By Brooke Bonorden, Bryan Heisinger, and Charles Koenig
Eagle Cave has been the scene of previous archaeological investigation (e.g., E.B. Sayles and J. Charles Kelley as well as the Witte Museum in the 1930s followed by the work by the University of Texas in the 1960s). Looking at the surface of the shelter today, one of the first things people notice are the numerous unnatural depressions and mounds—vestiges of the decades of shelter excavation. In fact, upon our initial arrival at Eagle Cave this past winter one of the first things that caught my (Brooke’s) eye in regards to the shelter’s topography was a large sloping depression in essentially the center of the rockshelter, running from the back wall to the drip line. It is massive! If I stand at the lowest point I can’t see over the present ground surface! Now, several months later, it has become evident the modified landscape left behind by previous expeditions to Eagle Cave have created a challenge for our ongoing excavations in Eagle Cave: searching for intact deposits in their original context.
Let’s take a pair of scissors for example. When found in association with crayons, glue, and paper, a pair of scissors could be described as used for crafts. However, when the same pair of scissors is found in association with a comb, shampoo, and blow dryer, the scissors could be described as used for cutting/styling hair. Depending upon what an object is found in association with can completely change its interpreted use. The age of an artifact can also be determined by the other objects it is found in association with. In essence, context is crucial to understanding an artifact’s function within an archaeological site.
As archaeological methodologies have improved, the ways in which sites are recorded/mapped has drastically changed since the initial investigations at Eagle Cave in the 1930s. After reading the accounts of our predecessors’ work at the site, we knew the approximate locations where previous work had occurred, but we were unsure as to which areas of the site were still intact. We set out to do so by exposing the vertical profile of a small area near the back wall of the shelter. In doing so, we soon discovered much of what we were excavating had previously been exhumed, and was in fact mainly backfilled sediment. We were able to identify the sediment as backfill because several feet of soil were completely homogenous in color and loaded with sheep and goat pellets. We proceeded to clean more of the profile through the disturbed deposits until we exposed what we believed to be intact/unexcavated strata, and we are now excavating and sampling these intact layers systematically and recording the context where all the samples and artifacts are collected.
While we were excavating the disturbed fill from the profile we recovered dozens of artifacts—projectile points, flakes, fragments of bone, fiber—but none of these artifacts are in their original context. Although some useful data can be collected from the artifacts themselves (e.g., projectile point styles), we cannot learn as much from many objects without knowing their exact archaeological context. This begs the question of how might we utilize artifacts and ecofacts (e.g., plant remains) with no known provenience?
ASWT has teamed up once again with Shumla, and we are taking some of the material recovered from disturbed contexts and creating an educational collection students can use for hands on activities. Eventually, we hope we can bring these samples to classrooms not only in the Comstock/Del Rio area, but also to San Marcos and beyond. The first group of students to study samples of the materials from disturbed contexts are part of the Shumla Scholars program. The Shumla Scholars is a semester-long program for high school students at Comstock ISD. Students explore research design by examining previous and ongoing projects, and by planning and implementing a project of their own. The main objective for the current class is to map and record the Comstock Cemetery, but another part will be to develop hypotheses relating to the artifacts recovered from Eagle Cave. The students will be given several different artifact “packets” collected from disturbed contexts and posed the general questions: what are these artifacts and ecofacts and what can they tell us about the native peoples who occupied Eagle Cave? Hands-on experiential learning instead of looking at pictures and drawings.
We look forward to the Comstock students writing a follow-up blog post about what they learned from the Eagle Cave artifacts!