Inside a cavernous warehouse at Texas State University, half a dozen people crouch over long tables, carefully sifting through anthill-sized mounds of dirt, gravel and flakes of stone.
Those piles, collected from the Gault archaeological site near Florence, Texas, may as well be gold. They hold clues that experts say are changing what we know about how humans first populated the Americas.
But there’s lots of work to do.
The Gault site has spawned some 2.6 million artifacts since 1999, from stones delicately etched with geometric patterns to projectile points and scraping blades. As crews prepare to fill in the last excavation pit and wrap up their eight-year dig, researchers are taking a closer look at what they found.
“Our job as archaeologists is not to fill in museum cases — we’re after usable information about human behavior,” says Clark Wernecke, executive director of the Gault School for Archaeological Research and director of the Prehistory Research Project at Texas State. “For every day in that field we have to spend about 40 days in the lab.”
Interesting stuff first started turning up in a farmer’s field in southwestern Bell County in 1908, when Henry Gault decided to cultivate his patch of bottomland. As he tilled the ground, he uncovered more than fertile soil — he revealed artifacts thousands of years old.
Over the following decades, the land changed hands and looters mined the 35-acre site for relics to sell. Projectile points, stone tools and bits of stone that chipped off in the point-making process were the most common finds.
“I have no doubt hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been sold off the site in a century of archaeological plundering,” says archaeologist Michael Collins, chairman of the Gault School, as he walks through the property, where a white tent now covers a nearly 12-foot deep pit dubbed Area 15.
Collins points out a huge outcropping of chert, the type of rock used to make tools. He splashes across spring-fed Buttermilk Creek, another reason the site has long drawn humans.
In 1929, Professor J.E. Pearce, founder of the UT archaeology department, led the first official excavation here, but his techniques were primitive by modern standards. In the 1980s, it became a pay-to-dig operation, where visitors could pay $25 and haul away whatever they found.
They found a lot. Even the top layers of soil held thousands of collector-quality artifacts that dated back 9,000 years. Embedded a little deeper were “Clovis” artifacts — items made using techniques that spread from Canada to South America between 12,700 and 13,400 years ago.
At the time, most professional archaeologists largely wrote off the site, believing all the amateur digging had disturbed it so much they couldn’t learn anything useful from it.
Yet Gault still held secrets.
“Professionally, we didn’t know there was older stuff there,” says Collins, who first visited the site in 1991. “But until you have demonstrated there is nothing older, that possibility exists.”
Collins, along with Tom Hester, both University of Texas archaeology professors at the time, believed there were still discoveries to be made. Their suspicions were confirmed in 1998, when the latest owners shut down the pay-to-dig operation and started digging on their own. While scooping out a hole the size of a swimming pool, they found a mammoth jawbone.
“Laying around that hole were more Clovis artifacts than I’d seen in my life,” Collins says.
Collins and Hester helped get the fossil removed, then asked the million-dollar question: Could they conduct a small scientific dig adjacent to the existing hole to gather information? The owners agreed, stipulating that they turn over any artifacts they discovered.
During that brief dig, the archaeologists found enough to know they needed to dig more. The UT System entered a three-year lease to conduct scientific research, which they did. Just before that lease ended in 2002, they found evidence that the site held artifacts that predated Clovis, including stones from the floor of the oldest known building in North America.
That gave credence to the idea that humans were here much earlier than once believed.
After UT’s lease ended, Collins led an effort to raise money to purchase the land, but was unable to meet the owner’s asking price. A few years later, he dug into his own savings to buy the 33-acre site himself and donate it to the nonprofit New Mexico-based Archaeological Conservancy, which will preserve it and regulate future research there.
In spring 2007 archaeologists returned and began digging in earnest. Inch by inch they lowered the level of their excavation pit until they hit solid rock.
It was tedious work. Volunteers, archaeologists and students all pitched in, carefully scraped away dirt, sweeping it into buckets, spreading it on screens, hosing it off and bagging the material to send to the lab.
The disturbed soil at the top coughed up the likes of cigarette filters, gloves and beer cans. (“We can document that those people digging out there had impeccably bad taste in beer,” Collins jokes, pointing at a beer can in the repository at Texas State University.) The next five feet of gray clay spawned broken bits of tools and projectile points dating back 9,000 to 13,000 years.
What lay below that was perhaps most intriguing — artifacts deposited by another culture that predated Clovis, long considered the first human culture in America.
Collins, 73, who has spent the last 23 years focused on Gault, says he has no plans to retire. He hopes to finish his main reporting about the dig within five years.
“The biggest news at Gault is still the Clovis component,” he says, walking through the cavernous research facility at Texas State, where rows of cabinets filled with wrapped artifacts and bags of material gathered from the site illustrate how daunting a project lies ahead. “My stomach and my heart both flutter when I think of the responsibility we have of bringing that to the public.”
Roughly half of all the known items from the Clovis period in North America — about 1.5 million of them — come from the Gault site.
“It’s telling us things about Clovis we didn’t know before,” Collins says. “It is going to contribute to a hemispherewide rewrite of the peopling of the Americas.”
The artifacts are challenging the notion that early humans walked here from Asia at the end of the last ice age as big-game hunters, following mammoths over the Bering Strait and down through an ice-free corridor as they slowly spread across the Americas, as schoolchildren have long been taught.
Instead, Collins, Wernecke and other experts believe humans arrived by boat, spreading down the Atlantic, Pacific or both coastlines — starting at least 17,000 years ago.
“None of that story we’ve been taught makes any sense,” Wernecke says. “There’s no archaeological or geological proof that people came from Asia any more than they came from Europe. … We have to change everything we thought we knew.”
The site is filling in knowledge of the people who used Clovis technology, painting them as more domestic and less nomadic than previously thought.
Among the findings? Those etched stones, which may have been gaming pieces or a type of amulet, are the earliest dated examples of human art. The people who came here cooked food in rock-lined ovens dug into the ground. They made tools for chores like cutting grass, which wanderers would not have done. They lived in small foraging groups that periodically gathered at the Gault site, attractive for its springs, available food and supply of chert to make stone tools.
“People were way more cosmopolitan than we give them credit for,” Collins says.
The oldest items found at Gault date to at least 14,500 years ago — some 1,000 years pre-Clovis. That makes it one of about 40 sites in the Western Hemisphere that indicate people were here before Clovis technology arrived.
Even broken bits of blades and projectile points found at the site have shed light on how the tools were made back then.
Eventually, some of the artifacts found there may be displayed for the public. (The Bell County Museum in Belton has a small exhibit based mostly on photographs of the excavation.) Both the Smithsonian and the Bullock Texas State History Museum have expressed interest over the years.
“People are going to be looking at this collection forever,” Wernecke says.
Between now and then, though, lies a ton of dirt to pick through. And some history to rewrite.
About $2 million is needed to maintain the staff of the Gault School and continue its work another five years. Donations can be made directly to the Gault School for Archaeological Research, P.O. Box 2620, San Marcos, TX 78667, or at the school’s website at www.gaultschool.org.