Shumla Partnership

By Jeremy B. Freeman (Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center)

As you have learned from this blog, the 2014 Eagle Nest Canyon Expedition is a highly collaborative effort among many specialists and organizations, such as the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center (Shumla).  Shumla is a non-profit research organization, based in Comstock, Texas, that has carried out archaeological research and public outreach programs in the Lower Pecos Region since 1998.  Shumla’s archaeology staff has documented and helped preserve the fabulous rock art of the Lower Pecos using new, innovative, and creative methods that have set the international standard for rock art research.

Charles Koenig, Steve Black, and Jeremy Freeman ponder what to do next in Skiles Shelter.  We are looking into the main trench through the site.  The white-brown contrast in the background marks the high water of the July 2010 flood when Hurricane Alex stalled over the region and dumped 10-15” of rain in just a few days. The inundation of this site, the lowest of the canyon’s rockshelters, highlights the ongoing threat and explains why we are digging extensively here.

Charles Koenig, Steve Black, and Jeremy Freeman ponder what to do next in Skiles Shelter. We are looking into the main trench through the site. The white-brown contrast in the background marks the high water of the July 2010 flood when Hurricane Alex stalled over the region and dumped 10-15” of rain in just a few days. The inundation of this site, the lowest of the canyon’s rockshelters, highlights the ongoing threat and explains why we are digging extensively here.

 

The Eagle Nest Canyon project is based at the Shumla Campus, and Shumla has loaned some of its equipment to the project, but perhaps Shumla’s greatest contribution is its personnel.  Vicky Muñoz and I (Jeremy) are staff archaeologists at Shumla, and we have been helping out with the Eagle Nest Canyon project whenever we can.  I did my undergraduate work at Heidelberg College and graduate work at Ball State University.  I bring over 14 years of field experience to the project including:  CRM projects, public outreach, academic research projects, and collegiate level-teaching experience.  I have specialized in historical archaeology, and I bring that background to look into aspects of cognitive archaeology (as related to the rock art), the creation of a common identity, and understanding how people perceived the sacred landscape.  Vicky is a recent Texas State graduate who attended Steve’s 2011 field school and has been involved with a number of ASWT projects.  Vicky is very versatile, and is a pro with Shumla’s digital technology—from TDS to database programming.

Vicky and I got our first taste of the Eagle Nest Canyon archaeology this past summer when Shumla and Texas State held a joint archaeological field school in Eagle Nest Canyon where students were afforded a unique opportunity to learn methods in dirt archaeology and rock art research.  On the rock art side, field school students helped document the pictographs in Kelley Cave, Eagle Cave, Skiles Shelter, and Raymond’s Shelter by photographing, illustrating, and collecting attribute data on the figures, and analyzing the stratigraphic relationships of the pigments using a Dino-Lite digital microscope.

 

Jeremy excavating a new layer of unit A-B at Skiles Shelter. The dust mask offers protection from the swirling clouds of fine powder spawned by troweling, screening, and merely walking through the shelter.

Jeremy excavating a new layer of unit A-B at Skiles Shelter. The dust mask offers protection from the swirling clouds of fine powder spawned by troweling, screening, and merely walking through the shelter.

 

Since January we have been working “in the trenches” alongside Texas State staff and volunteers.  There are times when Vicky and I work directly with one of the Texas State staff members (e.g. taking notes, screening, excavating, etc.) and other times when we’re sequestered to work on a unit independently so the Texas State staff can focus on other work; Steve and Charles know well that they can count on us to excavate and document the units properly.  We’ve helped with everything from running the total station, to excavating burned rock middens on the canyon’s edge, to helping dig units into the shelter floors and talus slopes.  And, last but not least, we have been assisting in taking the hundreds of sets of SfM photos to create 3D models of excavation units as well as that of Eagle Cave.  We are pleased to be able to contribute our experience and expertise to the success of the project.

