Eagle Cave-Where Context is Crucial

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.

Profile Section 2 (PS02) is located near the rear wall of Eagle Cave.  The intact stratigraphy is visible as white bands in  both photographs.  Where Brooke is sitting in the top photograph, and Jake in the bottom photograph, is the disturbed fill we had to remove before we exposed the intact stratigraphy.  This fill is full of goat and sheep poop that has mixed in with the sediment when previous excavation trenches collapsed and filled in.

Profile Section 2 (PS02) is located near the rear wall of Eagle Cave. The intact stratigraphy is visible as white bands in both photographs. Where Brooke is sitting in the top photograph, and Jake in the bottom photograph, is the disturbed fill we had to remove before we exposed the intact stratigraphy. This fill is full of goat and sheep poop that has mixed in with the sediment when previous excavation trenches collapsed and filled in.

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.

Depending on where an artifact is recovered from can drastically change the archaeological interpretation of that artifact.  Images from Google.

Depending on where an artifact is recovered from can drastically change the archaeological interpretation of that artifact–much like in Hollywood. Images from Google.

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.

This is a composite image of eastern profile of PS02 showing the intact stratigraphy.

This is a composite image of eastern profile of PS02 showing the intact stratigraphy.

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?

This is a sample of artifacts recovered from disturbed context (from left to right): pebbles with paint, projectile points, bone tool, quid (chewed lechuguilla or sotol leaf), and a fragment of cordage.

This is a sample of artifacts recovered from disturbed context (from left to right): pebbles with paint, projectile points, bone tool, quid (chewed lechuguilla or sotol leaf), and a fragment of cordage.

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.

 

Students from Comstock High School screening disturbed fill at Eagle Cave.  These students will be the first to use the artifacts from Eagle Cave in hands-on experiential learning with SHUMLA.

Students from Comstock High School screening disturbed fill at Eagle Cave under the supervision of Vicky Munoz and Jeremy Freeman. These students will be the first to use the artifacts from Eagle Cave in hands-on experiential learning with SHUMLA.

We look forward to the Comstock students writing a follow-up blog post about what they learned from the Eagle Cave artifacts!

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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.

Archaeoentomology?

By Charles Frederick and Steve Black

Studying insects preserved in archaeological context (or paleoentomology) is the specialty of Dr. Eva Panagiotakopulu,Geoscience Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.  Eva came to Eagle Nest Canyon recently to see our excavations and get a sense of the potential for finding informative insects in the well-preserved deposits in the rockshelters.

Insects dominate the animal kingdom (comprising around 75% of the presently known animal species) and can be particularly informative as they are sensitive to climate, ecology and sometimes human behavior.  The beetles (or Coleoptera) are perhaps the most commonly used in archeological contexts and can provide sensitive records of past environmental conditions owing to the fact that many fly, and can readily migrate when conditions change.  Most importantly, they can be relatively easily identified from disarticulated fossil insect parts.

(More details on paleoentomology in archaeology can be found in Phil Buckland’s An Introduction to  Palaeoentomology in Archaeology and The BUGS Database Management System, which can be downloaded at www.bugscep.com/phil/publications/buckland2000_cdpaper.pdf.  See also Scott Elias’ 1994 book Quaternary Insects and Their Environments, Smithsonian Institute Press).

Looking for bugs in all the RIGHT places! (We hope!) Left to right: Ken Lawrence, Jack Skiles, Steve Black and Eva Panagiotakopulu looking at the Skiles Shelter deposits.

Looking for bugs in all the RIGHT places! (We hope!) Left to right: Ken Lawrence, Jack Skiles, Steve Black and Eva Panagiotakopulu looking at the Skiles Shelter deposits.

Given the excellent preservation for organics in certain ENC rockshelter deposits, we have high hopes that desiccated bugs and bug parts are present (bugs were recovered from the site previously) and can be used to better understand the history and life of the ancient inhabitants of these shelters. Our first step is to send Eva 3-5 liter matrix samples of the <1/2” fraction from several stratigraphic contexts in Eagle Cave.  She will sieve and scan fine fractions microscopically.  If she strikes pay bug, so to speak, we will expand her study and send her more samples from more contexts in several of our sites.  An important part of her work will be compiling identification keys and visiting museums in the USA that have comparative entomological collections, like the one at the Department of Entomology at Texas A&M University (that contains 1.86 million specimens!), in order to identify the specimens present and obtain information on their habitats.

