Exploring Texas’s Past
I conducted my internship with the Texas Historical Commission’s Archaeology division in Austin, Texas. In this report I will be describing the Texas Historical Commission (THC) archaeology division and my involvement with the Lake Gilmer project, the La Belle project, and the Fort Saint Louis Project. Most importantly, I will be discussing what I learned about lithic Analysis, La Salle, and why it is important to have a positive mindset when pursuing an internship.
History and Purpose of the THC
According to the Texas Historical Commission’s website, its mission is “to protect and preserve the state’s historic and prehistoric resources for the use, education, enjoyment, and economic benefit of present and future generations” (http://www.thc.texas.gov/about). The THC is one of the government agencies charged with historic preservation in the state of Texas. The other forty-nine states have a similar organization to the THC and are collectively referred to as State Historic Preservation Offices, or SHPOs for short. These agencies (including the THC) were created through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA).
The THC is in Texas’s capital city of Austin and has several divisions consisting of Archaeology (which is the division that I worked for), Administration, Architecture, Community Heritage Development, Historic sites, History Programs, Public Information and Education, and Staff Services. The THC has several buildings that it uses for its operations, one of them being the Elrose building in Downtown Austin where each of the divisions houses their main offices (I also occasionally did some work there), and they also have an archaeological lab in East Austin, which is where I conducted the bulk of my internship.
Overview of my Duties at the THC
The main responsibility that I had at my internship was to analyze, process, and organize artifacts from the Lake Gilmer project and the Fort St. Luis project. This process involves determining an artifact’s weight, type, provenience, length, width, thickness, and stone type.
After the analysis is completed, the artifact is then processed. This is done by writing the analysis information for a specific artifact on a card and then placing the card in a plastic bag with its card. This process is then repeated with all other artifacts found at a site. Typically, analysis and processing are done simultaneously.
Usually what follows is organization. This involves taking the individually bagged artifacts and organizing them based on artifact type and the phase of excavation where the artifacts were found. For example, if a bunch of lithic flakes are found during the mitigation phase of one of the sites at the Lake Gilmer project, then the individually bagged flakes would then be placed in a larger bag that is labeled with information such as “Lake Gilmer Project, Barbers Bottom site (41UR105), lithic flakes.”
The Lake Gilmer Project
Although I worked on a number of projects, most of my time there I worked on the Lake Gilmer Project. This was a project conducted near the town of Gilmer in northeast Texas, in the piney woods region of northeast Texas. The project was conducted in 1995 and 1996:
The purpose of the project was to carry out mitigation level archaeological investigations along Kelsey Creek in Upshur County, Texas before the construction of Lake Gilmer. Excavations were carried out at seven individual sites: The Seahorn site (41UR105), the Lasco site (41UR106), the Lasco Annex site (41UR106B), the Barbers Bottom site (41UR109), the Kelsey Creek Dam site (41UR118), the Verado site (41UR129), and the Rookery Ridge site (41UR133) (Parsons et. Al. 2015).
During the excavations of the individual sites, several artifacts were uncovered ranging back to the Late Paleoindian period. Artifacts included projectile points, thousands of lithic flakes, charcoal, bone fragments, and even historic artifacts such as glass fragments.
One of the most important things that I learned while working on the Lake Gilmer project was that when analyzing projectile points, sometimes it is difficult to determine what kind of projectile point that it is. The reason for this is that there are thousands of different projectile points and there are sometimes different types of projectiles that look identical to each other. One example of this can be seen when analyzing Ellis, Edgewood, and Ensor points. These three points have several similarities between them. For instance, all three points are geographically found in the same area of east Texas. All these points are thick in diameter. Edgewood and Ellis points are short in length; however, Ensor points are usually long but are sometimes found short upon their discovery due to constant use. This presents one of the biggest problems in lithic analysis. By considering factors like usage, damage, and exposure to the elements, it can become even more difficult to determine the type of artifact that one is analyzing.
When taking into account factors like usage, damage, and weather can make the process even more complicated. For example, sometimes lithics can have missing pieces like the base (bottom), or the sides. Which make the discovered lithic shorter in length or narrower in diameter. In circumstances like that I had to do the best I could to imagine what that lithic would look like in its undamaged form and then identify it based on that educated guess. Whenever a lithic is missing so much of itself that it is impossible to identify, it is usually labeled as ‘unknown’ unless the lithic is flakey in texture, in which case it is labeled as lithic debitage, which are the pieces of stone that get chipped away in an effort to make a stone tool.
