Back from the Field

By Steve Black

The 2014 Eagle Nest Canyon Expedition concluded at the end of June. We returned to canyon for several short sessions in July and August to finish taking geoarch samples, document flood damage, backfill several units, and haul out some of the equipment stranded by the June 20 flood. Now that we are back from the field, our research continues apace. This post highlights the ongoing efforts of the ASWT project and its many collaborators, most of whom have been featured in (or contributed ) earlier blog posts.

Charles Koenig and I are back at Texas State in San Marcos where I am concentrating on teaching, writing, and riding herd on graduate students, while he continues to work fulltime on the project. Charles has spent weeks pulling our field data together—six months of fieldwork resulted in tens of thousands of digital files (mainly images), hundreds of field forms (mostly digital), handwritten field notes, sketch maps and hundreds of bagged samples—matrix, micromorph, artifacts, faunal and floral remains, and other samples. This data must be carefully accounted for, backed up, cleaned up, organized, and stored temporarily, essential steps in the research process.

Earlier blog posts have explained how SfM (Structure from Motion) photogrammetry is a crucial part of our field documentation. [For background see The Structure from Motion Revolution.]  But while we had “stitched together” most of the SfM sets and “built” many of the 3D digital models in the evenings while we were in the field, much is left to do. Charles continues to finish up and improve SfM models we didn’t complete in the field and generate new models, integrating these in GIS (with remote help from former ASWT intern Bryan Heisinger). Charles is also summarizing critical data sets in spreadsheets and in graphical form so we can “see” what we have to work with, plot the analyses, and parcel out samples to our many collaborators. The accompanying 2D illustrations of the SfM long profile in Skiles Cave give you an inkling of how many matrix samples of different sorts we collected.

These orthophotos of Profile Section 3 show the TDS-plotted locations of some of the many samples collected at Skiles Shelter.

These orthophotos of Profile Section 3 show the TDS-plotted locations of some of the many samples collected at Skiles Shelter.

We knew from the get-go that we would be collecting many samples of artifacts, ecofacts, and matrix and assessing both their short- and long-term research potential. Analyses of high priority samples are already underway and we will soon be parceling out more samples to the specialists on our collaborative team. But first we have to go back to our research plan, as modified by field reality, and, in concert with the below-mentioned specialists, work out strategies and priorities for diverse, complementary analyses. The studies presently underway are quite diverse.

Drs. Leslie Bush and Kevin Hanselka are getting started on identifying plant remains from a few of the many samples we collected. First, they are concentrating on high-priority macrobotanical samples that TxState graduate student Dan Rodriguez collected in Kelley Cave and Skiles Shelter in 2013. Soon Charles and I will be going over our 2014 samples with the full macrobot team – Dr. Phil Dering, Leslie and Kevin – and work out our strategy. [For background see The Archaebotanical Team Forms.] The macrobotanical analysis will take years, if not decades, to fully complete. This fact highlights the nature of the excellent preservation conditions and the intensity of our sampling approach.

Bristlegrass seeds that Leslie Bush recently found in one of the Kelley Cave samples. Are these the result of human processing or by brought in by rodents?

Bristlegrass seeds that Leslie Bush recently found in one of the Kelley Cave samples. Are these the result of human processing or by brought in by rodents?

Dr. Chris Jurgens is doing parallel analysis of the bones Dan collected from Kelley and Skiles. [For background see "Come Visit."] Chris and Dan have been working together several days a week for the last month or more. They first clean the bones, most of which are fragmentary, and then Chris examines these under a binocular microscope and calls out categorizations and identifications to Dan, who enters these data in a database. Dan also assigns specimen numbers to informative bones and repackages these. This week they finally finished all of Dan’s samples. Dan is working hard on his thesis, which he should complete this winter.

Another of my TxState graduate students, Matt Basham, is trying to finish his thesis on the cooking features he documented and sampled along the canyon edge overlooking ENC in 2013. Matt is seeing some interesting patterns consistent  with (I think) the hypothesis that most of these burned rock features are the heating elements for earth ovens. These features are on or near the surface and buried very shallowly, hence organic preservation is limited to mainly charred plant remains, which Phil has now identified.

In August we sent a final batch of identified plant remains from Matt’s features and from Dan’s excavations to Dr. Raymond Mauldin at the Center for Archaeological Research at UTSA. Raymond is processing the charred bits to prepare the target samples used in radiocarbon dating, which he will send to an AMS lab he works with. Our fingers are crossed in hopes that this batch of dates will come back in time for Dan and Matt to add this to their existing 14C dates.

TxState graduate student Amanda Castaneda continues to make progress on her thesis research on the bedrock features of the Lower Pecos.  Her work and that of Drs. Tammy Buonasera and Dani Nadel (and others) will be featured in a future blog post.

Blog followers know that geoarchaeological investigation under the leadership of Dr. Charles Frederick is a big component of our ENC research program. [For background see Geoarchs in Action.] Charles and his geoarchaeological colleague Ken Lawrence have come to the canyon numerous times to study the stratigraphy and take samples. And this fall they continue to mentor our former ASWT intern Jake Sullivan and TxState graduate student, Tina Nielsen.

Tina is developing a “microstratigraphic” approach to understanding how Eagle Cave deposits formed for her thesis and geoarchaeological analysis will be an important part of her research. So, she and sometimes Jake have been making weekend pilgrimages to Frederick’s lab near Dublin, Texas. Charles shows them how to use his specialized equipment and lets them loose on analytical tasks like preparing micromorphology samples for thin sectioning , determining sediment size distributions, and measuring magnetic susceptibility. [For background see "My Time in a Geoarch Lab."]

