Dr. Deborah Bolnick, genetic anthropologist and associate professor in UT’s Anthropology Department, visited the TARL Human Osteology collection with one of her doctoral students, Austin Reynolds, recently as they begin their identification of osteological elements for aDNA. Most interested in intact adult molar-dentition, which may provide the valuable genetic material for their testing, they made their way carefully through the collections and handled each element with great respect. The research that Dr. Bolnick and her student are working on (and more specifically, will publish on) will provide much needed insight into the genetic impact of the earliest Spanish colonial contact with Native Americans in Texas.
TARL has been very willing to work with Dr. Bolnick and her students for a number of reasons, not the least of which is her preference to attempt to obtain the necessary genetic material through a non-destructive technique involving a ‘bath’ for the element selected for aDNA sampling. Lead author on an article in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology published in 2012, the collaborative journal article describes this non-destructive process. You can find the article abstract at:
Dr. Bolnick is very aware of the sensitive nature of the collections she is accessing and utilizing in her research. She works with us to ensure that TARL as a UT research entity, and the collections she is working with specifically, are all compliant under NAGPRA laws and regulations. She has also made clear her willingness to discuss the nature and significance of her research with those Native American communities that have expressed interested in gaining this scientific perspective. Please follow the status of her projects and publications on our blog as she continues to work with TARL staff and collections, expanding our understanding of the prehistory of Texas and its early inhabitants. We look forward to her continuing research!
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.
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
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.
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.
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