Eva’s trip was probably quite a blur, given she was on the ground here in Texas for 60 hours, about 12 of which were spent driving.  Unbeknownst to us before her visit, Eva is a fan of Western History and Judge Roy Bean in particular, and greatly enjoyed visiting the Judge Roy Bean Museum and receiving a signed copy of Jack’s book Judge Roy Bean Country.  Before arriving she had no idea she would be visiting Langtry.  Between that connection, and the breakfast tacos, brisket, and enchiladas we plied her with, we think the hook was set.  Now we wait to learn whether our Eagle Cave matrix samples yield insects.

Our elytra are crossed!

My Time in a Geoarch Lab

by Jake Sullivan

I recently had the chance to work with Geoarchaeologist Dr. Charles Frederick. He invited me out to his laboratory (about 90 miles southwest of Fort Worth) for a few days so we could analyze the samples taken from Eagle Nest Canyon during his most recent visit. These included micromorphology and magnetic susceptibility samples from Kelley Cave as well as sediment samples from a small rockshelter opposite Skiles.

The micromorph endgame is to create thin sections of the intact stratigraphy which can be analyzed under the microscope. The micromorph samples were impregnated with resin and left to solidify and dry for two weeks in a shed in Langtry before being transported to the lab. However, two weeks and several layers of plastic containers did little to dispel or contain the toxic fumes wafting from the samples. But, for the sake of science, I drove the entire way with the car windows rolled down and made it—thankfully—without turning into an archaeo-popsicle.

Ken Lawrence with a successful micromorph extraction.

Ken Lawrence with a successful micromorph extraction.

My role in this process was to prepare the thin section blanks. I did this by trimming the ends of the micromorph samples as well as any excess resin, thereby exposing each face of the micromorph sample, and allowing Charles to decide the best locations for thin sectioning. Many of the laboratory procedures require multiple days to complete, and micromorph sample trimming is no exception. It takes three hours to trim one sample using a mineral oil lubricated rock saw. Thanks to the saw’s automatic shut-off I was able to complete other tasks in the interim.

Articulated and dis-articulated micromorph sample.

Articulated and dis-articulated micromorph sample.

One of the other tasks was to test the magnetic susceptibility of samples taken from the various strats of the north profile of Unit A in Kelley. Magnetic susceptibility analyzes the degree of magnetization of sediment. This is of interest to archaeologists because an elevated level can be indicative of biological activity through the fermentation process as well as burn events. As interesting as the science behind this analysis is, the actual lab process is quite simple. In Charles’ own words, “this is something a monkey can do.” I weighed each sample cube and then placed them in the magnetic susceptibility meter, recording the low and high frequency readings.

Magnetic susceptibility meter and samples.

Magnetic susceptibility meter and samples.

The last thing I did before leaving for the Lower Pecos was analyze the grain size of matrix samples using a sieve and hydrometer. Sieves are used for quantifying the large fraction particle sizes and hydrometers the small. A sieve is a series of stacked screens that go from large to small with respect to the size of particles a single screen will allow to pass. We used a shaker that utilizes sonic waves to vibrate the particles through the sieve. The particles left on each screen were then weighed and recorded. The hydrometer analyzes the small particles based on measuring the rate at which particles descend and settle in a water column at a constant temperature.

Geoarchaeologist in training.

Geoarchaeologist in training.

I had a lot of fun helping Charles and am very appreciative of him showing me the ropes of a geoarch lab. I will continue assisting him in processing many more samples in the near future. And as we learn more about micromorphology we will be sure to share our results.

The Archaeobotanical Team Forms

By Brooke Bonorden and Steve Black

Recently we have formed an Archaeobotanical research team that parallels the Geoarchaeological team discussed in an earlier post, “Geoarchs in Action”.  The Archaeobotanical team leader Dr. Phil Dering has been joined by Dr. Leslie Bush and Dr. Kevin Hanselka as our collaborating experts in archaeobotany, meaning that they specialize in the analysis and identification of macrobotanical remains (plant parts visible to the naked eye) recovered in archaeological excavations.

Phil Dering leads the Archaeobotanical team through Eagle Nest Canyon.

Phil Dering leads the Archaeobotanical team through Eagle Nest Canyon.

