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Student Spotlight: Sheldon Smith

As part of TARL’s Texas Archeology Month series, we’re introducing some of our great student workers, interns, and volunteers.


Sheldon

Excavation of structure in Belize. Part the Programme for Belize Archaeological Research Project 2016.


My name is Sheldon Smith and I am currently in my fourth year studying Archaeology at the University of Texas at Austin. This semester I have had the amazing opportunity to catalog and study figurines from ancient Mexico as part of my student internship at TARL. As a result, I’ve had the chance to interact closely with many different types of figurines from various sites including places like Teotihuacan. This internship has also vastly increased my knowledge concerning the ceramic technologies and culture of ancient Mexican civilizations, as well as the preservation and collection processes.

I have always enjoyed history, but my interest in Archaeology began when I found various early 20th century artifacts in association with the creek behind my house. When I started taking classes at UT, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to pursue a career in Archaeology. My sophomore year I joined the Anthropological Society, where, over the past three years, I have had the pleasure of interacting with like-minded students from all four subfields, and I am now honored to be their current Vice-President. The Anthropological society also exposed me to many different professors and researchers in the field, and opened my eyes to all of the archaeological opportunities the university has to offer. One such opportunity was when I worked with Dr. Peter Fix on the La Belle restoration project at the Bob Bullock Museum. I learned a great deal about conservation and gained insight into a very important part of Texas history that I previously knew very little about.

At that time, I still did not know exactly what aspect of Archaeology I wanted to focus on. That all changed this past summer, when I attended UT’s Belize Archaeological Field School, as part of the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project (PFBAP). There, I finally got to get my hands dirty and excavate at a Maya site named La Milpa. I rediscovered my passion for Archaeology and became very interested in architecture as well as ceramic technologies. I would like to work with these aspects of Archaeology in my future career, and plan on returning to the site next summer as a junior staff member to gain more knowledge about these topics. After I graduate, I plan on taking a year or more off to work in Cultural Resource Management, in order to gain more field experience. Then my plan is to apply to graduate school in order to pursue a Ph.D. in Archaeology. My hope is that I will someday work in Mesoamerica doing what I love, so that I can gain a greater insight into the lives of the people that lived there and preserve their history.

Why protect archaeological sites?

41CE19-C6676_300 Archaeological excavation at the George C. Davis site in Texas.

