Archaeology Curation History and Heritage Research

Alex Artuz, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park


Over the past 9 month,s I have held an internship position as an archaeological aid at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. I participated in many aspects of the archaeological process, from field work to lab work, in addition to dealing with long term-curation issues. This paper will provide a brief history of the San Antonio Missions, the role Anthropology plays within the National Park Service (NPS) to preserve our cultural and historical resources, my tasks within the NPS, and how I applied my skills to help accomplish this task. Additionally, one of the many tasks I performed during my stay with the NPS was the animal bone analysis (faunal analysis). Finally, I will describe the process of a properly executed faunal analysis which constituted a majority of my work.

History of the San Antonio Missions:

From 1718 to 1731, the Spanish set out on an expedition to establish “missions” for the indigenous people to accept their protection, should they announce their conversion as Spanish subjects and take on Spain’s religion of Catholicism. During this 18th century expedition, a total of five missions were established: Mission San Antonio de Valero (The Alamo), Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisma Concepción de Acuña, Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission San Francisco de la Espada. These missions were meant to be self-sufficient and, in 1823, they were completely secularized. What was left behind was a blend of the Spanish and original native culture. Today, the missions have been preserved and/or reconstructed, giving a glimpse into the past and the culture that still flourishes today, with the help of the national park service, including the archaeologist (

The tasks of an Archaeological Aid in the National Park Service:

I was hired on as an archaeological aid pathways intern (the Pathways program makes me hirable once my internship is finished). In my position, I had many varying tasks that prompted me to be a self-sufficient worker. I needed to be able to prioritize my work, plan my day-to-day goals, and meet deadlines. After a few months, the archaeologist I worked for had taken a Park Service detail, leaving me to take on a large amount of responsibility.

The San Antonio NHP is an ever-evolving area; this makes things complicated when any digging needs to be done. The subsurface of the mission area is rich with cultural resources, and any disturbance to the soil without proper care creates a loss in history. When a trench needed to be dug to place electrical wire down by Mission Espada, an archaeologist needed to be present in case any of those archaeological resources were uncovered. It was my task to monitor these activities. I needed to pay close attention to detail, and make decisions on whether or not something uncovered was worth stopping the work or just enough to bag and tag. I kept daily notes of the date, time, and weather, as well as the actions being done, sketches of the site, and whoever entered and left the area. During the trenching, bones started to come up with the soil; looking at them, I would be able to determine if they were animal bones, and then, simply, marked the provenience and collected them. Another instance in which I had to make a decision on my own was when a boot sole was found within the trench being dug. I instructed the crew to continue the work by hand in case smaller objects needed to be recovered, and I again marked the provenience and collected the object. The only reason in which I would have needed to stop the work was if any pre-colonial pot sherds (which could indicate grave goods near a human burial) were uncovered. This task alone taught me how to quickly make decisions when others are looking to me for guidance.

The NPS needs to properly curate any material that has been recovered. Whenever I had spare time, I cataloged as many artifact work sheets into Rediscovery ICMS (a computer system that digitally stores all of the information and is nationally backed up along with other National Park collections). A catalog sheet is made for each artifact, noting the object name, the material it’s made of, provenience, size, weight, etc. Entering as many catalog sheets in as I could, ultimately helps to keep things as up to date as possible. I fixed many issues that needed attention in the databank. I took care of duplicate records, cleaned up location names, and standardized an object name list.

The amount of data I helped clean up in ICMS left a better system to work with. San Antonio NHP houses most of their artifacts at University of Texas San Antonio’s Center for Archaeological Research (UTSA CAR). They were in the process of getting a new curator for their facility, and wanted to start using ICMS to make things between the two entities less complicated; and giving them a copy to work with only helped the transition.

An artifact or historical document was always being brought to the NPS, either donated or found. When something new came in that fell within our scope, I needed to accession it, and assign it an accession number. To do this, I needed to log the object and give it the next number on the list in the accession book, then I would enter in the new accession into ICMS, and print off a Dead of Gift (a statement giving ownership to the NPS). I would then have the Dead of Gift signed or mailed out after that.

Another goal of the park is public outreach because, “one of the key ways by which anthropology can survive and thrive in the near future will be to win the interest, respect, and support of a broad public audience” (Haas 1999 pg 54). I helped organize and set up two events geared towards children and the general public, Archaeology Day and History and Genealogy Day. Both of these events required organizational abilities, management skills, and the ability to work with others to get everything ready in time. Archaeology Day was an multi-interactive event. Kids were able to partake in atlatl throwing, shooting a bow and arrow, field surveying, painting wall art, watching a flint knapper work, etc. History and Genealogy Day was one in which descendants of the indigenous people told their family history to the visiting children.

