Prehistory Research Project Internship: Discovery of North America’s Past
The internship began in the spring semester of 2015 with the Prehistory Research Project located at the Gault School of Archaeological Research at Texas State University. My responsibilities included the daily organization and archaeological curation of artifacts as directed by the lab manager and project director. Most of the work centered upon burnt rock ovens from the Gault site, while lectures and workshops provided additional information about Paleo-Indian lifestyles in the region. The curation of artifacts throughout the internship culminated in a 3-D graphic modeling of the different layers associated with the burnt rock oven, surrounding features and the artifacts recovered from them. For the purposes of this paper I will cover the following sections related to this internship:
- The Gault School of Archaeological Research
- Burn Rock Oven Feature
- Archaeological Curation
- 3-D Geographic Modeling
- Lectures and Workshops
The Gault School of Archaeological Research
The Gault School was created to manage property in the Bell and Williamson Counties of Texas where the Gault archaeological site is located. They conduct various archaeological excavations and research on the site, along with curation of artifacts found there. Gault provides a number of educational activities to foster public interest, such as flint knapping demonstrations and lectures on pre-historic technology and culture in Texas. The research conducted at this site has been crucial in confirming some of the earliest dates of human arrival in Texas and has yielded greater insight into the lives of the first people to live here (http://www.gaultschool.org/AboutUs/AboutGSAR.aspx).
The Gault site contains deposits of Clovis aged material and has since been inhabited by other Native American cultures. It is located approximately between Fort Hood and Georgetown, Texas near the small spring-fed Buttermilk Creek that drew early humans (Carlson, 2011). In 1929, James E. Pearce conducted the first professional archaeological excavation at Gault. Pearce, a professor at the University of Texas, was the first professional archaeologist of Texas. He focused on the most obvious features at Gault; specifically the massive fire cracked rock midden created by Paleo-Indians. Pay-to-dig excavations would continue for more than 60 years until Clovis lithic technology was confirmed (http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/gault/).
Recent discoveries have identified that the lowest level of strata associated with human activity dates back over B.P. 13,000, making it one of the earliest sites associated with human activity in North America. Gault was used as a quarry for stone tools, workshops, and campsites. This location has provided a clearer look at the lithic technology and lives of the Clovis people and subsequent inhabitants. Projectile points from this time have been found at virtually every stage of production, providing better insight to their creation. The first person to call attention to Clovis technology was archaeologist, David Olmstead. Soon after, Dr. Michael Collins began to conduct small test excavations which eventually confirmed Clovis artifacts at the site (Carlson, 2011). Research conducted at Gault shows that Clovis people became a more sedentary group of hunters and gathers that relied on plants and small animals. There has been some speculation about whether a pre-Clovis culture inhabited Gault, although no direct evidence has been published as of yet (http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/gault/).
Burnt Rock Oven Feature
The F-10 18 Feature, which is a burnt rock oven, is an archaic, post-Clovis layer (B.P. 9,000- B.P. 4,000) found at the Gault archaeological site. A common feature found throughout Gault are the numerous fire-cracked rock deposits associated with rock ovens located there. These rock ovens, also known as earth ovens, are a way of cooking food below the ground. This cooking process makes normally inedible plant material tender and provides a rich source of carbohydrates (Ames, 1998).
The Archaic period saw a shift in subsistence strategy used by early Native Americans due to the developing sedentary life style. The rise in rock ovens during the Archaic period seems to correspond with reduced bison hunting. Native Americans were taking advantage of their environment and looking to plants around them. A variety of plants were prepared in rock ovens; the most common of which were xerophytic plants, such as sotol. Most evidence for the food cooked in rock ovens comes from dryer locations in West Central Texas due to the poor archaeological preservation of organic material at Gault. Though the Archaic period clearly depicts a rise in the consumption of plant material, evidence of plant processing tools have been found in Clovis layers at Gault showing Paleo-Indians were already exploring other subsistence methods (Barrett, 2007).
Construction of the oven is accomplished by digging a hole, filling it with kindling and firewood, then starting a fire. Rocks are placed on the fire around the bottom and sides of the pit. A bedding of plant material is placed on top of the rocks along with the food and then a final layer of fresh plant material is used to cover it. There are a few instances where fires were burned on top of the final layer as well as below to insure the food was fully cooked. Once the food finished cooking, the cracked rocks were removed from the pit and discarded in neighboring areas (Ames, 1998).
The staff provided instructions on how to clean artifacts. Typically, lithics were washable, whereas faunal material was not. Lithics and stones are washed with a toothbrush, and the small flakes are rinsed in a strainer and a bowl. Redundant objects such as the large fire-cracked rock debitage are set aside with soil samples. After washing, the artifacts are placed on 1/8 inch screens, covered with newspaper and left to air dry. The material mostly consists of burnt rocks, bifaces, and flakes. I was able to find and identify a few artifacts within the soil clumps attached to the larger rocks. Eventually, the artifacts are placed on racks for later research.
