Texas Archeology Month looks little different than usual this year, since our in-person events are cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But, that won’t stop us from bringing you tons of new and exciting Texas archeology updates and activities! Here’s one new way to connect with us:
TARL is now in Instagram!
Follow @ut_tarl for great photos, activities, and contests.
We also thought we’d introduce TARL to anyone who isn’t familiar with us! Former TARL staffer Lauren Bussiere (ahem, that’s me) sat down with Associate Director Jonathan Jarvis and Head of Collections Marybeth Tomka to talk about what’s new at TARL. Check out the video below!
Many thanks to Jonathan, Marybeth, and Annie, as well as to Tom Williams of the Prehistory Research Project, who recorded and edited this video.
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.
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:
Featured image: This exceptionally well made corner-tang knife measures almost a foot in length and just over a third of an inch in thickness. Because it derived from a burial context and appears to be unused, it almost certainly was a “ritual” or symbolic object, reflecting the special status of the individual with whom it was buried. TARL Collections; photo by Laura Nightengale.
by Susan Dial
More than 1500 years ago, an expert craftsman fashioned this unusual corner tang biface with an extraordinarily long, curved blade. Based on the color and fine-grained texture of the stone, the material he chose for this piece likely derived from the Georgetown area in central Texas. And based on the over-sized proportions and lack of wear along the blade edges or other evident signs of use, the piece had not been intended for utilitarian purposes.
In 1974, excavators from The University of Texas at Austin uncovered the biface along with numerous other items—including a second corner tang biface and shell ornaments—from the burial of a young woman in a prehistoric cemetery in Austin County, Texas. Known as the Ernest Witte site (41AU36), the cemetery contained more than 250 burials, reflecting approximately 3000 years of use. The burial group from which the biface was recovered dates to Late Archaic times, ca. 650 B.C. to A.D. 450, and was notable for evidence of violence within the remains (at least five individuals died from dart point wounds). In addition, several artifacts from the same burial group were made from “exotic”, or nonlocal, materials, indicating the people were involved in a long-range trade network or “import-export” system during the Late Archaic. For example, several boatstones (likely atlatl weights) and a gorget were made of stone from the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, hundreds of miles distant.
Corner tang knives are a distinctive artifact form, typically characterized by an off-center placement of the tang, or haft element, but varying considerably in size and blade shape. Edge wear on some suggests hafting for use as a cutting implement; others have been worn down through use and reworked into drills. Thought to originate in central Texas (based on numbers of recorded specimens in a 1930s study by J. T. Patterson), more recent tallies indicate their distribution extends as far north as Wyoming, although generally confined to the Plains.
The specimen from the Ernest Witte site is without question one of the finest and largest known examples of the corner tang type. Measuring 28.8 cm in length and 5.1 cm in width, it is exceptionally well thinned, with maximum thickness of less than one centimeter. The remarkable proportions of this artifact—its length and flatness—suggested to Site Archeologist Grant Hall that the piece was made on a large chert slab which had been reduced to form a blank, rather than from a large flake.
Because of its context and because it appears unused, we can conclude that this grave offering carried special significance, a ritual or symbolic function. Indeed its large blade size relative to the diminutive stem almost certainly would result in a break if the tool were hafted and used for cutting, skinning, or some other process. Smaller corner tang bifaces found throughout central Texas show evidence of use such as worn or beveled edges and fractures.
Although very rare, large corner tang bifaces have been recovered from burials in other south Texas cemetery sites including the Morhiss Mound site in Victoria County and the Silo site (41KA102) in Karnes County.
At Silo, three corner tang artifacts were found with the burial of a child who was interred beneath an adult male. Like the Ernest Witte corner tang specimens, those from the Silo site appear to be unused. Archeologists Cory Broehm and Troy Lovata wrote of the Silo Site items: “The combination of quality, size, and context of these artifacts is exceptionally rare. These pristine artifacts suggest the child was held in very high esteem.” Two additional specimens were associated with the burial of an adult male at the site.
