More than 50 million artifacts from Texas’ past kept at UT lab

Texas Archeological Research Laboratory is a museum that is not a museum at all.


Highlights

The trove from the laboratory reminds us that one of Austin’s best museums is not a museum at all.

Access to more than 50 million artifacts at the research laboratory is tightly restricted.

The drawer opens wide to reveal its prize: scores of woven sandals, each hundreds of years old.

The astonishingly well-preserved shoes, tucked away in a North Austin archive, were discovered inside the Ceremonial Cave at Fort Bliss in West Texas. Scholars suggest that they were left behind in the dry rock shelter as gifts from the faithful. There, desert conditions have ensured that this Native American apparel survives to tell a concrete story about a little-known Texas past.

The leathery trove also reminds us that one of Austin’s best museums is not a museum at all.

Although the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory contains more than 50 million precious objects, access is tightly restricted. Very few people even know where on the grounds of the J.J. Pickle Research Campus this University of Texas facility is located.

Yet the public can view some of its wonders, which go back 13,000 years, on its educational websites, such as the grown-up TARL Blog and the family-friendly Texas Beyond History, or visit them in person at public venues, including the Bullock Texas State History Museum and the LBJ Presidential Library, where selections of artifacts are now on view.

One also can enjoy a selection of sumptuous images from the lab’s archive in the recently published book “The Collections: The University of Texas at Austin,” edited by Andrée Bober, or browse the free digital edition at thecollections.utexas.edu.

Additionally, the lab, which is part of UT’s College of Liberal Arts, co-hosts an onsite fair with the Texas Historical Commission during October, which is Texas Archeology Month.

“TARL is an invaluable resource that preserves the history — and prehistory — of the people of Texas,” says Drew Sitters, archaeologist with AmaTerra Environmental Inc., an Austin-based consultant. “With its wealth of data, TARL facilitates research studies to help answer the many questions about our past.”

How it began

The Pickle campus, which sits on 475 restricted acres of prairie just south of the Domain development, was a magnesium processing facility in the years leading up to and during World War II. Magnesium is used in munitions, including luminous flares, tracer rounds and incendiary devices, and as an alloy in certain bomb casings.

In 1946, UT engineers petitioned to lease it as an applied research center, and then U.S. Rep. Lyndon Baines Johnson helped the university purchase the land three years later. Among other things, it has served as a key incubator for Austin’s tech industry, one reason so many companies are located in this area north of U.S. 183, originally miles from any residential neighborhoods.

“There was a quarry right here on the grounds of the research campus,” says Jonathan Jarvis, associate director of the lab. “I suspect that Quarry Lake on Braker Lane just west of MoPac may have also been part of the operation, but I don’t have any evidence for that readily at hand. Presumably the building that currently houses TARL was used for extracting the magnesium after the initial mechanical processing of the source rock was done elsewhere on the campus.”

The lab’s collection didn’t move to this campus until the 1960s, but systematic archaeological research in Texas goes back to the 1910s, then entered a golden age in the 1930s when federal New Deal projects put crowds of men and women to work on Texas archaeology.

“It began with J.E. Pearce, a professor of anthropology here at UT,” Jarvis explains. “Professor Pearce, who was himself a former principal of Austin High School, sent a questionnaire about artifact finds to school principals throughout the state, which was the first attempt to gather what is — for lack of a better term — a database of Texas archaeology.”

Pearce’s ultimate goal was to establish a museum of Texas anthropology for the university. For some time, many artifacts were stored at UT’s Little Campus; others at the Texas Memorial Museum.

The lab has undergone permutations through the years, but since its founding in the 1960s, it become the central repository for Texas archaeology at the university, from Pearce’s day to the present.

“I would contend that there has been more than one golden age of archaeology in Texas,” Jarvis says. “During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration conducted tremendous archaeological excavations across the state under the supervision of UT archaeologists. The program put a lot of unemployed local men to work, advanced our understanding of Texas archaeology and resulted in a truly amazing collection of artifacts.”

Archaeology for what now is called “cultural resource management” purposes — in compliance with laws and regulations applying mainly to government-controlled lands like roadways and military bases — began in earnest in the 1970s, which drastically increased the number of archaeological investigations and began a shift away from archaeology being a strictly academic exercise.

“In the present day, cutting-edge technologies allow for new discoveries and provide fresh insights on the existing body of knowledge,” Jarvis says. “So, another golden age, so to speak.”

