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Hueco on the Web

New online exhibit gives readers window to past.

By Melissa Gaskill

Visitors awed by the rock paintings at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site near El Paso may never realize there are thousands more, some hidden under overhangs and others visible only through a special filtering technique. Fourth graders studying Texas history hear how Native Americans created some of these images and that the Butterfield Overland Mail Route relied on the huecos, or natural rock basins, to water their teams. But they likely don't learn that archaeologists excavated a Jornada Mogollon village here that's roughly 1,000 years old and gathered clues about the residents from pack rat middens found in some of the rock crevices and overhangs in the area.

Unless, that is, those visitors or fourth graders (or their teachers) check out a comprehensive new exhibit about Hueco Tanks on Texas Beyond History (www.texasbeyondhistory.net). The award-winning public Web site on Texas archaeology was created by the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL) at The University of Texas, the Texas Archeological Society and 15 other partners, including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Hueco Tanks joins 41 exhibits on archaeological sites from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley, chosen for their historic significance and the collections held by TARL or its collaborators.

"TARL is the oldest, largest archaeological repository in the state of Texas, with artifacts from more than 8,000 sites, but it is a closed facility," says Susan Dial, co-editor of Texas Beyond History and author of much of its content. "The Web site is our virtual museum, a way to give the public access to this and other collections."

Hueco Tanks was selected in part because it is a multifaceted site, Dial says, one hard for visitors to get a handle on. "Also, this site is a very special, magical place. There is nothing else quite like it, in terms of its physical characteristics and historic significance." Since the Paleoindian period, at least 10,000 years ago, a variety of peoples have traveled through or lived among these jagged hills that overlook the Chihuahuan Desert.

The Web site's Hueco Tanks exhibit includes an overview page and sections on Natural Setting, Paleoclimate, Explorations and Investigations, Rock Art, Life at Hueco Tanks, and Kids: Secrets of the Desert. It makes liberal use of old and new photographs, illustrations, artwork, documents, maps and charts. Visitors can view photographs of rock art they would otherwise have to scramble over rocks or crawl into cracks to see, which isn't allowed in all circumstances. (North Mountain is open to the public, and other areas of Hueco Tanks are accessible via a certified guide.) The site vividly renders some of the paintings that have faded and are now mostly invisible to the naked eye. Watercolors from the original inventory of the rock art, painted by Forrest Kirkland in 1939 and held in the TARL collection, can also be viewed, along with detailed drawings of the layout of the ancient village. It's even possible to zoom from space down to the distinctive rock ridges, courtesy of Google Earth.

The Web site is as close to an actual visit to this remote location as most of us will get and offers a unique opportunity to learn about the cultural history of Hueco Tanks State Historic Site. It's like having in your computer a park interpreter, historian, archaeologist, artist, historic figures and members of Native American tribes that maintain ties to this place. On top of all that, the Texas Beyond History Web site is free.

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