As archaeologists, many of us tend to assume that others understand the intrinsic value of archaeological sites, and that in general, people want to protect archaeological resources. At the same time, we know there are many sites out there getting looted each day as well as a thriving market in antiquities. In this essay, we take a brief look at the ethics behind preserving archaeological sites, the difference between scientific excavation and looting, and how to talk to non-archaeologists about cultural heritage management.
One important reason to preserve and document archaeological sites is that, in some cases, it’s the law. In Texas, laws prohibit excavation on state land without a permit. Federal land has several statutes that apply to cultural resources including the disturbance of human remains.
Read more about laws that protect sites in Texas.
What about sites not protected by state and federal laws? Sites on private property in Texas can, legally speaking, be excavated by anyone at the discretion of the landowner. So why not dig them up? Isn’t that what archaeologists do?
It sounds disingenuous, but as archaeologists, we actually want to do as little archaeology as possible.
We know that without our intervention, some sites are very vulnerable and can be destroyed either through construction, natural disasters such as floods, or natural processes like erosion. Because archaeological materials are a non-renewable resource (we can’t go back in time to make more sites), we absolutely want to document any sites in danger of being destroyed. Other than those sites in immediate danger, though, archaeologists typically only want to dig at sites that have a strong potential to answer research questions rooted in anthropological theory and fill in the gaps in our understanding of the past. Beyond that, we want sites to be left alone.
Read the Society for American Archaeology’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics
Doing a scientific excavation is costly, time-consuming, and destructive to the site. Responsible archaeologists are keenly aware of the fact that their work does irreparable damage to the site and that they only have one shot to get it right. They also know that, with new analytical techniques being developed at a rapid pace, future researchers may be able to learn much more about the same site–but only if there’s still something left to excavate. For these reasons, modern archaeologists typically try to do as little excavation as is possible to answer their research questions, and they collect as much data as possible from these minimally intrusive excavations.
Non-scientific excavators–looters–do the opposite of this.
To a trained archaeologist, an archaeological site is much more than the artifacts that come out of the ground. Often we are less interested in the potsherds or arrowheads and more interested in the chemistry of the soil, the sequence of construction, or the relationship of one object to another within the excavation. Removing artifacts from their context or digging with the sole purpose of recovering artifacts to collect or sell destroys all of this valuable information forever.
Once an artifact is removed from its archaeological context, its value to archaeological researchers is greatly reduced. While we all love looking at a beautiful artifact, there is much less information to be gained from an item out of context than one recovered with accurate provenience data. This idea seems straightforward, so why is there a persistent trend for folks to focus on the beauty of a few objects and ignore the site and context?
We could blame everyone’s favorite pop-culture archaeologist, who destroys entire temples to steal a single artifact. Or we could look at how we communicate. 
To an archaeologist, it can be disheartening to watch someone’s eyes glaze over when you start to talk about phytoliths or microwear, only to see them perk up at the mention of ancient aliens. The public fascination with sensationalized archaeological ideas comes out of both a long history of sensational archaeology and the way archaeology is taught to the general public. Even up to the mid-twentieth century, archaeology was full of self-aggrandizing explorers on quests to find Atlantis or Mu, and early excavations were often massive, rushed, and focused on finding the most magnificent artifacts. Ever since Schliemann had his wife model the jewels of Troy, the public has had the perception of archaeology as not too far distant from treasure hunting. We can all agree that gorgeous ceramics, painted sarcophagi, and intricate weapons are just more captivating to look at than dirt and debitage.
Museums, as wonderful as they are, sometimes unintentionally contribute to this paradigm.  Although the intent of most archaeology museums is to provide education, they are typically able to do this only through displaying artifacts–you just can’t move an archaeological site into a museum! The best museums provide lots of contextual information, which allows visitors to appreciate the artifacts for much more than their artistic value. When people only have access to archaeology through museums, it is no wonder they focus on the artifacts rather than the sites themselves.
Learn about Barcelona City History Museum–an archaeology museum with only a handful of artifacts on display.
It’s up to archaeologists to meet the public where they are and acknowledge our sensational past. As much as we want to roll our eyes at archaeological conspiracy theories or shoeboxes full of arrowheads, being dismissive even of misguided archaeological interests is counterproductive. We can channel folks’ enthusiasm into productive discussions about preservation, but only by first acknowledging that these artifacts and ideas are, in fact, really neat and fun to think about. We can talk about modern archaeology and resource management by sharing our passion for the “boring” aspects of archaeology–excitement, even about mundane things, can be contagious.
This October for Texas Archaeology Month, archaeological sites, historical sites, and museums across Texas are opening their doors to the public, to engage in exactly this kind of dialogue. Throughout this month, archaeologists across the state will be sharing their expertise and their life’s work with students, families, and anyone who wants to learn. We invite you all to join us as we celebrate archaeology in Texas and beyond.
Plan your visit to archaeological sites, talks, and events today!

 

If you want to learn more about responsible, scientific archaeology, there are lots of ongoing opportunities to engage with the local archaeological community. Check out the Texas Archaeological Society or a local society, or contact your local university. TARL also has lots of volunteer opportunities available and we’d love to have your help.

Get involved with the Texas Archaeological Society
Volunteer at TARL! 

Reintroducing the Friends of TARL!

After several years of hiatus, TARL is excited and proud to reintroduce the Friends of TARL

 

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Every day, TARL works to protect and document archaeological sites, collections, and historic records. We provide important educational opportunities to students so they can build their future careers. We ensure that millions of artifacts are cared for, that new sites are documented correctly, and that new research can be done.

We need your help!

 

Membership in the Friends of TARL is a way to show your support for the work we do at TARL, sustain our work through vital financial contributions, and stay connected with what’s new in Texas archaeology. The Friends of TARL Member benefits include:

  • Invitations to TARL events;
  • Discounts on TARL merchandise;
  • Subscription to our new quarterly e-newsletter.

Our goal is to have 100+ new members join during the month of October–Texas Archaeology Month. Join us today!

 

Join the Friends of TARL today as a Regular Member (one-time gift of $50 or just $4.17 per month for 12 months) or a Pedernales Member (one-time gift of $100 or $8.33 per month for 12 Months).

Sign me up! Regular Membership–Recurring 

Sign me up! Pedernales Membership–Recurring

Special memberships are also available for current Students ($20) and Retirees ($30). Students who join will be eligible for Friends of TARL scholarships. Higher tier memberships are also available; see membership tiers below. Follow the instructions below to sign up as a Student, Retiree, or a higher tier member.