Blog followers were introduced to Phil in the recent post, “Winter in the Canyon”.  Phil and Steve have dreamed and plotted about excavating and sampling dry rockshelters in the Lower Pecos for years.  Now that is finally happening, we are generating much more plant work than Phil can handle on his own, so he has recruited Kevin and Leslie to join him.  While Phil has been looking at macrobot samples from Hinds Cave and other Lower Pecos shelters for over three decades, he realizes that fresh eyes will bring new strengths and ideas to our collaborative endeavor.

Leslie Bush, who earned her Ph.D. at Indiana University Bloomington, runs her own macrobotanical consultation service based in Austin and she analyzes samples from many CRM (cultural resource management) projects in Texas.  She is also quite active in the Texas Archeological Society and the Travis County Archeological Society.  Working with Lower Pecos samples will allow Leslie to expand her plant knowledge westward from the Eastern Woodlands and the eastern two-thirds of Texas where she has done most of her previous work.  Kevin, who earned his Ph.D. at Washington University in St Louis, is a bit more familiar with desert plants.  His dissertation was on plant use in Southwestern Tamaulipas and he has also worked in Chihuahua with Dr. Bob Hard of UTSA. Kevin now works as an archaeologist for TxDOT and he jumped at the chance to become involved with ENC plant remains and put his training to use.  How does that saying go, three heads are better than one?

I  (Brooke) was fortunate enough to tag along with the archaeobotanists on their recent visit to Eagle Nest Canyon as they formulated a game plan for dividing and conquering the wealth of plant remains that we are recovering from the ENC rockshelters. From their conversations I learned that archaeobotany is even more intensive than I had thought. Plant species vary considerably across the Lonestar State, so becoming familiar with the types found in different regions takes lots of time and a trained eye.  During their visit, Kevin and Leslie collected samples of flora commonly found in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands to improve the comparative collections in their labs back in Austin.  I hope to help Phil collect more comparative samples this spring, as various plants begin to flower and fruit.  In fact, I hope to be able to help all three of our plant experts as the project unfolds and learn whether archaeobotany might be a viable career route for me.

As mentioned in earlier posts, the mantra for our expedition (and more specifically our excavation methods within Eagle Cave) has become “Low Impact-High Resolution,” meaning that we are attempting to learn as much as possible from the site while simultaneously minimizing our impact upon the remaining intact deposits within the shelter.  To do this we are exposing stratigraphic profiles by digging into disturbed deposits and cutting back until we encounter intact layering.  We are carefully documenting and sampling the intact layers as future posts will detail. Due to the modest size of our sampling areas, much of what we will learn from Eagle Cave will come from intensive analyses of matrix samples from the many strats (stratigraphic layers) we are encountering. Over the course of our expedition, therefore, we will be visited by collaborating experts on everything from geology to plants to bugs to bones in an effort to learn as much as possible from our strats.

Brooke describes the layers she has been exposing in PS 2 (Profile Section 2) at the back of Eagle Cave. The Witte Museum trenched all along this wall in 1936.

Brooke describes the layers she has been exposing in PS 2 (Profile Section 2) at the back of Eagle Cave. The Witte Museum trenched all along this wall in 1936. Leslie and Kevin examine the first intact layers we have encountered in PS2.

The Three-headed Archaeobot visit took place the same day as the Archaeolympics and so while everybody else played with atlatls and fire drills, we (Brooke, Steve, and Tina Nielsen) got to see the Canyon through the eyes of the plant experts.  We visited each of the three rockshelters where ASWT archaeologists have been working, Skiles Shelter, Kelley Cave, and Eagle Cave.   At each we looked at the excavation exposures and Steve explained our working ideas about the stratigraphy and we talked about the plant remains we have recovered. Phil, Leslie and Kevin soon lapsed into rapid-fire plant speak using the specialized terms like “bast,” as Brooke and Tina struggled to take notes and Steve kept nodding, giving the misleading impression that he understood all they were saying.  But as the archaeobotanists talked the talk, we lurkers began to appreciate what they were after and what they would need from us to make it happen.