La Salle in Texas
In addition to the Lake Gilmer Project, I had a minor involvement with two additional projects tied to the French explorer La Salle: the La Belle shipwreck and Ft. St. Louis.
The La Belle was a ship under the command of an infamous French explorer named La Salle who in 1687 “had come to establish a colony near the mouth of the Mississippi River with multiple aims that included providing a warm-water port to serve the fur trade and a base for invading Mexico” (https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/belle/). The La Belle ran aground due to a combination of bad luck and bad north winds and the location of the shipwreck had been lost for hundreds of years, until it was discovered again in 1995 by archaeologists working for the Texas Historical Commission.
I only worked with this project for a day, and my job was to weigh sewing needles that were excavated during the La Belle’s excavation in the 1990s.
Fort Saint Louis is very interesting because at the time of the ‘fort’s’ construction and occupation, it was not even called Fort Saint Louis – it wasn’t called anything. The reason for this is that Fort Saint Louis was not a fort in the traditional sense, since it was lacking certain specific features:
For instance, there was no palisade, or defensive wall. The eight cannons arranged around a few crude dwellings offered no defense, for there were no cannonballs of the right caliber. Instead of a stronghold, there were only crude huts built largely of wood poles and thatch, plus the headquarters house made of timbers salvaged from La Salle’s wrecked supply ship, Aimable (https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/stlouis/index.html).
La Salle established this pseudo-fort as part of an effort to establish a French colony in the Americas, and it went horribly wrong. First, as noted above, the colonists were poorly supplied and unprepared. Secondly, Texas was not the intended destination of the expedition, the Mississippi River was. “From 1685 to 1689, against the wilderness, the Indians, and an environment that was wholly alien to them. Their numbers constantly diminished from Indian ambush, from disease, and from eating strange fruits, such as prickly-pear tunas covered with tiny thorns (they weren’t smart enough to remove the thorns before eating the tunas). By the time La Salle left the colony in January 1687 to seek relief, less than 50 colonists remained of the 180 who had landed two years previously (Fort St. Louis).
I only worked on this project for a couple of hours and my job was to weigh gunflints that had been discovered at the site of the project. The purpose that these gunflints serve is to help light the gunpowder in a gun. This is accomplished when someone fires the gun, then the hammer comes down and strikes the gunflint causing a spark, which then ignites the gunpowder and caused the musket ball to be launched at whatever the individual was aiming at.
The only problem that I had with my internship is that I did not get to work on as many historical projects as I would have liked. However, since I did learn quite a bit about lithic analysis, I am not going to complain about that. I think from here my career goal is to get as much experience working in the field as I can and then eventually apply to graduate school so that I can continue my studies and get a master’s degree.
To anyone who desires to take on an internship themselves, I have a couple pieces of advice I would like to share. Firstly, go into an internship with a positive mindset. If you don’t, then the experience will not be worthwhile, and you won’t learn anything. Lastly, don’t let the idea of an internship stress you out. It isn’t really that hard at all. All you must make sure you do is read relevant literature, carry out your internship tasks to the best of your ability, learn a lot, and then write about what you learned at the end. It is a very rewarding experience and I would do it all again if I could.
Mark L. Parsons, Timothy K. Perttula, S. Eileen Goldborer, Froehlich and Froehlich Consulting, Sharon McCormick Derrick. 2015
Archeological Investigations at Lake Gilmer, Upsher County, Texas. Mitigation Phase.
Fort St. Louis South Texas Plains. https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/stlouis/index.html, accessed November 21, 2018
La Belle Shipwreck South Texas Plains. https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/belle/, accessed November 21, 2018
Texas Historical CommissionAbout Us. Angelina (Peyton) Eberly-A Pioneering Spirit | THC.Texas.gov – Texas Historical Commission. http://www.thc.texas.gov/about, accessed November 21, 2018
Turner, Ellen Sue., Thomas R. Hester, and Richard L. McReynolds. 2011 Stone Artifacts of Texas Indians. Taylor Trade Publishing.