A pilot study of four matrix samples from Eagle Cave is taking place across the Atlantic at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where paleoentomologist Dr. Eva Panagiotakopulu has been looking for insects. [For background see Archaeoentomology?]  Several months ago Frederick, who talked his former colleague Eva in to taking part in the ENC research, sent her 3 liter matrix samples from several contrasting contexts in Eagle Cave. Recently Eva relayed the excellent news that she has hit “pay bug”, so to speak, and found extremely well preserved and abundant insect parts in several of the samples. This exciting news presents us with the new challenge of raising funds in support of Eva’s research – she will need to gain access to comparative collections from the region and start learning the identification and ecology of the beetles and other insects that are apparent in the pilot samples. This will be the first such study in the Lower Pecos.

Insect parts that Eva Panagiotakopulu has recently and tediously removed from an Eagle Cave matrix sample.

Insect parts that Eva Panagiotakopulu has recently and tediously removed from an Eagle Cave matrix sample.

The massive flash flood in we experienced on June 20th is proving to be very instructive and more destructive than we had realized. [For background see The Canyon Runs Deep and  The Canyon Transformed.] On the positive side, Mark Willis was able to fly along the canyon edge with his quadcopter drone nine days after the flood to document the transformation of the canyon. By comparing the SfM models created by earlier drone photography by Mark and Dr. Chet Walker with the after-the-flood model, we will be able to document and measure the havoc wrought by 11.6” of rain in eight hours.

Mark Willis operates a quadcopter drone along the canyon edge overlooking Eagle Nest Canyon a week and a half after the June 20th flood to document the changes to the canyon floor.

Mark Willis operates a quadcopter drone along the canyon edge overlooking Eagle Nest Canyon a week and a half after the June 20th flood to document the changes to the canyon floor.

Mark's quadcopter is equipped with a digital camera.

Mark’s quadcopter is equipped with a digital camera.

Belated news of the flood landed a new collaborator – Dr. George “Rudy” Herrmann, a retired hydrological engineer who grew up in Del Rio and went to school in Comstock. Rudy is now helping Charles F. put the 2014 Langtry flood in hydrological context. Preliminary water-shed and discharge analysis puts this flood at greater than a 1 in 500-year “return” interval. This means that, on average, floods like the one we witnessed last summer can be expected to reoccur over 500 years apart. Charles F. and Rudy are working now to relate the modern flood history with the ancient flood history documented in our excavations in Skiles Shelter.

Less happily, in late July we were finally able to make it up the canyon and revisit Bonfire Shelter, which we had thought was high and dry above the flood. Safely above the raging waters in the canyon below perhaps, but not dry. We saw clear evidence that run-off waters had poured into the main excavation block from all sides, causing considerable erosional damage to the exposed deposits. Charles K. and I began to document the damage with initial photographs and have put together a report that we are sending out to our archaeological colleagues who have a vested interest in the site. While the ASWT project has its plate more than full with our research elsewhere in the canyon, we could not ignore the Bonfire situation. In concert with the Skiles family we have called on our colleagues for help to conserve substantial portions of the site for future generations, while at the same time re-addressing decades-old research questions and perhaps tackling a few new ones as well.

When the water funneled by the unit shown in Figure 3 reached the main trench, it began to erode the wall underneath the wood-plank path.  Eventually this caused a substantial collapse (left), which also revealed several disintegrating bones.  The fresh collapse exposed dozens of microstratific layers likely associated with Bone Bed 3 (right).

When the run-off water reached the main trench in Bonfire, it began to erode the wall underneath the wood-plank path. Eventually this caused a substantial collapse (left), which also revealed several disintegrating bones. The fresh collapse exposed dozens of microstratific layers likely associated with Bone Bed 3 (right).

Finally, I am pleased to report that we will be presenting papers on our unfolding research at Eagle Nest Canyon at the Texas Archeological Society meeting on October 24th in San Marcos and at the Society for American Archaeology meeting in April, 2015 in San Francisco. Charles K. and I have organized a TAS symposium entitled simply “Eagle Nest Canyon. “ For SAA, I put together a symposium called “Low Impact, High Resolution: Ongoing Investigations in Eagle Nest Canyon.” All of the individuals named  in this post are giving, co-authoring, or contributing data to papers at one or both symposia. I hope to see some of you there.

We may be back from the field for now, but our ENC research has just begun!

We also continue to analyze and report the results of the 2011-2012 ASWT research along Dead Man’s Creek (DMC), a tributary of the Devils River.  TxState graduate student Ashleigh Knapp trying to wrap up her thesis study of the Little Sotol site, a plant baking facility (BRM).  Josh Haefner, who holds his M.A. from TxState, has just volunteered  to study the lithics from three BRMs we sampled in 2012.  As the below photo shows, we recently returned some of the artifacts we documented at Little Sotol and from the DMC site survey reported in Koenig’s 2012 thesis.

Charles Koenig looks on as Rick and Mary Rylander take a first look at a display table with a small selection of the artifacts we documented at the Ryes 'N Sons Ranch along Dead Man's Creek in 2011-2012. This handsome table was crafted by Dick Schlenk from standing deadwood cedars we harvested on the ranch that are thought to date to the 1950s drought.  Charles and Jack Johnson put together the display. Soon after this photo was taken we replaced the clear lexan table top that protects the artifacts.

Charles Koenig looks on as Rick and Mary Rylander take a first look at a display table with a small selection of the artifacts the ASWT project documented at the Ryes ‘N Sons Ranch along Dead Man’s Creek in 2011-2012. This handsome table was crafted by Dick Schlenk from standing deadwood cedars harvested on the ranch that are thought to date to the 1950s drought. Charles and Jack Johnson put together the display. Soon after this photo was taken we replaced the clear lexan table top that protects the artifacts.

Skiles Shelter 3D Animation

By Charles Koenig

Welcome to the dog days of summer!  I realize it has been over a month since our last post, so I wanted to share a little bit of what we have been working on.