In addition to being knowledgeable about the plant species across the landscape, archaeobotanists must also be experts in plant anatomy, considering that most of plant remains archaeologists find in the ground are tiny fragments, many of which are burned.  One of the difficult tasks that our experts will face with the ENC samples is identifying the materials in cordage/basketry/sandals, because these plant fibers have been pounded so that the epidermis is removed and only the bast (the insides) remains.  But while it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to identify the plant species represented by processed fiber, we think our sites have the 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.  Documenting and understanding these interwoven sequences of behaviors is one of our goals.  The tons upon tons of burned rocks spilling out of the mouths of all of the ENC rockshelters (except Bonfire) show that baking desert succulents like agave lechuguilla and sotol was one of the most common activities in the Canyon.

Kevin (far right) points out scars that suggest the deep mortar hole that goes all the way through this small boulder was quite intentional.  He has seen similar "artifacts" in Tamaulipas.  Incidentally, we think J. Charles Kelley described this very rock in May 1932 when he and E. B. Sayles dug small tests in Eagle Cave.

Kevin (far right) points out scars on the bottom side of this small boulder suggest the deep mortar hole that goes all the way through it was quite intentionally created this way.  Perhaps the open-ended mortar hole served as a “hopper” below which a basket might have been place to catch the pulverized food remains. He has seen similar “artifacts” in Chihuahua. Incidentally, we think J. Charles Kelley described this very rock in May 1932 when he and E. B. Sayles dug small tests in Eagle Cave.

At most archaeological sites archaeobotanical analysis involves identifying charred plant remains—wood charcoal and sometimes burned nuts and seeds—because that is all that is left.  Some charred “macrobotanical” remains can be identified with the unaided eye, but most specimens require careful microscopic examination and comparison with reference samples from known plants.  At Kelley and Eagle Caves, however, many of the plant remains have preserved in a desiccated state due to the dry conditions of the protected rockshelters.  We are finding many kinds of uncharred leafs, flowers, seeds, nuts, fruits, branches, and so on, as well as massive amounts of charred remains.  For our experts, looking at uncharred floral remains under a microscope will be a welcome change from what they see most of the time. Identifying these desiccated plant parts requires a more complete comparative collection that is needed when all you have is charred wood fragments.

Three archaeobotanists examine newly exposed layers at Eagle Cave.  From left to right, Leslie, Phil, and Kevin.

Three archaeobotanists examine newly exposed layers at Eagle Cave. From left to right, Leslie, Phil, and Kevin.

Considering the great lengths that Drs. Dering, Bush, and Hanselka will be going to identify the botanical remains from the ENC sites, you must be curious as to what we hope to learn from them. Plants were used intensively by native peoples not only for food, but for creating paint, medicine, basketry, rope, fermented beverages, sandals, and so much more. The ability to distinguish a large variety of plants across the landscape (and those that were edible from those that weren’t) and utilize them so resourcefully leads me (Brooke) to call prehistoric groups the first true botanists.  Macrobotanical analysis, when used in conjunction with historic ethnographic accounts of Native American groups and experimental archaeology, has proven useful in identifying the seasonality of site occupations (by the presence of plant remains that are only edible/blooming at certain times of the year), reconstructing economic patterns, and identifying plant processing activities.  The extraordinary organic preservation found in the dry rockshelters of the Lower Pecos also gives us a rare window into the many ways plants were used to create “material culture.”

The most shocking part? The archaeobotanists will only need a liter bag of matrix from each layer we sample to make inferences about all of that!  How is that for low-impact, high resolution?

The Archaeolympics

By: Bryan Heisinger

Last Saturday while the world was watching the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the 7th annual Archaeolympics sponsored by Texas Parks and Wildlife, Shumla, The Rock Art Foundation, and the National Park Service was taking place in Seminole Canyon State Park. People young and old came out to watch and attend the games in this all-day event. Archaeologists, outdoor enthusiasts, students, and scout troops matched their wits in three competitions: Atlatl, Rabbit Stick, and Friction Fire in hopes to obtain bragging rights for their dexterity, and a chance to win the first place grand prize of a replica Pedernales projectile point.

The first competition to take place on Saturday morning was the Rabbit Stick.  Rabbit sticks are considered a non-return boomerang, and were used by people in the Lower Pecos region for thousands of years for hunting small game. Contestants had three chances to throw a rabbit stick at two strategically placed soccer balls in attempt to knock them off their mounts. Some contenders did great, and others missed all three shots completely. Overall, it was a great warm-up for the next two events.