Sign me up! One-Time Gift

Instructions for one-time gifts:

  • Follow the One-Time Payment link above.
  • Ensure that the space labeled “Gift Area” reads “Liberal Arts, College of.”
  • Choose “Texas Archeological Research Laboratory” from the next drop-down menu, labeled “Sub Department.”
  • Enter your desired gift amount. The minimum to become a Regular Member is $50. Student memberships are $20 and Retiree memberships are $30.
  • In the Special Instructions box, please specify if you are a Student or Retiree. If you are a current UT graduate or undergraduate student, please enter your EID. If you are a currently enrolled student at another university, please list your university.
  • Click “Continue” to complete your payment information and submit your membership.
  • Thank you for joining the Friends of TARL!

 

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Mystery Cache from the Lower Pecos

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The bag from Horseshoe Ranch Cave, with its fascinating contents shown in order of their removal by analysts at the University of Texas in 1936 . Radiocarbon dated to ca. 4200 cal. B.P., during the time that the monumental Pecos River Style rock art began to flourish, the cache offers a rare–if enigmatic–glimpse into the traditions of Lower Pecos people. Reflecting both the mundane and sacred, the bag has been described as a hunter’s pouch and a medicine bundle. Photo by James Neely, TARL Archives.

Caches and burials connect us in a very personal way to past events and the traditions of ancient cultures. In 1936, archeologists from The University of Texas working in the arid Lower Pecos canyonlands of southwest Texas uncovered what they described as “a find of unusual interest”: a twined-fiber bag, filled with an array of objects, and still securely fastened after more than 4000 years. Recent studies of this TARL collection, including technical analyses of stone and bone tools and radiocarbon assays of plant remains, are helping to unlock some of its secrets. More than 80 years after its discovery, we are featuring this rare and little-known collection as a Spotlight feature on Texas Beyond History and rethinking its significance and meaning.
Learn more about this fascinating collection: http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/spotlights/hunterspouch/hunterspouch.html

TARL at Explore UT 2016

By Lauren Bussiere
Recently TARL’s staff participated in an annual volunteering tradition: Explore UT day at the university. Each year, UT invites thousands of students of all ages from all over the state to visit the UT campus and participate in educational activities while experiencing a sample of college life. To share our love of archeology with the kids, TARL staff contributes several activity booths to this event every year.

TARL’s Stacy Drake teaches students what archeologists can learn from human remains at Explore UT.
TARL’s Stacy Drake teaches students what archeologists can learn from human remains at Explore UT.

This year, TARL’s activities included cloth button-making, rock art drawing, artifact ID, and of course lots of coloring pages. Additionally, dedicated graduate students from the Department of Anthropology contributed very popular activities including human bone identification, grinding with manos and metates, and learning to write names using Egyptian hieroglyphs. We were also very grateful to have archeologist Chris Ringstaff, a friend of TARL and expert flintknapper, on hand to demonstrate stone tool production. As always, Chris’s demonstrations were a huge hit!

Archeologist Chris Ringstaff gives a demonstration on chipped stone tool manufacture to Explore UT visitors.
Archeologist Chris Ringstaff gives a demonstration on chipped stone tool manufacture to Explore UT visitors.

Thank you to the Explore UT team for organizing this great event and giving us the chance to share fun archeology activities with hundreds of students. Thank you also to everyone who volunteered to help make this fun day possible!

Tracing Clovis Morphology: The “Other Occupation” of TBH’s Heather Smith

Heather Smith serves not just as Web Developer and Associate Editor of Texas Beyond History, but–having completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology at Texas A&M University—now teaches lithic technology and archeological field methods. Her research into Paleoindian behavior and technological adaptations, particularly fluted points, has taken her far afield: from Texas to Alaska and Siberia for fieldwork, and to museums and repositories across the U.S. and Canada to examine collections. A nine-year veteran with the TBH staff, she brings a variety of talents and experience, including photo communications and graphic design, in addition to her knowledge of archeology, to the website. In a new TBH Spotlight feature, she presents some of her findings on Clovis technology using geometric morphometric analysis.

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Graphic designed by Heather Smith for the new TBH Spotlight feature highlighting her geometric morphometric study of fluted projectile points. The sample for the study included more than 100 points from 23 sites across the country, including several Clovis caches and a sample of Clovis points from the Gault site.

By Heather Smith

My fascination with Paleoindian archeology began while an undergraduate student studying anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin and as an intern doing web and graphic design for Texas Beyond History. From that early point in my academic career, my interests became focused on late Pleistocene hunter-gatherer research and First Americans studies. As a graduate student at Texas A&M University, I began to sharpen my major research questions on ways human technology and behavior were adapted to past environments. I became curious as to how prehistoric peoples organized their lithic technology, beginning with the acquisition of raw materials, to the manufacture and maintenance of tools, to the loss or discard of tools. On a larger scale, I wanted to research the timing and means of human dispersal events that resulted in the occupation of the American continents.

