TARL at the 86th Annual Meeting of the Texas Archeological Society

by Lauren Bussiere


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!

Drawing a Culture in Transition: Plains Indian Ledger Drawings


This richly detailed drawing from the Schild Ledger Book features two men, both carrying rattles and a fan and garbed in elaborate attire. Although a noted Plains Indian artist identified the figures as Kiowa dancers, the enigmatic German text written on the drawing reads, “Ollie Johnson daughter and grandson.” According to notes accompanying the ledger book when it was acquired by The University of Texas, Ollie Johnson was purported to be a Comanche woman who created the paintings. Labels such as these appear on most of the drawings, adding to the mystery of the book’s authorship. TARL Archives.

A new Spotlight feature on Texas Beyond History focuses on one of TARL’s most unusual collections. The Schild Ledger book comprises nearly 60 Plains Indian ledger drawings variously ascribed to the Kiowa, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Comanche. Some are brilliant in color and detail, others mere pencil sketches that were never completed. Known as ledger drawings because of the paper on which they were drawn—typically ruled pages from account books acquired as a gift or through theft or trade—the art was created largely in the last third of the 19th century to portray heroic deeds, tribal traditions, and battles with U.S. soldiers and settlers as the Plains Indian way of life passed into history.

Much of what is known about the Schild Ledger Book raises questions—from the identity and tribal affiliation of the artist or artists who created the drawings, to the circumstances of the book coming into the possession of a purported Indian Agent from Fredericksburg, Texas, and ultimately to its being taken abroad to Germany.  In this Spotlight feature, we consider clues and possible answers and provide an online gallery of prime examples from the collection for researchers to examine further.

To read more and explore these drawings, see The Schild Ledger Book

Meet TARL’s New Curatorial Assistant: Lauren Bussiere


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!

Rhythm and Ritual: Traces of Music in Ancient Texas

By Susan Dial

Native peoples in Texas used a variety of instruments to create sounds and music throughout prehistory and into more recent times. Among TARL’s vast collections are a number of unusual artifacts likely used during rituals, ceremonies, and other events. Based on the contexts in which the instruments were found, many were used in burial rites. Ethnographic accounts provide additional insights about other circumstances in which similar instruments were played.

Crafted of wood, clay, bone, and other natural materials, the instruments’ design and construction provide clues to the powerful range of sounds they emitted. We can imagine the shrill notes of a flute or whistle, the eerily grating noise of a rasp, the quivering beats of a rattle, and hollow rhythms of a skin-covered drum. These otherworldly sounds accompanied shaman’s chants and set the pace for dancers and processionalists.


Engraved whooping crane whistle (top) and more than 350 black drum teeth found in a cluster within a small circular area. The teeth appear to have been confined within a circular container, such as a gourd, and may represent a rattle. These items were recovered from the grave of two juveniles at the Mitchell Ridge site. Photo by Robert Ricklis. TARL Collections. (Click to enlarge for more detail.)

Among the more fascinating music-related artifacts at TARL are 11 bird bone whistles excavated from Late Prehistoric and early Historic period burials at the Mitchell Ridge site near Galveston. All are made from the ulna, or lower wing bones, of the whooping crane (Grus Americana). The bones are hollow with very thin walls, making them good candidates for modification into wind instruments. Whistles have a single air hole, rather than several air holes, distinguishing them from flutes. According to archeologist Robert Ricklis, who investigated and reported on the site, several of the specimens have plugs of asphaltum, a natural tar-like substance emitted from oil seepages beneath the Gulf of Mexico, which partially cover and narrow the air holes. This feature served to control the air flow and cause the whistling sound when the instrument was blown. Four of the whistles are decorated with finely engraved lines in geometric patterns. Similarly engraved whistles made of whooping crane and heron ulna have been found in Louisiana.


Drawings of additional whooping crane ulna whistles from the Mitchell Ridge site showing the detailed geometric designs engraved on the bones. Image from Ricklis 1994 (Fig. 18).


These undecorated whooping crane whistles were placed in the grave of a young man, 18-20 years of age, at Mitchell Ridge. Note the rectangular air hole cut into each whistle. Photo by Bob Ricklis. TARL Collections.


Reed flute from the Perry Calk site, a rockshelter situated high above the Rio Grande in southwest Texas. Unlike whistles, flutes have more than one air hole. The cane-like common reed from which the instrument was made grows in abundance along streams and rivers and was used for a variety of purposes. Photo by Monica Trejo and Matt Peeples (AMIS 2794b). TARL Collections.

