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November 2011

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Finding Texas Past

At treasured sites like Gault, archaeologists dig for ancient truths but leave others buried.

By Kathryn Hunter

On a walk in the woods or along a dry creek bed, there’s no telling what you’ll look down and find at your feet — perhaps an old railroad spike, a medicine bottle of hand-blown glass, a perfectly shaped arrowhead. Yesterday’s trash is today’s treasure, as the old adage goes, and there’s no shortage of it when nearly every road and city of ours has been built on top of another, when every remote corner of the globe has, at some time or another, belonged to someone else. 

Though the exact date of humankind’s arrival in North America is a matter of debate, it’s safe to estimate that more than 500 generations have lived and died in Texas, and that any location with a permanent source of water is likely to contain evidence of their presence: Civil War soldiers, African slaves, missionaries, cowboys, ranchers, farmers, American Indians and the other, older populations whose existence we know of only through the objects they left behind.

Welcome to the world of Texas archaeology. It’s a diverse and fascinating field, imperiled primarily by reckless collectors (collecting is illegal on public lands).

At the Gault Site, the surrounding valley, tucked in the limestone hills a few miles from the Central Texas town of Florence, is uncharacteristically cool and green, but the piece of ground we’re staring at looks like what you’d see in any backyard, just a patch of grass and dead leaves.

“You mean there’s a mammoth right there?” The man, at least 60 years old, sounds as if he were a young boy discovering some far-fetched element of his imagination come to life.

Clark Wernecke, executive director of the Gault School of Archaeological Research and our tour guide for the morning, smiles. “Very close to here, we think,” he says, pointing again to that deceptively ordinary piece of earth. “About 5 or 6 feet down.”

Archaeologists study evidence of historic and prehistoric humans. The mammoth mandible, or jawbone, that was found at this spot in 1999 would have been of little note to archaeologists if it hadn’t been for the stone tools found around it. Here lies not just an ancient animal, but an ancient kill site and the artifacts that tell the story of what occurred here more than 10,000 years ago.

Shortly after the jawbone was found, this particular excavation had to be postponed and reburied, which is why researchers like Wernecke can only speculate that the remainder of the mammoth lies below. Regardless, it is a nice thought — such a large and compelling creature just below our feet, our group standing where those long-ago hunters must have stood.

And standing there, it’s impossible not to want to know more about them. How would they prepare the meat? Were they bringing it to others, sharing it with their children? Or was this group alone? Where had these people come from, and where were they headed?

Questions like these drive the modern study of archaeology, since the value of an artifact lies not in its composition, but in what it can tell us about its owner. Features such as projectile points and other stone tools, as well as items like basketry, clay pottery and rock art, are often all that remains to reveal how early humans once lived in their environment. And with today’s technology, a professional archaeologist can glean a great deal of information from a very limited array of materials. Wernecke calls it “CSI prehistoric.”

The examples are endless. Specialists can analyze pollen and other residues, and a charcoal sample as small as 1 milligram can be used for radio carbon dating. In a place with sandy soil and little or no stone, such as areas of East Texas, magnetometers can be used to measure the earth’s magnetic field at a site. Without breaking ground, researchers can create a printout that shows where the soil has been disturbed, revealing the pattern of a Caddoan village, perhaps, or locating an abandoned cemetery.

At excavation sites like Gault, visitors get a sense of how painstaking the archaeological process is. Under a large tent, a group of seasoned volunteers scratch at the dark soil, each working one square meter plot about 5 to 10 centimeters deep. No matter how small the object, the exact location of every feature is recorded.

As our group watches, a researcher puts down his trowel and, using a laser level attached to a tall pole, determines the exact depth of an artifact within the pit. Later, the object will be bagged, meticulously labeled and placed in a box with other artifacts found in that specific area. Even the “backdirt” that is discarded as the man is digging will be carefully sifted through a screen with a high-power water hose at the end of the day. That single square meter and few centimeters of earth represent hours of hard work, and a pit this deep is the labor of many people over the course of more than three years.


Archaeologists often dislike the swashbuckling character of Indiana Jones, and it’s easy to understand why — if they went around digging up relics with a shovel and shoving them in a sack, they’d very quickly be out of a job. Without “provenience” and “context” information, meaning where an object was found and what was found near it, an artifact loses its ability to tell a story about the people who used or made it.

Unfortunately, Gault has had its share of that type of excavation; when privately owned, the site was run as a “pay to dig” operation. Now owned by the Archae­ological Conservancy, its 70 acres are protected, and its lowest levels, undisturbed by the previous years’ “Easter egg hunts,” have yielded approximately 2.4 million artifacts. Of those artifacts, 600,000 are from the Clovis era, the period roughly 13,500 years ago when the first humans were thought to have arrived in the Americas.