Rabbit Stick

Jacob throwing the rabbit stick. (Photo courtesy of Shumla)

The friction fire was the second competitive event on Saturday. Archaeologists working in the Lower Pecos have recovered numerous friction fire spindles and hearth boards from the dry rock shelters.  Charles Koenig, Jack Johnson (N.P.S. Archaeologist), Jerod Roberts (President of the Texas State Experimental Archaeology club), myself, and Texas Archeological Society member Robin Matthews, faced off in a race to see who could be the first to create a flame using just two sticks.  As soon as the announcer shouted go, the five of us quickly grabbed our spindles and began to rub our hands rapidly back and forth in a downward motion to get the friction we needed to create an ember. Once the ember began to smoke, we gently dropped it into a bundle of dry tinder and began to blow softly on it until the tinder caught fire. Charles took home first place, as well as a few hand blisters, with an impressive 46 second friction fire.

Friction Fire

Charles, Bryan, and Jerod creating a friction fire. (Photo courtesy of Shumla)

The last competition of the day was the atlatl throw. The atlatl—or spearthrower—was a predecessor to the bow and arrow, and was used by hunters in the Lower Pecos until around 1000 years ago to kill deer and other large animals.  An atlatl is pretty simple, consisting of about a 2-foot long piece of wood with a “spur” attached to its distal end (the spur serves a similar purpose as a nock on an arrow string).  The dart (or spear) fits onto the spur, and then the atlatl is used to propel the dart with much more velocity than you could throw by hand.  For this competition, contenders threw spears at a 3D foam deer target. Points were based on the area of the deer that spear hit. After several long and intense atlatl rounds, Charles once again reigned champion of the atlatl throw.

Atlatl

Charles getting ready to use the atlatl. (Photo courtesy of Shumla)

After the games were complete, awards were presented to the winners and people slowly began to head home. ASWT was happy to take part in the Archaeolympics, and we are are looking forward to next year’s event!

Team Bobcat

ASWT, Shumla, and Texas State’s Experimental Archaeology Club Members. (Photo courtesy of Shumla)

Winter in the Canyon

By Steve Black and Phil Dering

Eagle Nest Canyon in the winter is a far cry from the summer, when archaeologists usually work in the region.   Instead of stifling back-to-back days over 100 degrees, winter conditions are a lot cooler, obviously, but strikingly varied.  Some days it is sunny and balmy t-shirt weather by mid-day with a highs in the 70s and low 80s; a sheer joy to be alive and working outdoors.  But then windy northers hit and daylight temperatures don’t get out of the 30s or 40s it’s not quite as joyful; but, walking through the canyon is still quite delightful provided you are layered up.  On a recent morning I (Steve) was joined by Phil Dering, an archaeobotanist with advanced training an experience in both dirt archaeology and in analyzing the plant remains found in the dirt.  He is also a paleoethnobotanist, meaning he tries to understand how the people who lived in the canyon for so many generations used and understood the plant world. If the topic interests you, take a look at the online exhibit called “Ethnobotany of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands” that Phil and I put together several years ago: www.texasbeyondhistory/ethnobot/.  To be clear: Phil is the plant expert, Steve is just wordy.

Back to that morning in the canyon.  As we followed a trail leading down that meandered along the base of the cliff we passed through a long and tall, but very shallow, overhang known as Horse Trail Shelter.  Phil stopped to point out two evergreen bushes from the buckthorn family that both held a surprising quantity of mature and immature ‘berries’ (technically fruits).  This is winter, why do we see hanging fruits—these are supposed to be harbingers of summer and fall?  Their presence in early February points to a peculiar aspect of the Lower Pecos: for many desert plants seasonality is strongly conditioned by climate.  Late summer and fall of 2013 were unusually wet, allowing some plants to bloom and put on fruit far later in the year than they would have in “normal” conditions.  While this makes it difficult for the archaeobotanist to make confident seasonality assessments based on charred seeds found in archaeological sites, such atypical years must have been a boon for canyon dwellers.

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Ripe Eagle Nest Canyon condalia berries in early February.