Faunal Analysis project

The faunal remains I will discuss in the remainder of this paper come from accession 498; a project in which six plots were dug just outside of the walls of Mission San Juan to rebury human remains that were unearthed during earlier excavations within the site. Due to the highly fragmented nature of the assemblage, it was surmised that the area was used as a trash pit in the late 1700’s through the early 1800’s.

The study of animals in an archaeological context is called Zooarchaeology. This study helps gain a better understanding of past humans and their interactions within the environment (Reitz & Wing 2001). Analyzing a faunal assemblage can help better understand a range of research questions. Based on the bone assemblage, the diet can be deduced, which leads to a better nutritional understanding. Were these animals domesticated or hunted? What were their migration patterns? Did the people follow these patterns or just hunt seasonally? How did they prepare their meals, and what were the butchering methods? Did they feel the need to eat the bone marrow for extra nutrients? Did they use bone for tools or décor? What kinds of pests were present? All these questions and more could potentially be answered with a properly done analysis (Reitz & Wing 2001).

According to the manual on Identifying and Interpreting Animal Bones, being too precise may not be too accurate, while being more reserved may be more accurate, but not precise (besaw 1980). I learned that the idea is to identify each bone element down to the lowest taxonomic level. If I came across an element that could not be distinguished from cow or bison, then I just labeled it as Bovinae. Reducing any further without certainty will likely be considered guess work. I know that my skill level will increase as experience increases, and that to have accurate results I cannot be too overconfident. Should a future researcher want to use a sample that has been analyzed, they can always improve the work, but having to redo an analysis due to incorrect identifications is not helpful to either party.

When beginning, the bones were already kept organized by provenience (the location in which they were found). I needed to maintain this separation throughout, because the loss or confusion of provenience leads to highly inaccurate results. One provenience at a time, I laid out the bones, looking for highly identifiable pieces and placed those to the side, then looking for bones that, with more research, could be identified and placed those to another side. In addition, I also looked for bones that had “clean breaks”, fragments that show a distinct color change, indicating a recent brake during excavation, which could possibly be pieced together with water soluble glue (Beisaw 2013). I needed to really look at the detail of the breaks, because a break other than from excavation can change research results. For example, if someone was researching taphonomy or butcher methods, they would get inaccurate results if bones have been pieced together that should not have been.

References, references, references! I made sure to cite my references. There are many animal bone atlases out there that are helpful in identification, which I used for my internship project in addition to a reference collection. A reference collection is an already known and organized set of animal bones. UTSA CAR houses a large collection on identified mammals, which is open to researchers like myself to aid in bone identification. Using that collection, I realized that looking at the photos in an atlas can help narrow down the search, but cannot replace the physical side-by-side comparison of a bone.

At that point, I began taking photos and collecting biometric data (weight and measurements taken on each element). I made notes of any evidence of a juvenile, pathology, root etching, cut bone, worked bone, burned bone, gnawed bone, and any other informational evidence. This data, as well as the identification, was then compiled into a dataset.

The data and photos I collected can then help further solidify the understanding of the past mission life. This study, in addition to previous studies, can open the gates to the past, informing us what the mission people ate, how they ate, and when they ate. It can let us know how many animal types were present during a season by calculating a MNI (minimum number of individuals) from the remains. Once compiled, data could indicate if there was a status system, perhaps by a difference in the amount or type of food outside priest vs native dwellings.

Once all of this work has been completed, a faunal analysis report is written up. The data that I collected for my faunal analysis project is key to this report. My next task is to write this report myself. In it, I will summarize the steps taken in the analysis, as well as the data I gathered, and then draw conclusions from the data, or, at least, point to future study questions that seem most obvious with the given data.

Working on a faunal analysis for the first time had its learning curve; it took me a long time to understand the most productive way of working. Once I finish a proper analysis, it will help answer previously held questions about a past set of peoples, or open up new routes of study.


Throughout my time at the National Park Service, I realized that in order to be a good archaeologist, you must also have an understanding of the curational aspects involved with any type of dig. My internship taught me organizational skills and how to apply them to my career. During this job, I was able to use independent studies to create my own faunal analysis, which was a huge accomplishment and teaching experience. Since my internship has come to an end, I have decided to continue my stay at the NPS to continue learning and possibly doing more independent research with the goal of getting published. Overall, the internship was a great learning experience and enhanced my passion for the field of archaeology.


Beisaw, April M. A Manual: Identifying And Interpreting Animal Bones College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2013. Print.

Haas, Johnathan. Anthropology in the Contemporary Museum: Field Museum, 1999. NPA Bulletin 20.

Reitz, Elizabeth J.& Wing, Elizabeth S. Zooarchaeology Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

San Antonio Missions History. (2012). Retrieved April 25, 2015, from

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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