Artifacts interpreted as rattles are rarely found intact. In some cases, the enclosing container, such as a gourd, deteriorated over time, leaving only the rattle contents—small, regular items such as pebbles or clay balls that would have made an impressive sound when the container was shaken. Prime examples of this sort of extrapolated evidence come from the Mitchell Ridge site where four tight clusters of black drum teeth—interpreted as the contents of rattles—were found in burials. More rarely, rattles are recovered intact or nearly so. At the Caplen Mound cemetery site on the Bolivar Peninsula, a decorated turtle carapace was found laying in the burial of an infant. Drill holes in the shape of a “U” suggest the carapace served as a breast plate or rattle. The presence of several glass trade beads indicates the infant burial occurred in the early historic time period. At other south Texas burial sites such as Morhiss Mound, deer antlers and modified antler tips were found in burials, and these have been interpreted as rattles or tinklers, the latter perhaps appended to the clothing of the individual.


Tortoise shell rattle found in a child’s grave at Caplen Mound on the Bolivar Peninsula about 25 miles northeast of the present-day city of Galveston. The small shell, decorated with a series of drilled holes and containing several small pebbles, was found in the neck area of the child, and may have been worn suspended from a cord. TARL Archives.


This odd-looking clay bowl from a Franklin County Caddo site was crafted with four protruding hollow nodes containing small pebbles or clay pellets. When shaken, the bowl produces a rattling sound. Listen to the sound http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/tejas/images/rattle-bowl.wav. The bowl is Late Caddo (Fulton Aspect), ca. A.D 1400-1650. TARL Collections.

In addition to burial ceremonies, music and rhythmic sounds were important in other rituals. The Spanish priest Espinosa describes a healing ritual among the Caddo in which flutes and rasps were used. To cure a patient, according to his early 1700s account, they make a large fire and “provide flutes and a feather fan. The instruments [palillos-rasps] are manufactured [sticks] with notches resembling a snake’s rattle. This palillo placed in a hollow bone upon a skin makes a noise nothing less than devilish.”

According to Caddo tribal historians, numerous types of instruments—rattles, drums, and flutes—were played during rituals and dances, and some of these rich traditions continue today among peoples of the Caddo Nation.


Marked with a series of carefully incised parallel notches, hollow bones such as these have been described as “tally bones,” or counting devices. More likely, they were rasps used as musical or ceremonial instruments. They were recovered from the Harrell Site (41YN1) in north central Texas.


This notched rasping stick from Conejo Shelter in the Lower Pecos region is made of mesquite wood. Photo by Monica Trejo and Matt Peeples (AMIS 23549).

Other historic accounts mention the use of musical instruments in battle and in hunting rituals. During a 1690s battle between the Cacaxtle Indians and the Spanish in what is now south Texas, an elderly Indian woman played a flute throughout, perhaps to buoy the spirits of the Cacaxtle warriors. As recorded by Spanish historian Juan Bautista Chapa, at the end of the battle more than 100 Indians lay dead and another 70 were taken captive. Noted Swiss-American ethnographer Albert Gatschet recorded peyote ceremonies associated with deer hunting among the Rio Grande Comecrudos. This ceremony was accompanied by music from drums and rattles and dancing from elaborately dressed shamans. Achieving a trance state through repetitive music, which typically involved rattles and chanting, was an important component of shamanic ceremonies.

Musical instruments played an important role in the rituals and spiritual life of native groups in the past. Witness accounts such as these help bring to life some of the mute artifacts in TARL Collections and provide colorful insights into how some of these fascinating instruments may have been used.
Learn more about sites mentioned in this entry:

For more information about the Mitchell Ridge site, see the multi-section exhibit on Texas Beyond History: http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/mitchell/index.html. The Credits page of this exhibit includes the full report of excavations by Robert A. Ricklis (1994 Aboriginal Life and Culture on the Upper Texas Coast: Archaeology at the Mitchell Ridge Site, 41GV66, Galveston Island; Coastal Archaeological Research, Inc., Corpus Christi) which can be downloaded as pdf files.
Caplen Mound http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/coast/images/ap4.html
Harrell Site http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/harrell/index.html
Cacaxtle Indians Attacked by Spanish http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/st-plains/images/he10.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

Archaeological Methods Workshop – Osteology

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.

TARL at the 2015 Girlstart Girls in STEM Conference

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!