The two kinds of berries also tell another cautionary tale: foragers must know their plants.  The biggest berries of the two, and far more common, were those of coyotillo.  This small, evergreen shrub with deep green, almost glossy and distinctively veined leaves produces green fruit about ½” across that ripens to a dark purple-black color.  While the sweet juicy outer pulp of the dark purple ripe coyotillo fruits might be edible, the large seeds within contain deadly neurotoxins known to have poisoned livestock and people, tragically mostly unsuspecting children.  To learn more read www.texasbeyondhistory.net/ethnobot/images/coyotillo.html.

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Ripe (but still lethal) Eagle Nest Canyon coyotillo berries in early February.

The other berried bush growing in the same area is condalia, a spiny evergreen bush that produces abundant crops of small purple-black fruits readily eaten by wildlife and humans.  Its berries are half the size of coyotillo fruits, and most of them weren’t ripe, but the dark purple almost black ones were surprisingly juicy and tasty.  In fact, birds and other critters had stripped most bushes bare. To learn more read www.texasbeyondhistory.net/st-plains/nature/images/condalia.html. Condalia fruit couldn’t have been harvested in sufficient quantities in the winter for much sustenance for native peoples, but they would have been a quite welcome dietary supplement.  Edible fruit in the winter canyon, who knew?

Back to Horse Trail Shelter.  After we stopped to talk berries, we took a look at several limestone boulders which fell off the cliff many centuries ago.  Long ago native plant processors turned these flat-topped boulders into amazing workstations for grinding, pounding, pulverizing and otherwise processing plant foods, especially seeds, nuts, and beans.  The boulders are covered by unnatural depressions often called “bedrock mortars.”  The tops of these particular boulders had been freshly exposed and cleaned up picture pretty by Texas State graduate student Amanda Castañeda last month during her winter break between semesters. 

3D Model of a boulder with several grinding features in Horse Trail Shelter.

3D Model of a boulder with several grinding features in Horse Trail Shelter.

Amanda is taking on the topic of bedrock features for her Master’s thesis research.  She spent several days working at the site to help develop her documentation methods.  As her photo shows, the bedrock ‘grinding’ features come in different sizes and shapes, some being obvious deep mortars but others include shallow cupules that might have served to hold nuts for cracking?  How does one tell what was being processed in which kind of hole?  Amanda hopes to figure this out through a combination of a comparative study of ethnographic accounts, and thorough documentation of ‘bedrock mortar’ sites in different settings including measuring hole morphology, looking at wear patterns in the best preserved holes, and maybe even getting a residue expert involved.  But that is a story we hope she will tell as her research progresses.

In winter the canyon walls protect the plants a bit better than those in the nearby uplands. Even so most plants are brown and leafless, although others like the berry plants are still green as are the mountain laurels.  Most winter days the birds are not as active as they are during other parts of the year, but on warm calm days the ravens, wrens and others make themselves known.  On a recent afternoon Steve hiked back down into the canyon after the dig day was over and enjoyed the solitude, soaking up the winter sun, listening to the birds, and watching for movement.  You can see the topography better sans leaves, and the sounds seem to carry farther on calm, crisp days. 

Some winter days are less enjoyable.  Two weeks ago we experienced three overcast and windy days in a row that did not get above the low 40s.  No matter how many layers you have on, after hours of cold wind swirling up the canyon and down your neck, clutching cold metal tools, and kneeling in one spot for too long, winter sinks into your bones.  You even catch yourself thinking fondly of a hot summer day. Happily the bone-cold days aren’t constant and most afternoons are quite tolerable. 

We do find ourselves repeating the observations and speculations each generation of Lower Pecos archaeologists has made about rockshelter orientation.  Eagle Cave gets early morning sun, but by noon it is back in the shadows, and the rockshelter (being wider than it is deep, it really isn’t a cave) seems to catch the wind no matter which direction it is blowing from.  Skiles Shelter, on the other hand, is in full sun from late morning onward – we have to use shade tarps and are down to t-shirts on many afternoons when elsewhere in the canyon requires additional layers.  These experiences lead us to speculate – “this shelter must have been a winter favorite,” or “no way they would have lived here in the winter” and so on.  But how do you actually find hard evidence of seasonality when sometimes even the warm weather indicators are ripe and harvestable in the winter?

For us, the 2014 winter in the canyon is a lifetime experience we will likely tell glowing stories about for the rest of our careers.   Then again, at day’s end we go back to camp and enjoy a hot shower, a good meal, and a warm bed.   Those who spent the winter of 2014 B.C. here might not have been quite so enthused.