The crew standing on top of the UT north unit in Eagle Cave after it was backfilled.

The crew standing on top of the UT north unit in Eagle Cave after it was backfilled.

Since the flooding at the end of June, we were able to wrap up our excavations and finish backfilling all of our excavation units.  Once we got back to San Marcos, Steve and I were faced with the realization of how much data we had collected: nearly 900 GB of data (including over 50,000 photographs), several hundred 3D models (we still have not counted exactly how many we have), and thousands of TDS points.  So, what we’ve started doing is focusing on bringing together all the spatial data (specifically 3D models and TDS data) from each of the sites.  As we’re doing this, we’re beginning to experiment with creating fly-through animations of the 3D models.

The first animation we have created is of Skiles Shelter prior to any excavations.  This is the first-draft of this animation, but I wanted to give people an idea of the direction we’re going with the 3D data.  In the animation, there are actually 2 different 3D models: one of the shelter and one of the talus.  The shelter was photographed in 2013 prior to the field school, and about 2500 photographs were used to produce the model.  When we started working at Skiles this past spring, we mapped the talus in order to estimate the volume of FCR on the slope in front of the shelter.  Because the vegetation was so thick, we decided to clear narrow “senderos” down the talus (the narrow “strips” extending downslope in the 3D model) rather than clear the entire talus.  The talus was photographed using 2 canon point-and-shoot cameras attached to the end of a pole (see SfM blog post from January), and the model was created from about 300 photographs.  The difference in lighting between the shelter and the talus is due to the each location being photographed at different times and with different lighting conditions.

As we continue to bring all of our spatial data in order, we will create more 3D animations.  Eventually, the goal is to have all the 3D data put into a digital environment where people can navigate between the sites, as well as explore the sites in their own way (rather than being limited to watching an animation).

The Canyon Transformed

June 24, 2014

By Charles Koenig and Steve Black

It has been four days since Eagle Nest Canyon went on a historic flood, perhaps unrivaled since 1954.  We were fortunate that it hit on a Friday morning, peaked mid-day, stalled out in the afternoon as water backed up from the flooding Rio Grande, and then most of it drained out of the canyon overnight.  We were able to get back to work the next morning  (Saturday) in Eagle Cave.  We knew we would have to take the high trail into the canyon, but we weren’t really prepared for what we encountered when we looked over the edge for the first time.

Massive gravel dunes now cover the floor of the canyon.

Massive gravel dunes now cover the floor of the canyon.

The canyon bottom has been completely transformed.  There are massive gravel bars and dunes extending downstream from Eagle Cave, and they have covered the previous floor of the canyon with several meters of gravel.  The old water pump the Skiles family installed in the bottom of the canyon in the 1950s is either covered up by gravel or washed down into the Rio Grande.

Bottom of Eagle Nest Canyon after a small flood in May 2014 (left) versus June 20th (right).  Several hundred tons of gravel and other debris was washed down and deposited in the canyon bottom just below Eagle Cave.

Bottom of Eagle Nest Canyon after a small flood in May 2014 (left) versus how it appeared on June 20th (right). Several hundred tons of gravel and other debris was washed down and deposited in the canyon bottom just below Eagle Cave.

Before the flood the lower canyon bottom had many trees including willow, salt cedar, cottonwood, mesquite, hackberry, and walnut, but the flood was so strong that most were ripped out, snapped in half or flattened by the flood waters.  We expect to see even fewer trees upstream from Eagle Cave once we have time to venture forth and boulder hop up the canyon.

The flood waters were so strong that even the large cottonwoods that once stood tall in the bottom of the canyon were bent over and snapped

The June 20th flood waters were so strong that even the large cottonwoods that once stood tall in the bottom of the canyon were bent over and snapped

The two sites that are most affected are Skiles and Kelley — the sites are fine, but getting to them and hauling dirt, or rather mud upslope to backfill our excavation units is … challenging.  For most of the season we were able to drive very close to the sites and take a short hike up the canyon wall to the rockshelters.  Now, the flood has left behind a massive gravel flat with braided streams below the sites.

SkilesKelley_Pre-Post

Kelley Cave and Skiles Shelter during the small flood in May 2014 (left), and the same shelters after the flood.

Fortunately, some of the denizens of Eagle Nest enjoy the mud.  When a small crew made their way to Kelley Cave Saturday afternoon, they followed in the footsteps of wild hogs that seem to enjoy the mud, contrary to the humans who slogged after them through the sticky slick mud.

Wild hogs seemed to enjoy the new mud that was on the trail into Skiles and Kelley.

Wild hogs seemed to enjoy the new mud that was on the trail into Skiles and Kelley.

After we collected ourselves from surveying the canyon and adjusting to the new landscape, we were able to work all day Saturday and put in a full day yesterday; however, this morning Mother Nature once again had plans for Eagle Nest …

View looking upstream to Eagle Cave just as the flood waters begin to flow across the gravel-dune field in the canyon bottom.

View looking upstream to Eagle Cave just as the surging flood waters begin to flow across the gravel-dune field in the canyon bottom.

We arrived at the canyon this morning after waiting out a thunderstorm that began just after dawn and passed just north of the canyon (Jack Skiles reported only just over 1/3″ of rain in his gauge above Eagle Cave).  When we drove over the highway bridge on our way to the canyon we saw water was running over the pour-off, so we knew another flood was headed our way.  Sure enough, not 20 minutes later we watched the water come rushing down the canyon once again, its thin leading edge advancing rapidly and swelling quickly.  From our canyon edge perch we watched with fascination as the flood torrent breached sand-gravel banks 15-20 feet high or went around them, carving new channels that crisscrossed the canyon floor and competed to see which would capture the main flow.