It is interesting that at both the Silo site and the Ernest Witte cemetery, some of the females were interred face down in the grave. Indeed, this rather unusual mode of burial was almost exclusively reserved for females, with only one male in Group 1 and one in Group 2 (the Late Archaic) interred in this fashion at Ernest Witte. The exceptionally crafted corner tang biface from that site, shown at the top of the page, was placed in the grave of a woman who had been interred face down. While we cannot know what these different practices and grave offerings meant to the groups who buried their dead at these and other south Texas cemetery sites, they are important reminders of the rich complexities of hunter-gatherer mortuary customs.
For more information:
Records and collections from the Ernest Witte site are curated at TARL and are reported in Allens Creek: A Study in the Cultural Prehistory of the Lower Brazos River Valley by Grant D. Hall (Texas Archeological Survey Research Report No. 61, The University of Texas at Austin, 1981).
Records and collections from the Silo site are curated at TARL and are reported by Troy Lovata in Archaeological Investigations at the Silo Site (41KA102), a Prehistoric Cemetery in Karnes County, Texas. (Unpublished M.A. thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin, 1997).
Broehm, Cory J. and Troy R. Lovata
2004 Five Corner Tang Bifaces from the Silo Site, 41KA102, a Late Archaic Mortuary site in South Texas. Plains Anthropologist 49(189):59-77.
Patterson, J. T.
1936 The Corner-Tang Flint Artifacts of Texas by J. T. Patterson (University of Texas Bulletin No. 3618, Anthropological papers, Vol. 1, No. 4); Corner-Tang Stone Artifacts of the Plains.
Archeomalacology is the study of mollusks in archeological contexts. Strictly speaking, this might include marine bivalves, marine snails, freshwater mussels, and various kinds of inland snails. In practice, though, I work only with snails (terrestrial, amphibious, and aquatic) from continental settings, along with some other kinds of very small invertebrate organisms that are sometimes recovered in snail sampling (pea clams, fingernail clams, and freshwater limpets).
There are two reasons why archeologists might want to commission studies of snails from archeological sites:
1) Snails are useful paleoenvironmental indicators.
2) In Central and South Texas, snails of the genus Rabdotus were a conspicuous food item beginning in the Early Archaic and perhaps peaking in exploitation in the Late Archaic.
Furthermore, snails can be used as a source of organic material for radiocarbon assay or epimerization studies, and have also been used for carbon and oxygen isotope studies.
Although to most archeologists, “snail” and “Rabdotus” are synonymous, in reality there are many native Texas land and amphibious species and perhaps as many as 41 aquatic species (although DNA studies are collapsing this number). Kathryn Perez estimates that there are as many as 185 contemporary and extirpated terrestrial species and subspecies, although I am skeptical that all these of these species reports are valid (many reports probably date from decades ago, when taxonomic splitting was rampant, and the real number of Texas natives is probably significantly lower). There are also a few species that have been extirpated since the Pleistocene, and around a dozen or so invasive Eurasian land or aquatic species. The native terrestrial species differ widely in habitat preference and body size, from the tiny Carychium mexicanum (adult shell height, 1.7-2.0 mm) to Rabdotus alternatus (adult shell height, up to 4.3 cm). In archeological sites where habitats were favorable and proper sampling is done, generally about two to three dozen taxa can be expected. In Texas, the Lubbock Lake site holds the record for diversity, with just under four dozen taxa.
Image: Here are two of the most common micro-sized terrestrial snail species in Texas (these examples are from Berger Bluff, in Goliad County). Neither will be captured in quarter-inch mesh. Image courtesy of Ken Brown.
Thanks to the efforts of our very own Rosario Casarez, TARL’s involvement with UT’s educational ‘open house’ program was a great success this past Saturday! Despite the rather chilly and overcast beginning to the day downtown on the main campus, the sun eventually put in an appearance and warmed us up as we manned our tables, answered questions, warded off loaded paintbrushes, made corn husk dolls and handed out information about archeology in Texas. Arriving early, we put up our tables and mingled with the dedicated anthropology graduate students and then ferreted out the nearest Starbucks (1st floor of the SAC!) to properly fortify ourselves for the morning.
