2017 ENC Expedition: The Final Chapter

By Charles Koenig

Five years ago this past January, Steve and his graduate students Dan Rodriguez and Matt Basham launched the ASWT investigations within Eagle Nest Canyon. At the time Steve was helping Dan and Matt plan their thesis research, and Steve and Carolyn Boyd were just beginning to discuss having a joint dirt and rock art archaeological field school. Looking back it is hard to conceptualize, but that short 10-day trip in January 2013 launched arguably the most locally-intensive archaeological study ever conducted within the Lower Pecos Canyonlands.

Since 2013, ASWT has carried out signficant excavations at Skiles Shelter, Kelley Cave, Horse Trail Shelter, Eagle Cave,  and Sayles Adobe, as well as smaller scale testing at 41VV890 and Lonestar Bridge. Each one of these sites has yielded an incredible amount of archaeological data, and we are slowly beginning the long process of analysis and publication. We have wrapped up our work at all but Eagle Cave and Sayles Adobe and this season (2017) marks the final chapter of ASWT field work in Eagle Nest Canyon. (Not really, ASWT will be helping Texas State’s newest archaeology professor, Dr. David Kilby, get to a running start in Bonfire Shelter this summer…but that is for another blog post.)

Backfill or Bust

When we were planning for the ENC work, we established three overarching and ambitious research goals that we would strive to meet over the span of our research. These goals are: 1) understand the natural and cultural history of the canyon; 2) share what we learn with the professional archaeological community and the general public; and 3) preserve the sites and archaeological records for future generations. We are well on our way to accomplishing point one, and as field work wraps up we will continue to learn more about the natural and cultural history of the canyon. For point two, over the past five years we have given dozens of talks at local and regional archaeological meetings; we keep our work (mostly) current on social media; and we already have several theses and publications written about ENC with more on the way. The third point is in some ways the most difficult to achieve, and is one we are spending most of our time pursuing during the 2017 field season.

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A crew member dumps excavated sediment back into a unit in Skiles Shelter.

In order to preserve the sites for future generations, after excavations are complete we stabilize and backfill our units. Backfilling prevents damage that would occur from natural forces (erosion, plants, and animals) and visitors to the sites. At most of the sites our backfilling task is made “easier” by virtue of simply putting the stockpiled fill (i.e., backdirt) we excavated and screened back into the holes. At Sayles Adobe, for instance, once Tori finishes her final sampling in a few weeks we can easily move the piles of screened dirt back into the open excavation units. However, unlike the rest of  the sites, there is no “easy” backfilling at Eagle Cave.

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Steve Black cleans up wall-fall at Sayles Adobe. The massive pile of sediment in the background is the excavated sediment Tori will be able to use to backfill Sayles Adobe.

As we have discussed in several other blog posts, the main trench in Eagle Cave was not backfilled by the Witte Museum in the 1930’s or by the University of Texas in the 1960’s. Since the 1960’s, the once vertical profiles within Eagle Cave slumped and collapsed into a massive depression (see Where Context is Crucial), destroying all intact deposits immediately surrounding the trench. Further, both the Witte and UT archaeologists screened their excavated dirt out near the dripline, and now nearly all of the sediment they removed has been lost down the talus slope. In other words, past Eagle Cave archaeologists left us a massive hole in the center of Eagle Cave without the backdirt to fill it back in.

Witte to UT to 2003

The trench as excavated by the Witte Museum (left) was about 6 feet wide. When the University of Texas Amistad Salvage Project cleaned out the trench in 1963 (center) it was somewhat wider. Fifty years later the once vertical excavation walls had collapsed into a massive depression (right, circa 2003). Yellow arrows point to a unique spall.

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The Eagle trench towards the end of ASWT work (Fall 2016). The same spall is visible on the rear wall  that is pointed out in the above Witte and UT photographs.

Reinforcements Arrive: Eagle Cave Restoration Archaeologists

Prior to the start of the 2017 field season, we were fortunate to apply for and receive a Texas Preservation Trust Fund Grant from the Texas Historical Commission. We applied for this grant as a way to help fund the backfilling efforts at Eagle Cave. As a part of the grant, we had to calculate how much fill was missing from the main trench prior to the start of ASWT excavations in 2014. Based on our calculations, we estimated nearly 225 cubic yards of fill needed to be imported into the site just to re-fill the old Witte-UT trench. 225 cubic yards is nearly 20 dump trucks! This 225 cubic yards is in addition to our own excavated fill from Eagle that we needed to put back. We knew we had to move a lot of dirt, and we knew we needed help.

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Amanda Castañeda

We were fortunate to once again be jointed by ASWT veteran Amanda Castañeda. Amanda completed her Master’s thesis research on bedrock features in the Lower Pecos (see Mortar She Wrote), and was with us for the entire 2016 field season. We also posted job opportunities for two “Restoration Archaeologists,” whose main duty would be helping to move 225 cubic yards of fill into Eagle Cave. We are very pleased to be joined in the field this spring by Juan “Kiko” Morlock and Michelle Poteet.

Kiko Morlock

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Juan “Kiko” Morlock

Hey there! Juan Diego Morlock here, but y’all can call me Kiko! I spent my childhood roaming the wilds of Big Bend National Park and Far West Texas. After graduating high school, I worked for the National Park Service as a Wildland Firefighter and Fire Ecologist, as well as an Archaeology Intern at the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross State University. I graduated with my B.S. in Anthropology from Texas State University in May of 2015, and continued working for the CBBS and NPS for a while. When the opportunity arose to work with the 2017 Eagle Nest Canyon Expedition, I jumped at the chance. I had fallen in love with the Lower Pecos Canyonlands after several childhood canoe trips on the Devils and Pecos rivers. I knew it would be an adventure steeped in the rich archaeological history of the LPC as well as a means to improve my abilities and knowledge of the technology and techniques used in my field. I’m excited to expand my archaeological horizons as a Rockshelter Restoration Archaeologist with the 2017 Expedition!

Michelle Poteet

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Michelle Poteet

Hello everybody. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, but I have roamed around quite a bit throughout my lifetime. I even spent several years studying in Japan before I came back to my home state to pursue my higher education. At the University of Oklahoma I earned my B.A in Anthropology while focusing on archaeology and paleoethnobotany. For more hands-on experience I worked at the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey for three years as well as both volunteered and worked on field projects in the state.

A beautiful new environment, high levels of preservation, use of new technologies, and the chance to work on a preservation project much larger in scale than anything I had yet to take on are what drew me to the 2017 Eagle Nest Expedition. Getting to join in on an archaeological field academy and hiking and bouldering in such a scenic area on a daily basis have been an unexpected bonus. I look forward to the rest of the project, logistical challenges and all!

Eagle Cave 2017: Where We Stand

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The 2017 ENC Core Crew

During the first four weeks of the 2017 season the crew carried out last minute sampling within Eagle Cave, focusing predominantly on collecting matrix samples for archaeoentomology (bugs) samples (see Archaeoentomology?). Once we finished collecting our final few samples (including helping Charles Frederick collect nighttime OSL samples), it was time to begin the Eagle Cave Refill Challenge. We began backfilling operations last week, and have thus far moved about 1/6 of the imported fill (7 dump trucks worth). While the previous sentence sounds simple enough, we have been on a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, complex logistical problems, and hard labor.

We are excited to share our backfilling adventure with you this spring, stay tuned for more blog posts detailing the backfilling operation.  You can follow the action on the ASWT  Facebook page.