 

6-24 Flood: Mouth of ENC

The small flood from today winds its way through the bent over trees and gravel dunes from the massive flood 4 days ago.

The canyon ran until 1 pm, and sitting in Eagle Cave mid-morning the roaring water was loud enough that we had trouble hearing the person running the Total Data Station only a few meters away.  Today’s flood paled by comparison to Friday’s (perhaps 1/20th the volume or even less), but the water encountered virgin unconsolidated territory — the gravel bars. Over the course of the day a new channel cut through the gravel “dunes” and the floor of the canyon was once again transformed, albeit less dramatically than four days hence.

We are hopeful that our colleague the archaeo-sensing wizard Mark Willis will be able to come back out re-fly the canyon soon with his UAV to document how the canyon has changed since the flood.  It is rare to be able to watch an arid landscape dramatically change before your eyes, and Eagle Nest has done that twice in four days! Even though our best-laid plans were disrupted, we felt privileged to bear witness to flash floods massive and dinky.

 

The Canyon Runs Deep

June 20, 2014

“Scattered thunderstorms” was the forecast for today.  We had shrugged and fully expected to see little if any rain as usual in Langtry, Texas.  Landowner Jack Skiles visited our digs yesterday and asked, “Have you considered moving any of the heavy stuff [equipment] out of the canyon while the road is open, they say it might rain?”   We nodded and went back to work busily trying to finish our excavations and get our final SfM photo documentation completed to make ready for the geoarchaeological sampling that was to happen today and tomorrow.   Jack had just got the road serviceable again last week — it had been washed out last month after a 1.5″ rain — but sunny windy weather had dried it out quickly.   “Scattered thunderstorms,”  no problem.

The rain began around 4 am at the Skiles’ house overlooking Eagle Nest Canyon, and in less than eight hours 11.6″ of rain fell.  The Canyon ran deep as the following sequence of photographs attest.

9 am, view up Canyon toward Eagle Cave.

9 am, view up Canyon toward Eagle Cave.

9am, Steve Black looks across to Kelley Cave and Skiles Shelter and ponders Plan B.

9am, Steve Black looks across to Kelley Cave and Skiles Shelter and ponders Plan B.

10am, view up Canyon, Eagle Cave on the left.

10am, view up Canyon, Eagle Cave on the left.

10am, Wilmuth and Jack Skiles with Eagle Cave in the background.

10am, Wilmuth and Jack Skiles with Eagle Cave in the background.

10 am, view upstream from above Eagle Cave

10 am, view upstream from above Eagle Cave

10 am, lower Canyon with Kelley Cave on the left.  The Eagle Nest Canyon flow is so strong that it is pushing water up the Rio Grande (to the right in background).

10 am, lower Canyon with Kelley Cave on the left. The Eagle Nest Canyon flow is so strong that it is pushing water up the Rio Grande (to the right in background).

ENC Pour-Off 11:30 am.  Around this time is when the flood peaked.

ENC Pour-Off 11:30 am. Around this time is when the flood peaked.

Eagle Nest Canyon Flooding in 2010 (left) versus 2014 (right).  This flood was not the first massive flood event  ASWT has experienced at Eagle Nest.  In 2010, after receiving 12" of rain over a 4 day period, the canyon went on what we thought was a massive flood (photo on left).  Little did we know that by 11:30 am the flow of water over the pour-off into Eagle Nest Canyon would dwarf anything we had ever seen.

Eagle Nest Canyon Flooding in 2010 (left) versus 2014 (right).
This flood was not the first massive flood event ASWT has experienced at Eagle Nest. In 2010, after receiving 12″ of rain over a 4 day period, the canyon went on what we thought was a massive flood (photo on left). Little did we know that by 11:30 am the flow of water over the pour-off into Eagle Nest Canyon would dwarf anything we had ever seen.

Noon, view downstream from Eagle Cave

Noon, view downstream from Eagle Cave

Noon, Kelley Cave and Skiles Shelter with the Rio Grande in the background.

Noon, Kelley Cave and Skiles Shelter with the Rio Grande in the background.

Noon, view down Canyon, Eagle Cave on right with watefalls.

Noon, view down Canyon, Eagle Cave on right with waterfalls.

Noon, view upstream from above Eagle Cave.

Noon, view upstream from above Eagle Cave.

 

By 12:30 the flooding had started to subside.  The water level did not get up into the shelter, but the lower couple dozen feet of our trail was washed away down to bedrock.

By 12:30 the flooding had started to subside. The water level did not get up into the shelter, but the lower couple dozen feet of our trail was washed away down to bedrock.

12:15 pm, mouth of the Canyon, Skiles Shelter on the left.

12:15 pm, mouth of the Canyon, Skiles Shelter on the left.

Noon, Kelley Cave and Skiles Shelter with the Rio Grande in the background.

12:30 pm, Kelley Cave and Skiles Shelter with the Rio Grande in the background.

2:30 pm, view of the mouth of the Canyon.  Most of the flow is now coming back into the Canyon from the Rio Grande.

2:30 pm, view of the mouth of the Canyon. The flow is now starting to flow back into the Canyon from the Rio Grande.

6 pm, mouth of the Canyon.  The water is slack and backed up from the Rio Grande.

6 pm, mouth of the Canyon. The water is slack and backed up from the Rio Grande.

6 pm, view upstream to Eagle Cave.

6 pm, view upstream to Eagle Cave.

 

Tomorrow we will venture into Eagle Cave using the upper “Goat Trail” and continue working with Charles Frederick and Ken Lawrence while they do geoarchaeological sampling of the deposits in Eagle.  This flood event has reminded us of the power of water in the desert, and how all of the sites within Eagle Nest have been (and are being) impacted by flooding.