Jonathan Jarvis, our Associate Director, and Susan Dial, editor and project manager of Texas Beyond History, both presented talks in a classroom on the first floor of the CLA building.
As taken from the official Explore UT 2015 schedule: Archaeologist Jonathan Jarvis describes how archaeologists use historic maps and discusses the role of accurate mapping in archaeology today. See how using geospatial tools to locate man-made features below the earth’s surface can help future research.
And Susan’s talk was a “Detectives into the Past” presentation with Dr. Dirt in which she focused on reconstructing the diet of ancient Texans based on the study of coprolites (preserved human fecal remains).
To get a sense of the kind of turn out that we were a part of at Explore UT please check out this brief video, provided courtesy of UT anthropology graduate student Luisa Aebersold (who also provided the featured image for this post!), on her Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/luisaaebersold/media
First, there was ‘getting organized:’
Rosario had this to say about her very popular activity this year: “The rock art activity consisted of several images of Texas rock art printed on card stock that visitors could paint. The only colors I made available for painting were colors used by Native Americans. So the colors were red, black and as close to ochre as I could mix. They also used white… pigments were made from berries, roots, stones, etc. and I was asked throughout the day if I had made my own paint. I will say no berries were harmed for this activity, but there’s this wonderful stuff called tempera paint! The most popular image the children wanted to paint was the bird, I actually ran out of them. I don’t know what it is about this bird from 41RE14 in Real Co., but it is well liked.”
The image from the site that was so popular?
There was also a tremendous amount of excitement about TxDOT staff archeologist Chris Ringstaff being in attendance to demonstrate flint knapping for the people who attended. Chris was wonderful at not only demonstrating the various techniques that would have been used by the prehistoric knappers who inhabited Texas, he did a great job of explaining why they did what they did: why they chose the stone they chose, used the tools they used and worked the various kinds of flakes in various ways. His demonstration was well-attended and all of us took an opportunity to stop and watch this professional archeologist and researcher explain his craft.
This year’s Explore UT was an opportunity for those of us who work at TARL to make what we do accessible to the public, especially as pertains to using archeology to teach science and social studies to children. Archeology offers tangible, understandable lessons about the evolution of man, his culture and his technology and TARL staff look forward to other opportunities to work with schools, educators and students to help them appreciate and utilize the wealth of material culture that, in many ways, originated in their own backyards. Thank you to everyone who came out to contribute and who participated in making this an opportunity for TARL to renew its ties to the anthropology department and main campus. We look forward to many more years of educational contributions.
Sometimes even the smallest of creatures can provide big insights. Dr. Ken Brown, an archeologist and TARL Research Affiliate, has been on the trail of snails for decades. From these seemingly inconsequential mollusks, a wealth of data about past environments at archeological sites can be gleaned. Simply put, different species of snails can thrive in different environmental conditions. By determining which species were present at a given time, he can reconstruct what the climatic conditions were like over time. His observation of snails (species, habitat requirements, species densities and distributions, etc) allow him to contribute invaluable insight into site formation and transformation over time, evidence of bioturbation, possible signs of cultural utilization, and especially paleo-environmental reconstruction.
The processes involved in snail analysis is painstaking and often tedious, involving screening sediment samples through a series of increasingly fine-grained mesh, picking out the shells, sorting by size, and finally identifying them. Good eyesight is a must for this job: some snails in his samples are less than a millimeter across, and specimen storage is in gel caps, not plastic bags. For archeologists, however, this sort of information can be invaluable—and often the only available indicator of past environments.
Ken’s research interests are hardly limited to snails, however. He also is a specialist in prehistoric wooden artifacts, having studied (and identified) dozens of the snares, traps, curved sticks, dart shafts and other enigmatic items from TARL’s perishable collections. His detailed drawings, descriptions, photos and lab notes of these remarkable artifacts now fill very large ring- binders—the makings of a publication long awaited by other archeologists.
