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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Announcing the Texas Archeology Month Fair!

TARL is excited to announce that in partnership with the Texas Historical Commission, we’ll be hosting a public Archeology Fair to celebrate this year’s Texas Archeology Month! This exciting event will take place on Saturday, October 22, 2016 from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. here at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus. Our Fair will feature hands-on activities for kids and adults, demonstrations from experimental archaeologists, and displays that highlight Texas’ rich archeological history.

Fair Details:
Date: October 22, 2016
Time: 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Cost: FREE!

The Texas Archeology Month Fair will be held at the main soccer field on the Pickle Research Campus.
See the map below for location & parking details.

The Pickle Research Campus is located in north Austin near the Domain shopping center, just west of MoPac at the corner of Burnet Road and Braker Lane.
The Pickle Research Campus is located in north Austin near the Domain shopping center, just west of MoPac at the corner of Burnet Road and Braker Lane.

 

Planned booths and activities for the fair include:

  • Mock excavation units
  • Flintknapping (making stone tools)
  • Atlatl throwing
  • Osteology & mock burials
  • Native plants
  • Rock art
  • Fire drilling
  • Ancient foodways
  • Artifact identification
  • Exhibits on various archaeological sites in Texas
  • And much more!

We need volunteers to help this day go smoothly! To volunteer as either an activity leader, table presenter, or general volunteer, please email lauren.bussiere@utexas.edu.

 

Thank you to our event partners:

 

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Llano Uplift Archaeological Society

 

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TARL staff and our community of professional archaeologists love teaching the public about archeology. We are all excited for this fun event!

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TARL Staff Visits the Texas State Forensic Anthropology Research Facility

by Lauren Bussiere

TARL Staff and FACTS researchers Dr. Michelle Hamilton and Courtney Siegert at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, Texas State University-San Marcos.
TARL Staff and FACTS researchers Dr. Michelle Hamilton and Courtney Siegert at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, Texas State University-San Marcos.

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.

Thank you, FACTS and Texas State!

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

 

TARL Collections Highlighted in Book of UT’s Hidden Treasures

By Lauren Bussiere

This January, the UT Press released a landmark volume entitled The Collections: The University of Texas at Austin. This beautiful coffee-table volume, edited by Andrée Bober, highlights more than 80 collections of historical, artistic, and scientific objects held by the University. TARL is honored and delighted to have some of our most beautiful artifacts included in this publication.

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Cat. No. 16SA48-209, Incised effigy on ground and polished quartz crystal from the Coral Snake Mound in Sabine Parish, Louisiana. Featured in The Collections: The University of Texas at Austin.

The Collections showcases only a small amount of the 170 million objects of significant cultural, historic, and scientific value owned by UT Austin—making the University the largest repository of these objects in the state and possibly in the U.S. Some of UT’s collections date as far back as 1883 when the university was founded. Materials from TARL highlighted in the volume include gorgeous lithic, ceramic, and perishable items, some of which date to 10,000 to 13,000 years ago.

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Cat. No. 68, Corner-tang knife of grey chert, excavated by the University in 1974-75 at the Ernest Witte site in Austin County, Texas. Featured in The Collections: The University of Texas at Austin.

The inclusion of TARL materials in The Collections was made possible by the work of TARL Director Emeritus Darrell Creel and former TARL Head of Collections Laura Nightengale. Work on this massive volume began more than five years ago, and we are all gratified to see the realization of their labor of love.

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The Collections: The University of Texas at Austin, now available from UT Press.

For more information about the book or to purchase a copy, please visit the UT Press website.

The Harrell Site Revisited: Collections Rehab Work at TARL

By Lauren Bussiere

Last year, TARL received a grant from the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Preservation Trust Fund grant program to conduct a collection rehabilitation project on one of our oldest collections of archaeological material. For this project, TARL chose the collection from the Harrell Site, a fascinating site in North Texas that was excavated by the WPA in 1938-1939. This rehab project was designed to make sure that the site collection is preserved for many years to come, and catalogued in such a way that it can be studied by future researchers. The rehab efforts also served as a pilot project to establish effective and efficient rehab procedures for use on other collections here at TARL.

The Harrell Site excavation was one of the largest projects conducted by the North Texas WPA team. Sitting on bluffs above the Brazos River, the site included a massive midden and hearth feature, known as the “Great Midden,” as well as numerous smaller hearths and burials. Two main occupations, dating to the Late Archaic and Late Prehistoric periods, are seen at the site, with continued usage of the site in the intervening period suggested as well. The Harrell site is the namesake for the Harrell Point, a small arrow point, and was considered the type site for the Henrietta Focus by archaeologist Alex Krieger, who analyzed the site collection in 1945. Read more about the Harrell site excavations here.

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Harrell Points and Thumbnail End Scrapers from the Harrell site.

The WPA excavations of the 1930s and 40s were conducted in partnership with UT, and many of the materials recovered were brought to the University back in the 1940’s. But, curation standards in 2015 are much different than they were 75 years ago! While our newer accessions are stored and catalogued using modern practices, many of our older collections are still stored in the same condition they have been in for 30 years, or 50 years, or longer.

Our grant from TPTF was a rare and important opportunity to dedicate resources and staff time to bringing these collections up to modern standards. Eventually we hope to apply what we’ve learned from this project to all of our older collections.

TARL’s Harrell site rehabilitation project consisted of three main components:
1. Digitizing, inventorying, and improving storage for all of the field notes, reports, maps, and other records associated with the Harrell site’s excavation and subsequent analysis;
2. Cataloguing, photographing, and repackaging all of the artifacts remaining in the Harrell site collection, and re-analyzing the human remains from the site; and,
3. Creating a searchable, state-of-the art database that contains all of the data relating to the site artifacts, features, and records.

RecordsRecords2 Harrell site records before and after rehabilitation.

As a result of these rehab efforts, the 2,300+ artifacts that comprise the Harrell collection are now individually tagged and repackaged, and their storage conditions will ensure that they are safe for a much longer time. All the site records are organized, protected, and available for digital viewing. And, our database will make it simple to see what excavators found at the site, what we still have, and where to find every single artifact within TARL’s collections. This work has paved the way for future analysis of the Harrell site collection, and for our future rehab efforts on other collections.

Bone_and_shell Packaging Bone and shell tools from the Harrell site before and after rehabilitation.

Rehabilitating the Harrell collection has also been a valuable opportunity to revisit some of the past work that has been done on the site. The artifact assemblage plainly shows that many of the cultural practices inferred by Krieger and others were clearly present at the site: residents were grinding food with manos and metates, probably practicing s ome horticulture or agriculture, and utilizing the abundant mussels from the river as a major food source. Numerous projectile points of many sizes and types were used for hunting during both major occupation phases. Ceramic pipes and ochre indicate that ceremonial or ritual activity took place at the site, and intrusive burials suggest that the locations of earlier grave sites were preserved in cultural memory over some length of time.

TARL’s rehab work on the Harrell site collection has opened the door for future work on the site significant contributions to our understanding of North Texas in prehistory could be made by researchers:
• conducting usewear analysis of the stone tool collection,
• studying the assemblage in comparison to other sites, or
• close analysis of the ceramics, mussel shell, or bone artifacts.

These are just a few examples of the types of work that could be done using this collection. We hope that this work will spark interest in additional research on this site and other WPA-era collections housed here at TARL.

We hope to have a full report on our rehab work—including an online database with photos—available to the public through the TARL website very soon. We are extremely grateful to the THC for making this important work possible!

The Texas Archeological Research Laboratory