Cord-Wrapped Fiber Bundle: A Most Curious Artifact Comes to Light

By Kevin Hanselka

Cord-wrapped bundle as initially exposed.

Cord-wrapped bundle as initially exposed.

As discussed in the blog post of March 3, 2014, Leslie Bush and I recently joined Phil Dering as members of the Ancient Southwest Texas Project archaeobotany team. Our role is to study the massive amounts of well-preserved plant remains that are expected to be found in Eagle Cave, Kelley Cave, and Skiles Shelter.  And we have not been disappointed! While excavations and the analyses are ongoing, the bulk matrix samples we have looked at so far are overflowing with fascinating perishable materials reflecting the prehistoric inhabitants’ use of local plants for artifacts, fiber, and food.

In early May I returned to Eagle Nest Canyon to assist in the excavation of a remarkable plant processing feature in Kelley Cave.  When first encountered by Dan Rodriguez and Steve Black last summer, Feature 4 appeared to consist of a thick fiber layer capped by a uniform and seemingly purposeful layer of alluvial mud about 3-5 cm thick.  They hypothesized the mud layer was a prepared surface, presumably created by dumping basket loads of fine Rio Grande alluvium like that found in a flood deposit in adjacent Skiles Shelter.  However, sediment size analysis and comparison led geoarchaeologist Charles Frederick to favor an alternative idea: that the layer is a naturally deposited thin mud drape from the same impressive  flood that left an alluvial layer over one meter thick in the back of Skiles Shelter.  This fits with the fact that Kelley is some 5 meters higher in elevation than Skiles.  A tentative assessment of new radiocarbon dates from both sites suggests this extraordinarily massive flood may have occurred around AD 1350.

Kevin Hanselka pointing to cord-wrapped bundle when initially exposed.

Kevin Hanselka pointing to cord-wrapped bundle when initially exposed.

 

My interest in Feature 4 is in its layers of plant matter and the information they may contain about the cultural use of plant resources in the shelter. In other words, as Brooke Bonorden so eloquently stated in the March 3rd blog post, I want to assess these deposits for “… well-preserved evidence of full behavioral chains from plant collecting to baking to food consumption to fiber production to weaving and plaiting to finished object to final discard.” Most of the plant remains from Feature 4 probably represent the accumulation of waste products of food prepared in nearby earth ovens.  Mainly  trimmed-off outer leaf bases from baked agave lechuguilla stems or “hearts,” but also discarded agave quids (masticated inner leaf bases)  and other plant remains such as wild onion skins.   The food remains, however, may also be intermingled with manufacturing waste produced as leaves were stripped into fiber for weaving mats or baskets or for twisted twine.

Kevin using dental pick to gingerly free the artifact from the mud and fiber in which it was embedded.

Kevin using dental pick to gingerly free the artifact from the mud and fiber in which it was embedded.

Steve and Dan’s working hypothesis is that the Kelley Shelter occupants cooked plant foods such as lechuguilla, sotol, prickly pear, and wild onion in earth ovens near the mouth of the shelter, and then discarded the waste vegetal debris in dense layers, like that in the upper Feature 4.  A desirable side effect of this patterned behavior would be that plant layers would help suppress dust, making the shelter a more comfortable place to live and work.  We have been kicking around these ideas for several months and Steve had promised he would wait until I came back in early May to further explore Feature 4.

Hanselka takes photos of his handy work.

Hanselka takes photos of his handy work.

And so it was that Steve, fellow visiting archaeologist Drew Sitters, and I began to excavate a 50-x-100 cm unit placed just downslope (west) of the previously exposed mud-capped fiber layer in hopes of encountering buried cooking facilities just inside the shelter drip line.

After removing the disturbed surface layer and remnants of the mud drape/surface and exposing the underlying fiber layer (along with some scattered small burned rocks), we paused to thoroughly document the exposed layer using Structure from Motion (SfM) photogrammetry, as described by Charles Koenig in the January 23rd blog entry. While Steve and Drew took the photos, I busied myself with closely examining the floor of the shelter for interesting perishable artifacts. From my previous experiences in similar sites in Mexico and New Mexico, I know that tiny textile fragments, cordage, and unusual plant parts are often found just lying about the surface in dry rockshelters.

Again, I was not disappointed. In the middle of the previously exposed area of Feature 4 I noticed a small loop of tightly-wound fiber cordage protruding from the dust. Based on the coarseness of the strands, I tentatively interpreted it to be made from twisted lechuguilla leaf fibers. Carefully blowing and brushing away the surrounding dust revealed that the cord was exposed in a drying crack of the mud surface and that in seemed to be encircling a fibrous mass of what appeared to be lechuguilla leaves, and was tied in a simple knot on top. However, the exact nature of the artifact was unclear because it was embedded in the hardened mud drape atop the thick upper fiber layer of Feature 4.

As I later learned, Dan had spotted the same embedded cord last summer when the mud surface was first exposed.  He had left in place to be looked at more closely as the feature was more thoroughly documented. In the intervening months the mud cracks had widened such that I could see the cord was wrapping something.  Given that Dan and Steve had thoroughly documented the upper part of the feature exposure using SfM, Steve authorized me to expose the object in order to thoroughly document it before removal. Although most of Feature 4 will be left unexcavated and carefully protected for the future, Steve decided the collection of the specimen was justified.  Such perishable artifacts are extremely rare in the archaeological record except under the best preservation conditions, and because it will be vulnerable to future destruction by foot traffic in the shelter.  While human visitors can be encouraged to avoid sensitive areas of the site, feral hogs are known to frequent the shelter and wallow out sizable depressions where they sleep.

Cord-wrapped bundle as initially exposed.

Cord-wrapped bundle as initially exposed.

