Annette , San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Annette Profile internship main pic

During the summer of 2018, I held an internship position at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The National Parks Service is an agency of the federal government that preserves and protects national parks integrity for future generations. The NPS manages four missions in San Antonio: Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada. My task was to identify and analyze the faunal remains found outside of the walls of San José.

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo was founded in 1720 by a very prominent Franciscan, Father Antonio Margil de Jesús, with the approval from the governor of Coahuila and Texas, Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo. The primary goal for this new mission was to convert the Native Americans and assimilate them into Spanish culture. In return, the Natives received protection from the Comanche and Apache. The Mission was built on the banks of the San Antonio River a few miles south of Mission San Antonio de Valero (most commonly known as The Alamo).

San José was the largest mission in the area. The community included a church, granary, gristmill, a convento housing the missionaries, living quarters for the Indians who sought refuge, a garrison for Spanish troops, and various workshops. The bastions and stones walls provided protection for the community. After Natives converted to the Catholic faith, they had to learn about their new God’s commandments and pray in Latin. In addition to learning Latin, they adapted Spanish and acknowledged their distant ruler, the King of Spain. The mission’s inhabitants also developed a new craft in the workshops. San José became a major trade center. At its height, about 350 people lived at the mission supported by the fields and the livestock. In the years leading up to its abandonment, the church saw their numbers decline due to deadly epidemics and a lack of new converts.

Therefore, the Catholic priests withdrew from San José in 1824. It briefly reopened in 1874, until the dome and the roof collapsed. When the bell tower fell in 1928, preservation became a priority for the San Antonio Conservation Society and the Federal Government. As a result, San José was reconstructed in the 1930s under the supervision of Harvey P. Smith. To this day, the mission reflects his interpretation of the compound’s original design.

Immediately upon entering Mission San José today, guests are transported into the past as they are flanked on both sides by the bastions (the hidey holes) where the Spanish soldiers would defend the mission, pass through the open gate and welcomed into the large complex. Along the path to the church and across the courtyard, housing and the kilns for the Native Americans are lined up along the stone wall. In the courtyard to the left, there are unknown structures that have been capped. They have not been excavated yet but they are believed to be workshops. Further down the path lies the friary and the convento. This is where the friars lived, housed guests, cooked, ate, and stored items. To the left of the convento it is impossible to miss the magnificent church displaying its beautiful baroque architecture. The San José church is still used today and is owned by the Archdiocese.

Directly behind the church (and outside of the walls) are the gristmill and the acequia. The water flowing through the acequia would have originally come from the San Antonio River but today comes from a pump in the gristmill. In the fields to the right is where the archeologists excavated the faunal remains that I worked with during my internship.

San José church

The San Antonio Missions will be safeguarded forever by the National Parks Department. The properties surrounding the missions are protected by or under the watchful eye of the government, because the nearby land is a vital key to the missions’ history. Preserving the sites is quite the undertaking, because historical structures need to be checked regularly for damages such as termites or cracks and repaired. When a structure requires repairs, the Parks Service consults with a specialist to carefully plan the best solution for stabilization. If any digging is involved at any of the missions, an archeologist needs to be present in case any archeological or cultural material is found—for example, if a tree is being planted. In 2010, a new sewer line was installed at San Jose and during excavation the National Parks’ archaeologists uncovered faunal remains, pieces of tile, bricks, and rocks. For each item found, it was assigned a catalog number then bagged. After the artifacts were bagged, they were stored in boxes until further examination could be made. As it would turn out, I would be the one to examine the faunal remains.

Comparing bones

Zooarchaeology is the study of animal bones. By analyzing the remains, it is possible to tell if animals were raised as livestock, domesticated as draft animals or hunted and killed. The data that comes from the remains helps us gain a better understanding of past civilizations and the environment. As an aspiring Zooarchaeologist, I paid close attention to these specifics as I did my analysis. The bones from San José presented a great collection to learn from; the bones varied greatly from complete elements to fragmentary pieces. For the remainder of my paper, I will discuss tips and tricks for making an identification and how to avoid misidentification.

A huge part of identification is repetition; the more experience with a specimen, the easier it becomes to remember. As a beginner, I believe it is very important to keep this in mind —it is not expected for a novice to know all of the answers. It will take some time to learn what each bone is. What really helped me was having helpful resources such as Mammalian Osteology (Gilbert 1990) , access to the University of Texas at San Antiono’s Center for Archaeological Research comparative collection, and a second opinion from a faunal expert.

Now that I have discussed what is needed for an identification, let’s get to my favorite part- identifying the bones! The first part is to determine which part of the skeleton it’s from. If it is a long bone, it could be from the arm or the leg. If I am given a shaft with no distal end, one way to tell the difference is a humerus has a round shaft and a thick wall. The tibia has a thinner wall and the shaft appears to be triangular in shape. It is much easier to determine between the two if the have an articular surface, the femur has a round proximal end where it attaches to the pelvis, whereas the humerus has a half circular proximal end that attaches to the scapula. The hand and toe bones appear similar in shape to long bones but are much smaller in size. Any oddly shaped bones —and I mean very odd shapes — come from the skull. Thin, blade-like bones come from the pelvis or the scapula. A good way to distinguish between vertebra is to look at the vertebral bodies, they stack up to form the spine: cervical vertebra has a small circular body, the thoracic vertebra are circular, and the lumbar are larger in size and are shaped like jellybeans.

Ribs are thin and long. If a rib is fragmented it could be mistaken for a long bone. Or you could be like me and mistake it for a mandible. While doing my analysis, I came across a piece of fragmented rib, the portion where it attaches with the thoracic vertebra and I thought the structure looked very similar to a mandible. I kept flipping madly through pages of books to find out which animals’ mandible it could be, but I was having the hardest time finding an answer. It wasn’t until I consulted with another faunal analyst that I got my answer- it was actually a rib! Faunal analysis can be intriguing but sometimes it can be difficult to make an identification out of context even though it is apparent it belongs to an articulated skeleton. This fact is this a challenge for anthropologists and archaeologists alike who are trying to build a model of how past peoples lived, based on tiny thrown away fragments of pottery or reworked stone.

They sort of look similar, right? Okay, maybe not.

Sometimes looking at a book is not enough. The pictures and illustrations within them are nice, because they can help you deduce the species. However, I cannot stress the importance of looking at comparative collection. Collections contain the bones of a known species. The more time spent familiarizing oneself with the bones, the easier it becomes to correctly identify a species. Even if a collection is not as wide or complete, it is still advantageous to peruse because it is possible to check if you have the correct element (like a rib) or can give you a hint to look for another species within the same size range. Whenever I am completely puzzled or need confirmation, I will turn to another faunal expert for their advice. After I have used all of my resources, I feel confident in making my positive identification. I learned that, in some cases it is not possible to make an accurate identification, the best approach is to refrain from claiming positive identification, so another attempt can be made later with additional expertise or techniques.
This internship has taught me a lot about faunal analysis. Now, I am better acquainted with faunal remains and confident in my abilities to make an identification. Not only did I learn about animal bones, but I learned about the career options for archeologists within the National Parks Department and the work they do. I definitely see this as a career option for me. Most importantly, I have a new appreciation for Texas’ history. I am appreciative to the National Parks Department for protecting our Nation’s history.


Gilbert, B. Miles. Mammalian Osteology. Missouri Archaeological Society, Inc., 1990.