Ken’s interest in archeology can be traced back to his teen years participating in Texas Archeological Society field schools. He has been at it ever since. Awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, he has worked in the field for nearly 40 years and mostly at sites in Texas, but also in New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois and New York. Ken’s dissertation on the Berger Bluff site in Victoria County provides unique insight into the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene climatic history of the coastal plains of Texas. For that site—and many of the others he’s worked on—he did multiple types of analyses, analyzing not just mollusks, but myriad other fauna, lithics, etc.
Ken also has contributed substantive content to Texas Beyond History, including the McFaddin Beach exhibit (“This Site Is All Washed Up!”) http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/mcfaddin/index.html and a “mini-exhibit” on Berger Bluff http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/st-plains/images/ap5.html. In the past several years, he has also served as a TBH reviewer; his broad expertise and eagle eye as an editor have been greatly appreciated. His current work is focused on a project at the Genevieve Lykes Duncan site in Brewster County, one of only a few sites with Paleoindian-age deposits in the Trans Pecos.
In subsequent blog posts, Ken will share some of what he has learned about snails… and many other subjects, we hope!
TARL is gearing up for Explore UT on March 7th. Explore UT is touted as “The Biggest Open House in Texas”. It’s a campus-wide event with hundreds of activities for visitors to enjoy. TARL is participating in the festivities after a few years’ hiatus, but we are back in full force with lots to do for young and old. And we will be joining forces with a group of dedicated UT anthropology graduate students who have carried the archeology torch for the past couple of Explore UT’s.
Rosario expertly demonstrating the technique for making cordage during Explore UT to a group of children…who were carefully gauging younger siblings and asking astute questions about tensile properties.
Here’s a sampling of what we’ll have to offer: pottery mending, corn-husk doll making, rock-art painting (on cardstock), Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphic writing and an artifact “ooh and ahh” table. We will also have several grinding stations set up with manos and metates, so you can try your hand at corn grinding. And there will be a skeleton show-and-tell table. (The skeleton will be a replica; unfortunately, no mummies will be participating.)
Besides these outdoor activities, there will be two indoor lectures presented by TARL staff:
– Susan Dial, our Texas Beyond History editor, will talk about what ancient Texans ate in “Texas Beyond History: Detectives Into the Past”.
– Jonathan Jarvis, TARL’s associate director, will present “The Role of Maps in Archeology: Past, Present and Future.”
So come out and pay us a visit; we’ll be on the east side of the main UT campus in the Liberal Arts Building Courtyard. The talks will be held in the Liberal Arts Building, room 1.104. Here’s more information about this event – https://exploreut.utexas.edu/.
TARL has long served as ‘the facility’ within the state of Texas where archeological collections of every size, in every state of preservation imaginable, and with any number of associated files (or the loudly-cursed lack thereof) have come to curated down through the decades as Texas archeology has evolved in theory and methodology from the large-scale excavations of the WPA era to satellite imagery and LIDAR of remote piloted drones conducting survey. As modern methodology in the field of archeology takes us further and further away from the days of ‘collect everything as you go’ toward an uncertain future where acrheological data and interpretive value are measured in terabytes, server space and 3D printing potential, we here at TARL carefully consider the research value and volume of the collections resting on the shelves. Unlike the tiny digital footprint resulting from the virtual reconstruction of an excavation, the collections here range in footprint from the Herrera Gates to a 15′ long dugout canoe, to 40lb. metates and countless projectile points. It can take your breath away if you stop to consider what lies inside the drawers here…4,000 years of human occupation caught in a snapshot, framed with carefully spun cordage, meticulously worked (and reworked) projectile points, and rabbit sticks worn smooth by countless calloused hands. To the archeologically-uninitiated the drawers hold curiosities made of stone, wood and bone. To those of us who have the privilege of calling TARL our “place of employment” these curiosities are the remnants of a distant past that was recorded in rock art and pictographs as opposed to cellulose and pixels. But it takes time and resources to curate these irreplaceable artifacts of human history from our great state. We are a small staff dedicated to the care of millions of artifacts and miles of site reports and archeological records. As we have done so many times before, we are looking for volunteers.