As all experienced archaeologists know, a time-honored rule in fieldwork is that the most interesting finds will most often occur in the last hours of your last day in the field. As it happened, I discovered the artifact about an hour before the end of the work day on a Saturday, and the crew takes Sunday off. What is more, I was scheduled to return home to Austin the next morning, so literally the find was made in the final minutes of my planned field visit before I had to leave Eagle Nest Canyon.  Rather than trying to stay late with the entire crew waiting around for me to finish exposing and removing the artifact (knowing that it would take some time), Steve and I elected to call it a day and return refreshed and alone the first thing the next morning.

Exposing and removing the artifact was a delicate and tedious process, and ultimately took several hours. Although it is well-preserved, the fibrous mass and cordage are very fragile, and they were firmly embedded in the mud drape.  In fact, the cord-wrapped bundle’s mud encasement is probably what protected and preserved it so well in the first place.  I worked to remove it hunched close to the ground, using a dental pick and tweezers (and occasionally the pliers on my multi-tool!) to carefully break up the hardened mud and separate it from the cordage, fibers, and thin fragments of prickly pear leaf epidermis (the “skin”) encircling the bundle. I constantly alternated between picking and tweezing and carefully brushing/blowing away the resulting debris.  Meanwhile Steve photographed the action, took notes, and lined a plastic container with paper towels in which we would cradle the artifact once it was freed.

Kevin lifts bundle out from where it has rested for 650 years.

Kevin lifts bundle out from where it has rested for 650 years.

The revealed artifact proved to be a short “bundle” of fibrous leaf material and a desiccated prickly pear pad bound with a short length of fiber cordage that had been tied into a simple knot on one side. Overall, it was less than 20 cm long and was found to be on top of two additional fragmentary prickly pear pads within the dense vegetal layer in Feature 4. The item must have been sitting on top of the fiber layer when the massive flood event deposited the sheet of mud that then hardened around it, encasing it and preserving it for us to find centuries later (although this is only our preliminary interpretation). Steve took several rounds of SfM photographs as the artifact was exposed and cut free.  The artifact was finally removed by severing the extraneous fibers and leaf fragments that clung to it and fused it to the vegetal layer below. We gingerly lifted it out and carefully put it in the box.

Cord-wrapped bundle awaits further investigation.

Cord-wrapped bundle awaits further investigation.

Back in the ASWT field lab on the Shumla Campus the cord-wrapped bundle awaits thorough documentation and cautious exploration. Next month the archaeobotany team hopes to more thoroughly clean the bundle and examine it in Phil Dering’s laboratory. We will have to strike a delicate balance between exposing it further for identification and interpretation and keeping it intact and preserving it for future study. As the analysis progresses, we will more fully assess what it is and what purpose it served, but for now, I simply classify it as a “bundle of fibrous leaf material, bound by knotted fiber cordage.”

Perishable items such as this more than likely comprised the vast majority of the material culture of the indigenous hunter-gatherer populations who called the Lower Pecos Canyonlands home.  But most perishable artifacts are simply no longer observable in the archaeological record in most settings.  They aren’t preserved in open campsites and, sadly, over the past 80 years most of the rockshelters of the region have been dug into by artifact collectors. The mere fact that this simple artifact has survived the centuries to be discovered and studied is testimony to the spectacular preservation conditions in the Eagle Nest Canyon shelters, and the rare window they provide into the daily lives of the ancient inhabitants of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands.  Once again we must tip our hats to the Skiles family for their stewardship of the canyon.

[Postscript by Steve Black:  We have enjoyed showing the curious cord-wrapped bundle nested in its box to our volunteer and visiting archaeologists.  Several have put forth interesting ideas.  Steve Davis pointed to the fact that the leaf sections protruding from one end of the bundle are charred, and suggested the object might be some sort of torch.  Carolyn Boyd reminded me in many ethnographic accounts from Mexico and the Southwest bundled plant materials were burned to create smoke during rituals. Elton Prewitt pronounced that the prickly pear skin visible within the bundle is part of a prickly pear pouch containing quids and leaf bases. Amy Reid made the excellent suggestion that we get the artifact x-ray CT scanned before dissection. All these ideas are being pondered and I expect the bundle has more than one secret yet to be revealed.

Feature 4 is proving to be much more substantial and complex than Dan and I had realized.  The 2014 Expedition crew is continuing to excavate several small excavation units through what we now think is a large earth oven facility that was used many times.  The upper fiber layer, cord-wrapped bundle, and the mud cap/drape are merely the last episodes of a much longer story.  I suspect the multiple lines of evidence we are developing on Feature 4 will be studied and written about for years to come.]

Anticipating and Respecting Curation

By Amy Reid

Today’s guest blogger is the Collections Manager at the Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS) at Texas State University. One of the final critical steps of any archaeological project is properly curating and safeguarding the artifacts, samples, and records for the future.  Amy came to visit us recently and check on our progress.

 

Early morning view across the bending Rio Grande just downstream from the mouth of Eagle Nest Canyon. Photo by Amy Reid.

Early morning view across the bending Rio Grande just downstream from the mouth of Eagle Nest Canyon. Photo by Amy Reid.

As I sit here on the front porch of the SHUMLA Campus, soaking in the gorgeous Southwest Texas morning, I reflect on my visit. All of the times I said to myself “I’ll come back” are floating through my mind. The inception of my plans to return occurred within hours of my arrival. The moment I took the first bite of the green chili chicken enchiladas that Steve Black fixed for dinner, I knew that I had to come back.

As the night went on, I met the personalities that make up the crew. We talked about everything from the obvious subject of archaeology, to Lower Pecos wildlife. I listened happily while Logan McNatt told stories of cave expeditions, cartel encounters and mountain lion sightings to the soundtrack of Bryan’s acoustic guitar.

