Internship at Central Texas Archaeological Resources: Excavation of La Pila
My internship for Central Texas Archaeological Resources took place during the summer of 2017. The project site is called “La Pila,” which means “The Basin” or “The Fountain,” and is in Waco, Texas. I spent nearly all my time with CTAR owner Mrs. Katherine Turner-Pearson, MA, a registered professional archaeologist, and one of her colleagues Mrs. Karen Jordan, MA, RPA. The objective of this project was to use archaeology to uncover the historical and cultural value that La Pila has to offer. As described below, my activities for this project, included, among other things, excavating the fountain, sorting discovered artifacts, and researching unique objects. I will also discuss archaeological terms and techniques I learned in the field.
The remains of La Pila are located on the Indian Springs Middle School property next to the Brazos River. The fountain, in its prime, served as a community gathering spot where neighbors could go hang out after church. Most of the people that lived in the town did not have indoor plumbing at the time, so it also served as a spot where children could play or bathe in the water. According to former residents, the spring-fed fountain dried up around 1950, and became unsightly. Shortly after, the fountain was capped and buried. The ultimate goal of both the Waco Hispanic Museum and Central Texas Archaeological Resources is to restore this historic fountain that was destroyed during Waco’s urban renewal project in the mid-1900s, and to obtain a state historical marker for the site. During urban renewal, the city redesigned much of the town’s layout, and a section of the fountain was destroyed to make room for the extended road and sidewalk. The origin of the fountain remains somewhat mysterious, as the only clues we have are limited historical records and oral histories collected from people who came to visit the site.
Our excavation team consisted of approximately ten people. All lab work was done by Mrs. Turner-Pearson, her colleague, and myself. Mrs. Jordan was on the site daily, overseeing the excavation. Mr. Louis Garcia, president of the Waco Hispanic Museum, was a volunteer on the site and generously provided my housing during the excavation portion of my internship. This excavation was funded by a grant from Baylor University’s Philanthropy and Public Service program.
Overview of Duties
My role at Central Texas Archaeological Resources was to assist with the excavation, artifact processing, and research portions of the project.
Unit Documentation and Sketching
Each of these square blocks of dirt is called a unit (see Figure 1, below). Mrs. Jordan showed me how to use a line level to draw a profile of a unit. I used grid paper to ensure everything was drawn to scale, and included a key to show what the different objects were. Archaeologists use profile drawings for a variety of reasons, one being that it is an easy way to see different soil stratigraphy. Stratigraphy, or layers, of the soil at La Pila was not entirely significant, so I only drew one profile for one unit.
The fountain was covered in a grid pattern in a system of strings and nails that rested a few inches above the surface. The strings were laid out a year before I arrived, and vegetation had grown over some of the strings since then. Each southwest corner nail had a piece of flagging tape tied to it that stated the North and East orientation (e.g. N11 E2).
Before starting work on new units, we filled out paperwork for that unit. The information that went on the unit forms consisted of the obvious labels such as project site name, date, and unit number, as well as more detailed data like artifact types, level, soil composition, and depth. I also made a sketch of what the unit looked like from above, and made all my drawings to scale.
We started excavations of the fountain from its northeast side (see Figure 2, below). This side was almost fully destroyed because of Waco’s urban renewal; the outer rim was severely damaged and had rebar sticking out of the concrete in all directions. That area is the place where our excavations began.
Our digging and screening team consisted of around ten people, some of whom were volunteers and others were paid workers. Minor excavations of the top of the fountain’s outer rim began about a year prior, but the serious digging began the week I arrived. During the digging phase, our daily schedules ran from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. I brought some tools, such as a small shovel, but most of the tools I used were provided by Mrs. Turner-Pearson. I used a trowel, hoe, and a sharp-shooter shovel to excavate the fountain. I also used other types of tools, such as a line level and measuring tape, to determine statistics about each unit.
The people who were digging shoveled dirt into buckets which we took to the screening station to be separated. We had set up three screening stations about 30 feet from the site. Each station had three poles with a sifting box hanging from chains. We used quarter-inch screens, as we didn’t expect to find artifacts smaller than that. Water screening was not allowed on the site for logistical reasons, so we only used dry screens in the field. The dry screens became a problem near the end of excavations, when inclement weather turned the dirt into mud, making screening nearly impossible. As a result, we used water screening during the lab portion of my internship.
It was one of my tasks to excavate some of the units where a thin layer of dirt hid the outer rim of the fountain. One of our immediate goals was to completely uncover the outer rim so that we could see the entire size of it, and take pictures to document our progress (see Figure 3, below). After the top of the fountain was fully excavated, it needed to be photo documented. Mrs. Jordan and I used a small whiteboard to display each unit’s location along with the site name so that each unit would be recognizable. I learned that using a whiteboard is advantageous when documenting things in the field. After labeling the whiteboard and taking the picture, one can go onto a computer and easily Photoshop out any mistakes on the white background, or add information manually if necessary.
The lab portion of my internship consisted of artifact processing, water screening, and properly storing the artifacts. All lab work was done at Mrs. Turner-Pearson’s house as we did not have an official lab for our project. Figure 4 (right) shows our lab setup in Mrs. Turner-Pearson’s home. We used a toothbrush and a few paintbrushes to clean artifacts. I also used a small magnifying glass to see details better on smaller artifacts.
