang specimens, those from the Silo site appear to be unused. Archeologists Cory Broehm and Troy Lovata wrote of the Silo Site items: “The combination of quality, size, and context of these artifacts is exceptionally rare. These pristine artifacts suggest the child was held in very high esteem.” Two additional specimens were associated with the burial of an adult male at the site.
It is interesting that at both the Silo site and the Ernest Witte cemetery, some of the females were interred face down in the grave. Indeed, this rather unusual mode of burial was almost exclusively reserved for females, with only one male in Group 1 and one in Group 2 (the Late Archaic) interred in this fashion at Ernest Witte. The exceptionally crafted corner tang biface from that site, shown at the top of the page, was placed in the grave of a woman who had been interred face down. While we cannot know what these different practices and grave offerings meant to the groups who buried their dead at these and other south Texas cemetery sites, they are important reminders of the rich complexities of hunter-gatherer mortuary customs.
For more information:
Records and collections from the Ernest Witte site are curated at TARL and are reported in Allens Creek: A Study in the Cultural Prehistory of the Lower Brazos River Valley by Grant D. Hall (Texas Archeological Survey Research Report No. 61, The University of Texas at Austin, 1981).
Records and collections from the Silo site are curated at TARL and are reported by Troy Lovata in Archaeological Investigations at the Silo Site (41KA102), a Prehistoric Cemetery in Karnes County, Texas. (Unpublished M.A. thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin, 1997).
Broehm, Cory J. and Troy R. Lovata
2004 Five Corner Tang Bifaces from the Silo Site, 41KA102, a Late Archaic Mortuary site in South Texas. Plains Anthropologist 49(189):59-77.
Patterson, J. T.
1936 The Corner-Tang Flint Artifacts of Texas by J. T. Patterson (University of Texas Bulletin No. 3618, Anthropological papers, Vol. 1, No. 4); Corner-Tang Stone Artifacts of the Plains.
Archeomalacology is the study of mollusks in archeological contexts. Strictly speaking, this might include marine bivalves, marine snails, freshwater mussels, and various kinds of inland snails. In practice, though, I work only with snails (terrestrial, amphibious, and aquatic) from continental settings, along with some other kinds of very small invertebrate organisms that are sometimes recovered in snail sampling (pea clams, fingernail clams, and freshwater limpets).
There are two reasons why archeologists might want to commission studies of snails from archeological sites:
1) Snails are useful paleoenvironmental indicators.
2) In Central and South Texas, snails of the genus Rabdotus were a conspicuous food item beginning in the Early Archaic and perhaps peaking in exploitation in the Late Archaic.
Furthermore, snails can be used as a source of organic material for radiocarbon assay or epimerization studies, and have also been used for carbon and oxygen isotope studies.
Although to most archeologists, “snail” and “Rabdotus” are synonymous, in reality there are many native Texas land and amphibious species and perhaps as many as 41 aquatic species (although DNA studies are collapsing this number). Kathryn Perez estimates that there are as many as 185 contemporary and extirpated terrestrial species and subspecies, although I am skeptical that all these of these species reports are valid (many reports probably date from decades ago, when taxonomic splitting was rampant, and the real number of Texas natives is probably significantly lower). There are also a few species that have been extirpated since the Pleistocene, and around a dozen or so invasive Eurasian land or aquatic species. The native terrestrial species differ widely in habitat preference and body size, from the tiny Carychium mexicanum (adult shell height, 1.7-2.0 mm) to Rabdotus alternatus (adult shell height, up to 4.3 cm). In archeological sites where habitats were favorable and proper sampling is done, generally about two to three dozen taxa can be expected. In Texas, the Lubbock Lake site holds the record for diversity, with just under four dozen taxa.
Image: Here are two of the most common micro-sized terrestrial snail species in Texas (these examples are from Berger Bluff, in Goliad County). Neither will be captured in quarter-inch mesh. Image courtesy of Ken Brown.