To check out Girlstart’s great work, go to www.girlstart.org


To explore some of TARL’s extensive educational resources on Texas archaeology, go to www.texasbeyondhistory.net


* www.girlstart.org

Finding Microwear Patterns on Stone Tools: Marilyn Shoberg, TARL Microwear Analyst

Featured image: Microwear analyst Marilyn Shoberg examines a stone tool under a microscope in the TARL laboratory. She typically makes observations at magnifications ranging from 50X to 500X and captures potentially diagnostic wear traces with a digital Moticam camera.

by Marilyn Shoberg

After receiving my MA in Anthropology from UT-Austin,  I joined the Gault Project at TARL in 2000 and began doing microwear analysis, looking at experimental tools and archeological tools from the Gault Site. Some of the stone artifacts in an archeological assemblage are formal tools that have recognizable shapes such as projectile points, bifaces, or endscrapers. Many more artifacts appear to have been used, however, and unless we look at them under the microscope we can only guess at what their function may have been.

When a stone tool is used the edge is gradually worn away by the loss of flakes and abrasion, and the surface is modified by contact with the worked material so that it appears shiny or polished.  Microwear analysis is a systematic process of recording wear traces such as edge flaking, the surface characteristics of polish, and the orientation of striations on a stone tool in order to determine how that tool was used.

The research microscope used at TARL for this analysis is an Olympus BH2 reflected light microscope with Nomarski optics. Observations are made at magnifications from 50X to 500X.  Images of potentially diagnostic wear traces are captured with a digital Moticam camera.

Microwear analysts learn how to identify the various attributes of wear traces by looking at experimental tools used in many different tasks on a wide variety of materials.  It is absolutely essential for every analyst to do experiments and to acquire a reference collection of tools used in tasks relevant to prehistoric human behavior.  The comparative collection of experimental tools we have at TARL is a terrific asset for analysis and teaching.  It has grown from the work of many former students here at UT, archaeologists and friends of archaeology.  The collection includes tools used on plant materials, several kinds of wood, bone, antler, elephant ivory, hide, and butchering a variety of animals.

Patterns of wear on replicated stone tools used for woodworking are shown at a magnification of 500X. The three tools--an adze and two flakes--were crafted by a modern knapper and used for different tasks on different types of wood. Experimental tools such as these provide a comparative baseline for discerning microwear patterns on ancient tools, determining how they might have been used, and on what materials.
Patterns of wear on replicated stone tools used for woodworking are shown at a magnification of 500X. The three tools–an adze and two flakes–were crafted by a modern knapper and used for different tasks on different types of wood. Experimental tools such as these provide a comparative baseline for discerning microwear patterns on ancient tools, determining how they might have been used, and on what materials.


In addition to a large number of Clovis tools from the Gault Site, I have analyzed artifacts from a number of CRM projects in Texas, and sites in Arizona, Illinois, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Belize.

In archaeology we attempt to understand past human behavior from material culture, however only a very small fraction of that material culture survives.  The things that people made from perishable organic materials such as plants, wood, bone, and skin are for the most part missing from the archaeological record.  The fascinating aspect of microwear analysis is that the tools used in the manufacture of the “missing majority” of that perishable material culture provide clues to the kinds of things people were making at particular places.

Among the most interesting tools I have looked at are a small Clovis age flake used to incise bone, tools used to pierce animal skin, perhaps in the manufacture of clothing or shelter, and small prismatic blade fragments used in fine cutting or scraping tasks on grass, reed and wood.  Sometimes you find an example of a recycled tool like a used-up projectile point re-purposed as a scraper or abrader on animal skin.

You are welcome to contact me to learn more about the research I conduct and to discuss my availability to contribute to projects under contract.  My contact information is below:

Marilyn Shoberg

Microwear Analyst

Texas Archeological Research Laboratory

The University of Texas at Austin

1 University Station R7500​

Austin, Texas 78712



A Masterpiece in Stone

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).

See also:

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.


Corner-tang bifaces from the burial of a child at the Late Archaic Silo site in south Texas.  Although not as large as the Ernest Witte specimen, they are of similar quality. TARL Collections.
Corner-tang bifaces from the burial of a child at the Late Archaic Silo site in south Texas. Although not as large as the Ernest Witte specimen, they are of similar quality. TARL Archives.


Small corner-tang artifacts with edge-wear and other signs of use. The tools likely were used for a variety of tasks. TARL Collections.
Small corner-tang artifacts with edge-wear and other signs of use. The tools likely were used for a variety of tasks. TARL Collections.




by Ken Brown

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.

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: 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.

To read more about archeomalacology and Ken Brown’s work, go here:  https://sites.utexas.edu/tarl/projects-research/


The Texas Archeological Research Laboratory