In the lab, I emptied the boxes onto the table and began sorting artifacts by type (bone, metal, glass, and unique). After each box was sorted, I labeled the new bags and put labeled flagging tape in each bag. We did this because sometimes the ink on the bags gets smudged during handling, so there needs to be a secondary identifier for each bag. I left most of the Ziploc bags open because I learned that bone or metal would be destroyed if it was sealed due to the moisture from a fresh excavation. Each artifact bag also had an “FS” number, or a catalogue number. We kept records of each special artifact we found, and gave it a unique number to be easily identifiable.
Water screening, which consists of running water and a regular screening station, is used to separate clumps of dirt from artifacts. This portion of the internship consisted of water screening the muddy buckets from my last day of digging. We set up a small screening station behind Mrs. Turner-Pearson’s house, and used a water hose to blast off the dirt from the artifacts. Figure 5 (right) shows me water screening behind the house which was quite exciting, especially when you don’t know what you are going to find.
All the cleaned glass was put into our extra dry screens and left out in the sun to dry. We tilted the screens at an angle so that the water would drain better, and stirred the glass occasionally.
Research of Unearthed Artifacts
Many interesting artifacts were found during our digs. I took pictures of each unique artifact so that it could be researched later. I conducted research at Baylor’s Texas Collections department, and used Texas State’s online database to find information. There is not enough room to write about each discovery, but I will highlight some of the special artifacts we found.
One of the unique things we found was a little coin-shaped piece of metal.
I spent some time cleaning some of the corrosion off, and could make out a heart shape in the middle, and some engraved lettering around the rim. I showed the cleaned coin to Mrs. Jordan and thanks to her impressive expertise, she immediately recognized it as a Carhartt button. The Carhartt company is a family owned clothing company that started in 1889, and is still around to this day. Carhartt buttons were on everything from jackets and jeans to overalls and shirts. Clothing from Carhartt was in high demand during that time, as railroad workers needed clothing that was both durable and fire resistant. (Carhartt 2017).
Figure 6 (above) shows what the button looked like after I cleaned it. Figure 7 (right) shows what the Carhartt button would have looked like in its prime.
This tiny button gives us some hints to what life might have been like in Waco a long time ago. It is interesting how one button could tell us the type of clothing people were wearing, their occupations, and other assumptions I would have never thought about.
We found a lot of Ball glassware in our excavations. One of the shards had an intact makers mark, and from that I could determine what decade the glass was made. The intact piece is shown in Figure 8 (below, left). By studying the cursive on the capital B and noting the angle of the L, I could date this artifact to 1960 – date (see figure 9, below, right). I used SHA.org’s online glassware identification resource to search for all the variants for the Ball glassware signatures. I learned that the Ball company changed their logo slightly about every ten or so years, so if one has an intact Ball makers mark, one could easily date a piece of random glass.
Cotton Bale Tag
Another one of the artifacts we found was a rounded piece of metal covered in rust and dirt. It was composed of brass, and was made up of two identical pieces joined on the right side by two rivets (see Figure 10, right). There was a hole on the left side, so I presumed it was a tab of some sort, and not a buckle. I cleaned the tiny grooves with a toothbrush, and after about ten minutes I could make out the lettering – Odell’s Marking B Check 49591 Patented Aug 31, 1869. I did some research and found out it was a tab used to track cotton bales:
“Back in the days when cotton was king, bale-switching became a serious problem. By removing or altering marks on bales of good-quality cotton which were received for shipping, storage, or processing, crooks could substitute inferior bales, and the planter would be paid the low-grade price. To prevent such chicanery, S. W. Odell … came up with the idea of a ‘metallic spring-check’ or stamped tag, … which could be attached to one of the bands around the bale in such a way that it could not be ‘accidentally’ lost or removed. Since the tags were individually numbered and letter-coded, switching was virtually impossible. Odell was granted a patent for the system in 1869.” (Parker 2005).
Our excavation team found numerous other artifacts that have yet to be researched. I find it fascinating that such little objects tell a big story.
My internship experience was everything I was looking for. Going into it, I thought my favorite part would be the digging and discovery of artifacts in their raw form. Halfway into excavations, I thought that screening was the best part of the job, because of all the curious stuff I was finding when the dirt separated. During lab work, I changed my mind again, and thought that the cleaning and researching of artifacts was the best part yet, as I had found even more interesting items completely hidden under a thin layer of dirt. It seemed as if each part of the internship was better than the last. I talked to a few people who were passing by the site while we were working, and some of them stopped to share stories of how they used to play in the fountain when they were kids, a rekindle of memories. The La Pila project means a lot to the community in Waco, and the people want to see the fountain restored to its former glory. Restoration might be far down the road, but that doesn’t prevent people from stopping by and checking on its progress. It is hard to say which part of my internship I liked best, because I had a lot of fun in each part of the job. I learned way more than I was expecting to, and I highly recommend an experience such as this to any student who wishes to pursue a career in archaeology.
Carhartt Fastenings. 2013. Form Follows Function: Photo. https://formfollowsfunctionjournal.tumblr.com/image/41232663272. Accessed August 8, 2017.
Carhartt History. 2017. Carhartt History. https://www.carhartt.com/content/content-125-history?cid=PRODUCT-DIFFERENCE-CONTENT-CarharttHistory-20131007-ALLVisitors-clp_m_carhartthistory_0914. Accessed August 8, 2017.
Lockhart, Bill, Beau Schriever, Carol Serr, and Bill Lindsey. Ball Brothers Glass Mfg. Co. Society for Historical Archaeology. https://sha.org/bottle/pdffiles/BallBros.pdf. Accessed August 8, 2017.
Parker, Mark. 2005. Out On Bale. Western & Eastern Treasures Magazine. http://archive.wetreasures.com/askmarkparker/200508.htm. Accessed August 8, 2017.