The next day I joined the crew in the field and toured the sites. I was amazed, not only by the beauty of the canyon lined with rockshelters, but with the work that was being conducted. It was so special to witness such thorough sampling methods and documentation of complex stratigraphies. When our work was done, we cooled off in the river and talked about bears, beers, and Billy Bob Thornton (No Steve, he is not who we have to thank for the infamous Miley Cyrus).

 

Steve Black and Amy Reid at Kelley Cave.

Steve Black and Amy Reid at Kelley Cave.

I realize that my time here may sound more like a vacation than work, but I did have an important mission: to see the growing collection from Eagle Nest Canyon. You see, one day the artifacts and records generated from the project will likely be curated at CAS. It will then be one of the many collections I care for and provide access to for research and various public outreach activities.

As a certified archaeological repository, CAS has a set of standards and guidelines for the archaeologists and lab managers who are tasked with preparing collections for final curation. Instead of expecting them to submit a flawlessly cataloged and packaged collection using only a four-page document, I have decided to take a more interactive approach to curation. No matter how detailed and clear I think my guidelines are, there are always questions or issues that need further explanation. I have started offering to visit archaeological labs and evaluate curation needs and help with some quality control checks before the collection is shipped to CAS. By doing this, I have seen a huge positive difference in the condition of the collections submitted to CAS for curation. This is why I came to see the collection that the ASWT project is amassing with their ongoing work in Eagle Nest Canyon.

Part of me wishes I could say that the collection is in bad shape so that I could have a more legitimate reason for coming back than because the food is good, or because the stories are entertaining, but I can’t. The collection is in an unbelievably well-organized state of preparation and I am anticipating this to be one of the most seamless transactions CAS has ever seen. This is mostly due to the hard work and thoughtful planning of three people: Dr. Steve Black, Charles Koenig and Christina (Tina) Nielsen.

Last fall Steve and Charles visited me at CAS several times asking for curation advice.  For instance, they wanted to make sure that their field and analytic databases could be easily integrated with those we use at CAS for maintaining curated collections. For me it was rewarding to encounter archaeologists that truly recognize how crucial it is to consider curation issues before the fieldwork even begins. One of the things I told Steve was that he really needed to have someone in the field that had extensive lab experience.

By happy coincidence, Tina is one of Steve’s first-year graduate students at TxState. She also works as the lab manager for the Austin office of SWCA, an environmental consulting firm that carries out Cultural Resource Management archaeology. Tina is spending this semester in the field serving both as the ASWT lab manager and carrying out stratigraphic excavation and sampling at Eagle Cave that will become the basis for her thesis. Before the 2014 ENC Expedition began Tina and I were able to talk over collection and curation challenges and procedures.  As the expedition start date loomed, Steve and Tina also stopped by more than once to plead for “spare” lab supplies;  I couldn’t say no to my fellow Bobcat archaeologists.

It was a pleasure to follow up months later and see the ASWT field lab in action. Tina’s ability to plan and implement procedures for artifact processing and cataloging, organize field records and photographs, all while directing staff and volunteers, is remarkable. She is also highly efficient and skilled at data entry, database management, artifact analysis, and developing content for public outreach projects. Charles maintains and regularly backs up the ASWT database – 800 GB and counting – including lab inventory, field number and TDS logs, SfM photos (the lion’s share), field forms, and more. All archaeological projects should be so lucky!

Tina Nielsen at work in the ASWT field lab at the Shumla Campus.

Tina Nielsen at work in the ASWT field lab at the Shumla Campus.

I truly enjoyed my visit to the ENC 2014 expedition and I hope that by sharing my experience, more archaeologists, lab managers and collection managers will be inspired to form successful partnerships and share the responsibility of proper curation. Archaeological collections are irreplaceable representations of our own cultural heritage and recognizing the importance of preserving that heritage is only the beginning. Archaeologists: It’s time we move curation higher up on our priority list and plan ahead. Curatorial staff: it’s time we stop trying to counteract unacceptable collection submissions with inflexible guidelines and impersonal interactions. Successful partnerships will help us all fulfill our current professional responsibilities and make certain that our archaeological collections continue to yield research data for centuries to come.

Stay tuned for a post by Tina outlining the steps she and her team are taking to prepare the ENC collection for analysis and curation, and discussing the ASWT laboratory methods that will be used to extract useful data from artifacts, plant remains, soil samples, and more.

“Come Visit:” A Zoooarchaeologist Is Lured Back to the Lower Pecos

by Chris Jurgens and Steve Black

I (Chris) recently joined the Eagle Nest Canyon research team after Steve kept urging me to “come visit.”  He lured be back to the Lower Pecos because of my research specialty – I study animal bones.  Also known as faunal materials, animal bones are common in the dry rockshelters.  Zooarchaeologists like me study both the faunal materials and artifacts made from bone.

Dr. Chris Jergens studying faunal remains under a microscope.

Dr. Chris Jurgens studying faunal remains under a microscope.

What is Zooarchaeology?

E. J. Reitz and E. S. Wing (1999) define zooarchaeology as the study of animal remains originating from archaeological sites.  Zooarchaeology studies those remains from a specifically anthropological perspective, instead of a biological or paleontological perspective.  Some archaeologists, Reitz and Wing included, further separate the study of vertebrate bony faunal remains as osteoarchaeology.  We would also include other vertebrate faunal remains, such as antlers, teeth, skin, fur, and other soft tissues.

Zooarchaeology developed over the past 80 years to investigate the physical constituents of animal bodies, their resulting byproducts, and the remains of any parasites that might have originally been present. Zooarchaeological faunal studies are also used to investigate site formation, biological processes, and cultural processes that are reflected in the particular collection (or sites) being studied.  The anthropological perspective addresses the complex interaction between humans, their environment, and the consequences of that relationship.