One of my projects involved collecting metric and geometric morphometric data on early fluted projectile points and subsequent statistical analyses of this information. Although this research required me to travel to numerous museums and curation facilities across North America, a major focus was TARL, where one of the most important assemblages of Paleoindian artifacts was being studied: Clovis projectile points from the Gault site. Now as an archeologist, university instructor, and Associate Editor of TBH, I am continuing my research in this exciting field.

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Clovis points from the Gault site used in the geometric morphometric study of fluted projectile points. Photo by Heather Smith, TARL.

In a new Spotlight feature on TBH, I explain how geometric morphometrics can be used in chipped-stone projectile point analysis. These and other analytical tools can help us understand stone-tool manufacture processes, variation in chipped-stone points, and provide evidence to help identify patterns in the movements and adaptations of people across the landscape. Interestingly, my findings suggest that Clovis points from the Gault site were more closely associated with other points from the southwest region, including Blackwater Draw in Clovis, New Mexico, and with those from the northwest, rather than with Clovis points from the northeast. Said differently, it appears that the same peoples who occupied southwestern places like Gault were the same cultural groups or closely related to those who occupied the northwest during this early time period.

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Smith photographing Clovis points at the National Museum of Natural History.

To see the TBH Spotlight feature, visit: http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/spotlights/geomet-morphomet/geomet-morphomet.html

 

La Belle

By Susan Dial & Rosario Casarez

Recently members of the TARL staff were treated to an “insiders’ tour” of the La Belle Shipwreck exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. In addition to seeing the colorful 4D film, Shipwrecked, loaded with the Bullock’s special sensory effects, we were given a close-up look of the ship’s hull as the massive reconstruction project continues.

Conservator Peter Fix works on the ship's hull. Photo by Rosario Casarez.
Conservator Peter Fix works on the ship’s hull. Photo by Rosario Casarez.

We were fortunate to see this part of the exhibit before it moves to its final resting place at the museum. The rebuilt remains of the ship and more than 40 original artifacts will be on display beginning August 8, 2015. Ultimately, museum visitors will be able to walk across a plexi-glass platform and look down into the hull. Special thanks to Jim Bruseth, who directed the years-long archeological project for the Texas Historical Commission and who now serves as curator of the exhibit, for coordinating this enjoyable and very educational outing.

Dr. Jim Bruseth, who directed shipwreck investigations, provides fascinating insights about the ship’s hull to members of TARL staff as restorers continue the reconstruction process. The ship was originally intended to be brought to the New World in pieces and reconstructed on site to go up the Mississippi River. Photo by Rosario Casarez.
Dr. Jim Bruseth, who directed shipwreck investigations, provides fascinating insights about the ship’s hull to members of TARL staff as restorers continue the reconstruction process. The ship was originally intended to be brought to the New World in pieces and reconstructed on site to go up the Mississippi River. Photo by Rosario Casarez.

Bruseth, along with Jeff Durst, Donny Hamilton, and historian Robert Weddle, also worked with us several years ago to create the exceptional online exhibits on La Belle and Fort St. Louis for Texas Beyond History. These multi-section exhibits provide detailed information on La Salle and the French in Texas, the events leading up to the small colony’s destruction, and the circumstances of their discovery and archeological investigations. In addition to galleries of artifacts from both the shipwreck and the site of the little “fort” in Victoria County, and full accounts of excavations at both sites, there is a special online viewing tool to explore the shipwreck and discover the artifacts just as the archeologists found them. If you are not able to visit the Bullock, be sure to visit the online exhibits on TBH—or better yet, visit both!

Detail of one of the ship’s timbers, showing  original Roman numerals identifying its intended position on the ship.   Because the ship was purchased by La Salle as a “kit”, each of the pieces were marked for easy assembly.  Photo by Rosario Casarez.
Detail of one of the ship’s timbers, showing original Roman numerals identifying its intended position on the ship. Because the ship was purchased by La Salle as a “kit”, each of the pieces were marked for easy assembly. Photo by Rosario Casarez.

To view the shipwreck online on Texas Beyond History http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/belle/index.html
To learn more about La Salle’s Fort St. Louis http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/stlouis/index.html
To learn more about the museum exhibit see http://www.thestoryoftexas.com/la-belle/the-exhibit