For these early populations, Texas was a very different environment, a landscape roamed by giant armadillos, bears, sloths, camels and horses. In fact, the horse first evolved on this continent, traveling to the Old World across the Bering land bridge before going extinct in the New World. (The Spaniards simply brought the horse back to where it belonged.) Philo­sophies about the past are always changing based on what is found in the archaeological record, and current evidence suggests that it was not humans who were responsible for the extinction of these large mammals, as was once thought, but climate change.

Some say the “Clovis First” theory will be disproven soon, too, and we will find signs of an even earlier culture. The first step in proving the existence of this “new” group of people might, in fact, take place at the Gault Site. Of course, such evidence would only raise more questions — who were they, how did they live and how did they come to be here before the land bridge formed?

But this is the nature of all science, if not of humanity itself. The more we know, the more we seek to know.

In order to prove the validity of a new idea or theory, a pattern is needed. “One particular site or excavation can’t make or break a theory, which is part of the beauty of archaeology,” says Thomas Hester, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Each region of the state has some outstanding excavations that are changing the way that we understand the past,” Hester says. “No one site is earth-shaking, perhaps, but you keep putting the sites together and a whole new picture begins to emerge. It’s a cumulative process, and that’s the way archaeology is and is supposed to be. If you keep making the same conclusions year after year, then you’re not digging right. You’re not asking the right questions.”

Hester says that when he first entered the field 50 years ago, he was told there would be no future in it. As a graduate student, he and his classmates would go out and work at sites, often unpaid and unreimbursed for their expenses, but happy all the same. “You just learned so much from it,” he says.

Today the field of archaeology is growing. A large number of regional universities have established anthropology programs, and many public agencies and private consulting companies employ full-time staffs of archaeologists. State and federal laws mandate that archaeological surveys must be completed for certain projects, such as the construction of highways and construction on state-owned lands, including TPWD properties. And though currently no full-scale excavations are scheduled to take place in state parks, when new facilities are planned, archaeological surveys or small excavations are conducted to ensure that important sites aren’t harmed.

“We have the luxury of keeping our sites intact for future generations, and that’s a very valuable thing to have,” says Aina Dodge, lab director at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Archaeology Lab. She points to the archaeological reports stacked on the shelves. These volumes represent only some of the information gleaned from past surveys and excavations in state sites, she tells me, and only some of what could have been collected.

With each new technological innovation, a little more can be learned from an undisturbed site. And at most archaeological sites, only a small portion of the site is excavated.

Archaeological sites, and the wealth of information they contain, are sometimes lost through natural processes, but humans most often cause the destruction. Development, willful vandalizing and the harmful, even if well-meaning, actions of an amateur collector can erase forever the faint traces of the past.

Contrary to popular belief, archaeologists cannot take land through eminent domain, nor can they confiscate a private collection or prevent amateur excavation on private property. It is illegal, however, for a person to take artifacts from state or federally owned lands, which also include reservoirs and their dryland boundaries. Removing artifacts from or disturbing archaeological sites in public lands carries as much as a $1,000 fine and 30 days in jail. A good rule of thumb, especially when you suspect a feature is in its original location, is to leave an object where you find it, and never to dig in a known archaeological site. As soon as you disturb or move an artifact, it loses its scientific value.

But that doesn’t mean you can view artifacts only behind glass. Many excavation sites offer tours open to the public, and even internationally recognized sites like Gault welcome and rely on the aid of volunteers. Also, archaeological societies exist in most cities in the state and conduct regular excavations. Some families have made the annual Texas Archaeological Society Field School their summer vacation for 30 years.

Archaeological study is essential to our understanding of the past. Even when a written record is available, such accounts are filtered through human experience and are prone to error, cultural bias and exaggeration, intentional or otherwise. Archaeologists can verify and augment historical records, settling centuries-old arguments.

In some cases, we know the written record doesn’t tell the whole story. With American Indians, long-established Indian trade routes brought Old World diseases to the interior of Texas decades before the conquistadors arrived in person, and by the time the Spanish were putting their observations to paper, a sizable portion of the native population had been wiped out. What remained of their societies was a far cry from what had existed at their height. Archaeology helps complete the picture.

Without scratching at the dirt, how much can we know? How much can we believe of what is written? Sometimes the need for such knowledge goes beyond verifiable fact. In our quest for truth, perhaps we have to grasp something tangible, to hold in our own hands the tools our predecessors shaped and used, to find our own meaning in the strange images they painted on canyon walls.

It is our nature to look back and wonder, “Who were they?” We don’t always realize that in this question, we are also asking, “Who are we?”

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