ENC Take Three: A Look Ahead at the 2016 Season

By Charles Koenig and Steve Black

The 2016 season is planned as the penultimate major field season in Eagle Nest Canyon. We are have a larger field crew, 10 of us full time joined periodically by returning veteran collaborators (e.g., Ken Lawrence), new collaborators (e.g., Karl Reinhard and Isabel Teixeira-Santos), and volunteers, most of whom are also ENC veterans. We will be working at two main locations within Eagle Nest Canyon: Eagle Cave and Sayles Adobe, a new locality.

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The 2016 ENC core crew (from left to right): Charles Koenig, Amanda Castaneda, Victoria Pagano, Justin Ayers, Spencer Lodge, Bryan Heisinger, Emily McCuistion, Kelton Meyer, and Stephanie Mueller. 

2016 Eagle Cave Excavations

The 2016 Eagle Cave work will continue exposing, documenting, and sampling the south wall of the main trench (see 2015 Investigations of Eagle Cave). We are off to a running start because several profile sections were exposed at the end of the 2015 season that we documented but did not sample.

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Bryan Heisinger cleans off the profile while other crew members look on.

We will finish exposing the south wall of the main trench down to the large spall layer, and towards the mouth of the site take a large unit down to test the Collins’ Hypothesis that Paleoindian occupation layers may be deeply buried closer towards the dripline than UT or the Witte Museum excavated. We will continue to use SfM as our primary documentation method, and will maintain our sampling strategy of collecting 100% of the matrix from sampling columns.

We will follow our 2014-2015 excavation strategy focused on a vertical approach, but as we get deeper into the deposits we will be able to open up a horizontal block several meters across. Taking a horizontal approach to sampling the lower deposits will allow us to look at artifact and feature distribution across the earliest site deposits within the confines of the main trench, something that we could not do with the upper deposits. The methods we will use for the lower deposits will likely be a modification to our vertical methods, but still rely primarily on TDS and SfM mapping of artifacts and samples.

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The view from the total data station (TDS) while work continues on the south wall of the main trench.

Backfilling and Stabilizing the South Wall of the Eagle Cave Main Trench. 

After excavations are complete near the end of 2016 season we will begin the process of stabilizing and backfilling the trench wall to protect it from collapse.  This will likely not be the “final” backfill event (this will occur during the concluding winter/spring 2017 field season), but we will cover the deposits enough to protect them from damage.  We have not yet solidified a plan, but we anticipate using some combination of gravel from the canyon bottom, clean fill brought in from elsewhere, large plastic bins, and backdirt from our Eagle Cave excavations.  We want to be sure whatever we use to backfill can be removed without damaging the intact deposits.

Toward this end, during the 2016 season we will consult engineers and archaeologists who have rockshelter stabilization experience to help us design a plan to carefully stabilize and fully backfill both Eagle Cave and Bonfire Shelter in 2017.

2016 Investigations of Sayles Adobe

As our ENC excavations have progressed, it has become more and more apparent flooding down the Rio Grande has impacted the sites and the natural history of the canyon more than we realized.  Therefore, to address new research questions relating to flooding and the human use of the lower canyon’s alluvial terrace, Texas State graduate student Victoria Pagano will lead excavations into newly named and recorded Sayles Adobe site, located immediately in front and downstream of Skiles Shelter.

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Sayles Adobe as initially recorded in December 2015. Tools staged for the subsequent clearing.

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Sayles Adobe after clearing was completed this past week (January 12th).

The results of this excavation will be reported in Victoria’s Master’s thesis. The research objectives and questions for Victoria’s project are still in development, but it will involve geoarchaeological analysis of the terrace to gain a better understanding of the frequency, magnitude, and impact of Rio Grande flooding, as well as sample what we hope are well-stratified cultural deposits.  Our ideal would be to find alternating alluvial and cultural deposits, the latter dating the former and the former sealing and protecting the later.

The site is hereby named in honor of pioneering Texas archaeologist E.B. Sayles who first recorded the presence of archaeological sites in Eagle Nest Canyon in the winter of 1932. Sayle’s sketch map of the canyon depicts a dashed in area in front of Skiles Shelter and Kelley Cave that is labeled “Sandy Adobe” but otherwise not described.

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E.B. Sayles sketch map of Eagle Nest Canyon. Sayles Adobe is located where Sayles outlined a “Sandy Adobe” towards the confluence of the Rio Grande.

We believe this is how he noted the alluvial terrace knoll which is composed of fine sandy loam (Rio Grande alluvium) that has the same color as dried adobe.  Pagano formally recording the site a few weeks ago and it is officially 41VV2239, meaning the two thousandth, two hundredth and thirty ninth archaeological site recorded in Val Verde County – wow!

In mid-December, 2015 Pagano and ENC co-principal investigator Charles Frederick exposed a small portion of the burned rock layer encountered approximately 1 m below the surface in the borrow pit dug in 2014 during the backfilling of Skiles Shelter.

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Victoria and Charles Frederick discuss Sayles Adobe.

Pagano recognized and exposed a thin mud drape several centimeters thick that lies directly atop the burned rock deposit.  We think it highly likely that additional cultural deposits will be encountered, minimally representing materials eroding down from Skiles Shelter, but more likely representing primary open-campsite deposits, likely of a short-term nature.

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Victoria exposing the “mud drape” covering several large fire-cracked rocks.

The 2016 excavation methodology will be based on initial sampling of the borrow pit (Unit A) and just-conducted ground penetrating radar work by Tiffany Osburn of the Texas Historical Commission.  The Sayles Adobe excavation will be stepped as it gets deeper to ensure safety and stability. Victoria will be fleshing out the strategic details as she pulls together her thesis proposal, due in early February, 2016.  Black and Frederick will serve on Pagano’s thesis committee (along with TxState professor Britt Bousman) and will work closely with Victoria to plan and conduct the Sayles Adobe research.

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As Justin Ayers looks on, Tiffany Osburn of the Texas Historical Commission runs Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) over the surface of Sayles Adobe looking for sub-surface indicators of cultural features. We eagerly await the results!

            We may be able to carry out limited and special-purpose investigations elsewhere in the Canyon during the 2016 season, but finishing our Eagle Cave excavations and gaining a substantive deep sample of Sayles Adobe are our main goals. We anticipate an excellent 2016 season!

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