The importance of curation in archaeological research is an important element that is often overlooked. The safeguarding of artifacts and their associated records is vital for preserving their provenience; which in archaeology specifically infers an exact location within an archaeological site. The provenience of the artifact must remain with it throughout the curation process; this allows further archaeological research and the preservation of the artifact’s heritage (Childs, 2003).
I was assigned to help with the curation of the remaining archaeological materials that had not been processed. Gault staff provided instruction on how to collect cultural material such as lithic tools, the parent material and any debitage. Ecofacts, which are the naturally occurring items associated with human activity, were also collected. Due to the age and the low pH, little plant material was found in the soil at the Gault site. The materials were grouped together based on the type, then set aside for bagging and tagging. Non-cultural materials, such as rocks, soil, and non-contemporaneous items, found among remains on the 1/8 inch screen were placed aside to be discarded.
In order to identify, organize, and keep track of the provenance of archaeological artifacts they would be labeled and/or given an information tag with corresponding information. Objects that could have labels placed directly on them, such as the lithics, would be labeled on a location that had no diagnostic purpose or on the less “photogenic” side. Waterproof ink was used to write the object ID and Gault’s ID number on the item. A layer of 10% B72 adhesive was applied over the ink and left the dry for 10 minutes to perceive the label. A paper tag with the object ID, number of items, type, description, name of the person that found the items and date found was filled out for each bag. A paper item inventory sheet was filled out with the same information and put in corresponding bags, which were subsequently placed in a container and later stored in the repository to ensure their safety.
3-D Geographic Modeling
The internship culminated in the construction of a 3-D model of the burnt rock oven pits, as well as artifacts found there. I worked with another student using Arcscene software, part of the ArcGIS 3-D Analyst extension, to construct a multi-layered 3-D model of the area encompassing the rock ovens. This software is an amazing tool for archaeology that provides a clear visual of archaeological sites for researchers.
A collection of field notes, inventory sheets, drawings, and pictures were gathered to get a visual layout of the ovens and associated artifacts. Potential rock fire pits were assigned a center point in the program based on the northing, easting and elevation of the rocks. The size, shape, and angles were adjusted to represent the features and location better. Artifacts, such as lithics and magnetic core samples, were laid within their respected layers at the site. Layout patterns of the artifacts can explain if flint was knapped near the fire pits or other possible reasons for their association. Magnetic cores mapped out around the pit can show the use, location, and heat levels of the stone by examining the magnetic alignment of particles due to heating and cooling (Thoms, 2009).
Lectures and Workshops
Some of the most educational aspects of the internship were the lectures and flint knapping classes that Gault School conducted at their lab. Understanding flint knapping provides insight regarding what techniques prehistoric humans used to produce these tools. This can provide insight as to whether the tool was formed for daily use or for aesthetically pleasing traits (Kooyman, 2000). Flint knapping experts demonstrated how to reduce flint into biface preforms by envisioning the final product they were attempting to create and choosing the best rock to work. Rock hammers were used to knock off sections of the stone cortex until the rock is reduced down to the general shape of a biface. Eventually, precise hammering with an antler removes the smaller flakes and allows for finer removal of the edges to form the blade of the point.
Dr. Collins conducted a presentation on the lithic technology that the Clovis people used focusing on Clovis blades and projectile points. He allowed us to examine authentic Clovis tools and replications, as well as their parent materials used to construct them. He presented the finer points of Clovis projectiles, such as their material, style and creation. Dr. Collins also described how Clovis blades were formed by knocking off a convex piece of stone from a core. He provided examples of variations within Clovis technology, explaining that the smaller Clovis points and blades found further away from quarries had been retouched many times and subsequently reduced in size.
Having the opportunity to work with the Prehistoric Research Project was a profound educational experience. The internship provided a wealth of information from a very helpful and knowledgeable staff. The work conducted there is important in understanding the history of Texas and the peopling of the Americas. The internship projects offered a rare opportunity for better understanding of archaeological artifacts, the curation process and using ArcGIS software. The skills and knowledge I have received will be invaluable to me in my future work in fields such as cultural and natural resource management.
Ames, Kenneth M. and Gibbon, Guy E. 1998. Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America: An Encyclopedia. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Barrett, Glynn, Dingwall, Lucie, Gaffney, Vincent L. 2007. Heritage Management at Fort Hood, Texas: Experiments in Historic Landscape Characterisation, Volume 1. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Carlson, David L., Jennings, Thomas A., Pevny, Charlotte D., Waters, Michael R. 2011. Clovis Lithic Technology: Investigation of a Stratified Workshop at the Gault Site, Texas. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
Childs, Terry S. and Sullivan, Lynne P. 2003. Curating Archaeological Collections: From the Field to the Repository. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Kooyman, Brian Patrick. 2000. Understanding Stone Tools and Archaeological Sites. Calgary: UNM Press.
Thoms, Alston V. (2009). Rocks of Ages: Propagation of Hot-rock Cookery in Western North America. Journal of Archaeological Science 36: 573–591.