Context of faunal remains is the key to understand their role in any site.  Are the faunal remains found in an archaeological deposit there strictly as a result of natural processes? Are the faunal remains spatially associated with other cultural materials?  If the faunal remains are spatially associated with cultural materials, then the zooarchaeologist must ask other questions.  Have the faunal remains been modified by processes produced by cultural behaviors (skinning, butchering, tool manufacture or use, bone breakage for marrow removal or bone grease production, etc.)?

These are the animal bones recovered from one layer of one excavation unit in Skiles Shelter.  Much of the bone is from small mammals (e.g., rabbits, squirrels) but the large fragment on the right is probably from deer.

These are the animal bones recovered from one layer of one excavation unit in Skiles Shelter. Much of the bone is from small mammals (e.g., rabbits, squirrels) but the large fragment on the right is probably from a deer.

Zooarchaeological studies are important aspects of any archaeological project for several reasons, a prime one being to understand past environments.  Animals, particularly small ones like rodents and rabbits, often thrive only in certain ecological conditions, like arid uplands or well-watered canyons. By studying a faunal assemblage, a group of bones from same archaeological context like a rich midden layer dating to the Late Archaic about 3,000 years ago, we can make inferences about the paleo-environmental conditions in the vicinity.

Faunal materials can also open windows into how prehistoric cultures functioned.  Archaeologists use bones, teeth, and other faunal materials to address questions about subsistence (diet and hunter-gatherer economy) and in the Lower Pecos, later groups often relied heavily on small mammals and fish.  And we try to figure out the exact techniques used in making bone tools and ornaments and how these crafted bone items were used.  Certain items, like bone rasps used to make rhythmic sounds associated with ritual, may reflect belief systems.

Unfortunately, even though the dry rockshelters of the Lower Pecos often yield extremely well preserved animal bones, faunal assemblages have rarely been carefully studied, especially in comparison to the many studies of chipped stone artifacts that have been done.  Prior to my work, the only other major faunal study in the region was Kenneth Lord’s 1983 dissertation study of animal bones from Hinds Cave.  For my own doctoral dissertation I studied a sample from the nearly 50,000 faunal specimens excavated from Arenosa Shelter (41VV99).  This deeply stratified site is on the Pecos River near its confluence with the Rio Grande, about 14 miles southeast of Eagle Nest Canyon and Langtry (see www.texasbeyondhistory.net/arenosa/ to learn more about Arenosa).

Bone preservation at Arenosa Shelter was excellent, especially in Late Archaic and Late Prehistoric strata.  Animals represented in the sample included terrestrial and aquatic species from a variety of fish, turtles, rodents, rabbits, carnivores, and deer to extinct animals, such as Pleistocene horse, deer, and bison.  The Arenosa fauna provided an excellent basis for both paleo-environmental reconstruction and the first detailed study of bone technology in the Lower Pecos. I also published a 2008 article “The Fish Fauna from Arenosa Shelter (41VV99), Lower Pecos Region, Texas.”

Dr. Jergens identified this catfish vertebrae from Eagle Cave.  Based on the size of the bone, this fish would have weighed over 50 pounds!

Jurgens identified this catfish vertebrae from Eagle Cave. Based on the size of the bone, this fish would have weighed over 50 pounds!

On to a Fuller Understanding

The faunal collections from Eagle Cave, Skiles Shelter, and Kelley Cave can be compared with that from Arenosa Shelter and expand our understanding of life-ways in the western part of the Lower Pecos region.

Sixty percent of the Arenosa Shelter faunal materials and bone artifacts were found in upper deposits (strata 4 – 9), a Terminal Late Archaic context dating between about 2,300 and 1,300 years ago.  Many of the deeper and earlier Middle and Early Archaic deposits at Arenosa Shelter (strata 12 – 36) were heavily damaged by high energy Pecos River flooding.  The floods removed most of the bone these deposits may have originally contained, especially that from smaller animals.  Remaining bone in these strata is quite often in secondary context.

Although we are still evaluating the contexts of the ENC sites, most of the faunal material we have recovered is well preserved, especially the bones found in organic-rich layers like those seen in the upper part of Kelley and Eagle Caves.

Chris Jergens analyzes a bone tool recovered from Skiles Shelter.

Chris Jurgens analyzes a bone tool recovered from Skiles Shelter.

Comparison between Arenosa Shelter and the Eagle Nest Canyon (ENC) sites will primarily focus on Late Archaic and Late Prehistoric bone technology and subsistence economies.  The ENC sites appear to contain very similar faunal remains, including those of small to large mammals, fish, birds, turtles, and other reptiles. Much of the faunal material and bone artifacts from the Eagle Nest Canyon sites have not been burned.  They will be directly comparable to the Arenosa Shelter observations, including eco-niches targeted by the inhabitants, specific subsistence behaviors that include filleting of fish and specialized skinning of mammalian carnivores, and use wear on tools or ornaments.  Who knows, maybe we’ll even find catfish spine tools as at Arenosa Shelter or other, new and unexpected evidence for how the prehistoric inhabitants of Eagle Nest Canyon lived in this austerely beautiful land.

 

 

References

 

Jurgens, Christopher J.

2005  Zooarcheology and Bone Technology from Arenosa Shelter (41VV99), Lower Pecos Region, Texas. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, The University of Texas, Austin.
2008  The Fish Fauna from Arenosa Shelter (41VV99), Lower Pecos Region, Texas. Quaternary International185:26-33.

 

Lord, Kenneth J. 

1984   The Zooarchaeology of Hinds Cave (41 VV 456).  Published by the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M in an unnamed Hinds Cave report series. [Published version of  Lord’s 1983 University of Texas at Austin Ph.D. dissertation.]

 

E. J. Reitz and E. S. Wing

1999    Zooarchaeology. Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology.  Cambridge University Press.