Marybeth Tomka, the Head of Collections at TARL, is interested in accepting volunteers to help her carry out the ongoing collections management tasks that allow these artifacts to retain their significance in history and prehistory. Collections, and artifacts at the individual level, are only of research value if they are properly recorded in documentation and entered carefully into a relational database that retains this critical information and makes it work for the researchers. Marybeth is responsible for seeing that all of the archeological collections which have been collected over many decades continue to be well-cared for and continue to be accessible to visiting researchers and archeologists. Students who volunteer at TARL are provided hands-on training in archeological collections processing, artifact identification and some laboratory methodologies (when she has the time). If you are a student interested in archeology, anthropology and/or museum collections management, the skills she can teach you through her volunteer program will assist you in your future professional endeavors. Don’t let the off-campus location deter you. The experience will prove well worth it and you’ll have the chance to work various prehistoric and historic collections and learn valuable skills from a trained professional archeologist. If you get your geek on the same way we do, if you want to have the chance to see the drawers that hold the history and contribute to our ongoing projects, contact Marybeth Tomka, Head of Collections at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This semester our Associate Director, Jonathan Jarvis, is instructing a course here at TARL entitled “Digital Data Systems in Archeology (ANT 324L).” It is a hands-on course introducing students to the digital equipment and basic geospatial software used in the field to collect archeological location data. Jonathan provides students an introduction to GIS and an over view of near-surface sensing techniques, technical skills that archeologists should be able to successfully apply while conducting field work. Jonathan’s focus is providing these UT students the fundamentals of instrument operation and data capture in simulated archeological field conditions. CRM firms seek to hire the most qualified recent graduates and Jonathan’s course gives students their first real introduction to what will be expected of them when considering a career in archeology: a firm foundation in location mapping and working with geospatial data.
Jonathan was kind enough to invite me to speak to his students to recruit student bloggers. These students are being introduced to the technology and software programs that continue to evolve in scope and application even as they progress through the semester. I wanted to take an opportunity to get some feedback from the students about their perspectives on the increasing role, and perhaps, increasing dependence, on technology to carry out field data collection and synthesis. I offered the following topics to them as potential blog post material as they work their way through the course:
“Posts can range in topics from the macro (how trends in technology are being represented in the field of archeology) to the micro (what are the advantages and disadvantages of using ‘satellite archeology’ to define archeological sites and what are the limitations). Other topics to be considered can include:
how are recent technologies changing the roles archeologists play in defining history?
are software applications, like GIS, more reliable for publishing data in archeology or less reliable because it assumes a level of computer proficiency that the field of archeology may still be trying to catch up with?
how has technology changed the role of the archeologist in the field over the last 100 years?
does social networking have the potential to increase the relevance and value of archeological data and interpretation? How?
what are some good examples of technology providing archeologists with tools and data that they would not have otherwise obtained?
how can technology be applied to existing archeological collections to obtain more or better data, re-interpret findings or provide more access to researchers who cannot afford to physically visit the collections?”
As we continue to invite more and more students to join us out here at TARL, we not only want for them to learn the ins-and-outs of processing archeological collections or the necessity for strict policy to guide the management of collections of artifacts that number in the tens and hundreds of thousands, we also want them to use the skills they are acquiring out here to apply in their critical thinking as they approach the various sub-disciplines within archeology that will govern their professional paths. TARL is a resource at many levels, and not just for the massive volume of collections or the depth of time they represent. TARL is also a resource based on the knowledge that staff bring to bear in helping to teach the next generation of archeologists. The students in Jonathan’s archeology class represent the most digitally-based generation of future archeological researchers yet. It will be interesting to read their posts and to hear their thoughts about the role that they foresee technology playing in their future professional careers.
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.