What is here

After threading through offices resembling the set of a World War II-era movie about remotely stationed scientists, the lucky visitor, accompanied by multiple guides, first encounters maps. Tens of thousands of maps shelved in horizontal files.

“TARL maintains the archaeological site records for the state of Texas,” Javis says. “There are roughly 80,000 documented archaeological sites in Texas, each of which is plotted on a 7.5-minute United States Geological Survey topographic map, meaning they each cover an area 7.5 minutes of latitude by 7.5 minutes of longitude. There are about 4,440 of those maps covering Texas; it’s a big place.”

Geography is important for archaeological research in general, Jarvis says, and specific site locations are of critical importance. Vandalism and the looting of artifacts are unfortunately common occurrences, so specific site location information is restricted by state and federal laws.

“Many of the sites in Texas are on private land, so trespassing and privacy concerns are another consideration,” Jarvis says. “In any case, we can only disclose site location information to qualified researchers with a legitimate need to know.”

Besides identifying, cataloging and making available to scholars all the artifacts — as small as minuscule pot shards — a crucial lab function is preservation. A good portion of artifacts are kept in chilly lockers not unlike those in a food warehouse.

“The materials range from exceptionally durable stone to the most delicate of perishable organic material and everything in between,” Jarvis says. “Providing the appropriate environmental conditions for a collection of that volume and diversity is indeed a challenge.”

Many of the artifacts are stone tools and the like, which can tolerate normal fluctuations in temperature and humidity.

“So, no, we don’t necessarily need to store the entire volume of material in climate-controlled museum cabinets,” Jarvis says. “The cost of doing so would be exorbitant, approaching astronomic.”

The American Indian legacy

It is hard to exaggerate the excitement and pleasure felt by a visiting history buff allowed to hold a gallon-size plastic bag full of colorful shards extracted from the site of Fort St. Louis, the ill-fated camp of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s lost party of Frenchmen in the 1680s.

The Texas Archeological Research Laboratory covers the full range of human habitation and activity in Texas, from the Paleo-Indian period — about 13,000 years ago, depending on whom you ask — to the early 20th century. Nearly all the collections are from Texas, along with a small amount of material from elsewhere around the world.

Virtually all the Texas material is American Indian, which comes with legal and theoretical challenges.

“If I had to guess, I would put it in the ballpark of 90 percent to 95 percent,” Jarvis says. “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is the most directly applicable law in terms of collection management. Much has been written about the conflict between scientific analysis and the wishes of descendant communities. While we are a scientific research lab first and foremost, our approach is to treat objects that are sacred to Native Americans with the respect and dignity they deserve, and we try to engage tribes as partners where possible.”

Paleo-Indians, the earliest inhabitants of North America, present another nettlesome issue. Their close genetic relationship to today’s American Indians was established through improved DNA testing during a nine-year court case related to the Kennewick Man, whose remains were found near the Columbia River in Washington state. Yet some still theorize, with less convincing scientific evidence, that Paleo-Indians were instead migrants from Europe or elsewhere.

“Exactly when they arrived has not yet been entirely resolved, but there is solid evidence for their presence in Central Texas at least 11,000 years ago or so, based on radiocarbon dating from carefully excavated sites such as Wilson-Leonard,” Jarvis says. “The Wilson-Leonard burial site along Brushy Creek in Williamson County is perhaps best known for an ancient burial popularly called the Leander Lady or Leanne.”

Leanne?

“She was buried along with a sandstone tool and beneath a limestone slab,” reported Dahlia Dandashi in the American-Statesman. “It is presumed that she was around the age of 30 at her death and measured about (5 feet 3 inches) in height. … Her burial is one of the earliest and most intact uncovered sites in North America.”

Paleo-Indians were long thought of as big-game hunters who followed Pleistocene megafauna, such as woolly mammoths, across the ice age landscape, Jarvis explains. Research conducted by the lab’s archaeologists and others paints a more complex picture of their subsistence strategy and culture.

What should ordinary people do when they encounter what they think might be a remnant of an earlier time, even if not from 11,000 years ago?

“There are local archaeological societies in just about every region and major metropolitan area in Texas,” Jarvis says, “and those groups are a good place to start for anyone interested in Texas archaeology. Similarly, the Texas Archeological Society is a venerable statewide organization that promotes responsible investigation. And the Texas Historical Commission has a network of volunteer archaeological stewards who are available to assist with documenting and interpreting possible sites.”

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