 

Vicky Muñoz recording field notes on the north/south trench in Skiles Shelter.  Notes are both hand-written and digitized.  Vicky is almost directly under the shelter’s dripline.  As you can see, the talus slope forms a “vertical” burned rock midden.   Over several thousand years, hundreds of earth ovens were built near the front of the shelter and the spent rocks were tossed down slope.  And only a few meters away (behind Vicky),are vivid polychrome Pecos River style pictographs.

Vicky Muñoz recording field notes on the north/south trench in Skiles Shelter. Notes are both hand-written and digitized. Vicky is almost directly under the shelter’s dripline. As you can see, the talus slope forms a “vertical” burned rock midden. Over several thousand years, hundreds of earth ovens were built near the front of the shelter and the spent rocks were tossed down slope. And only a few meters away (behind Vicky),are vivid polychrome Pecos River style pictographs.

 

Excavating in the shelters of Eagle Nest Canyon has given me an opportunity to dust off my excavation tools and put them back in service.  In fact, this is really my first time to work on burned rock middens!  I had heard of them while working in the Midwest and Southeast, but had never had an opportunity to excavate one.  It just goes to show that even after 14 years there’s always more to learn.  The deposits in these shelters aren’t always clear cut, and subtle changes in the soil consistency may or may not indicate a significant layer.  And, the rocks can make it very challenging to keep the walls straight, requiring painstaking trowel work to even the walls around the rocks.  Digging through the dense deposits of burned rock often requires tools not typically in the archaeologist’s repertoire, such as garden claws and picks.  These are faster than trowels and work better than shovels, which tend to get hung up on the rocks.

Recently I spent a week excavating the tale end of Unit A-B at Skiles Shelter, which was opened as two side-by-side 1 x 1m units during the 2013 Field School.  At the end of the season the units were terminated at a deep, thick layer some 1.5m below the surface that had a dense concentration of small roof spalls and very little cultural material.  I’ve been using a pick and trowel to slowly work my way through the spall layer, which we hope may cover deeply buried intact cultural deposits, perhaps even Pleistocene-age deposits contemporaneous with Bonfire Shelter.  Thus far, deposits dating before 9,000 years have been elusive in the other shelters in the canyon.  Sadly, it looks as if the spall zone in the bottom of Skiles Shelter appears to be culturally sterile, although we haven’t quite reached solid bedrock yet.  The roof spall layer likely formed gradually over an extended period of time on the original floor of the shelter before humans began visiting this locale.

Brooke Bonorden using Shumla's TDS (Total Data Station) at Skiles Shelter, which means that the Texas State TDS could to be simultaneously at Eagle Cave, several hundred meters up the canyon.

Brooke Bonorden using Shumla’s TDS (Total Data Station) at Skiles Shelter, which means that the Texas State TDS could to be simultaneously at Eagle Cave, several hundred meters up the canyon.

 

Back to Shumla.  Shumla’s collaboration with Texas State’s ASWT team offers a unique opportunity to integrate data from subsurface deposits (i.e. “dirt archaeology”) with rock art research.  Traditionally there has been relatively little collaboration between dirt and rock art archaeological researchers, each using their own seemingly different methodologies to study “exclusive” aspects of the archaeological record. Only rarely have the data from each been combined for a more holistic interpretation.

By studying both the “dirt” and “rock art” archaeology of Eagle Nest Canyon, we are taking a holistic approach to studying the archaeology of the Lower Pecos.  This is made possible by the multi-disciplinary collaboration of different fields of study, including rock art research, archaeobotany, geomorphology, palynology, zooarchaeology, archaeoentomology, and dirt archaeology.  Shumla shares in the belief that by taking a broad approach to studying the archaeology, we can learn more about the prehistoric people of the Lower Pecos through integrating diverse intellectual perspectives, methodologies, and complimentary lines of evidence to help us to better understand how people utilized the landscape throughout the region.

Vicky and I are grateful for the opportunity to help with the ASWT project and are happy to offer our experience.  We hope that our collaboration with Texas State will help both organizations meet our objectives and collectively bring greater insight into the prehistoric lifeways and landscape use of the region.

 

Shumla returns to Eagle Nest Canyon amid the pale green colors of new spring growth.

Shumla returns to Eagle Nest Canyon amid the pale green colors of new spring growth.

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