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South Texas Plains Main
Prehistoric Texas Main

Investigations

Large-scale excavation and water-screening underway at the Beene site, as spillway construction continues, following the discovery of the deeply buried-six meters (20 feet) below surface-Early Archaic component dated to about 5,800 B.C.

The Richard Beene site is one of about 90 archeological sites discovered and test excavated between 1981 and 1990 as part of cultural resource investigations undertaken for the proposed construction of Applewhite Reservoir by the San Antonio Water System. Initial archeological survey and test excavations at several sites in the reservoir area were undertaken by the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The final rounds of survey work and test excavations in the proposed impoundment area, as well as full-scale excavations at Beene, were conducted through Center for Ecological Archaeology (CEA) at Texas A&M University in the early 1990s.

Texas A&M archeologists discovered and recorded the Richard Beene site, then known only as 41BX831, in early 1990. Testing performed at this time determined that the site likely contained materials dating to the Middle Archaic and Late Archaic periods. Based on this assessment and the fact that the site was located in an area where construction was about to begin, archeologists from the CEA and the Texas Historical Commission (regulatory agency) decided that the site would be the first to be excavated when archeological work continued in November of 1990. Archeologist Alston Thoms led the excavation team and was assisted by geoarcheologist Rolfe Mandel from the University of Kansas . Given the enormity of the Applewhite Reservoir project, it was not feasible for work on the reservoir to stop while archeologists excavated the site and construction on the spillway and dam continued without interruption. During the entire investigation, archeologists worked in the midst of bulldozers, trucks, and other heavy machinery engaged in the construction of the dam. Not to give the wrong impression, the heavy machinery was carefully routed around the archeological work. Many of the strategic decisions about where and when to dig were pragmatic accommodations of the construction realities.

The Late Archaic deposits, also known as the upper Leon Creek component, date to between 1,000 and 1,830 B.C. Evidence indicates that the climate during this period was drier and warmer than the present-day climate. Though evidence of hunting in the form of projectile points such as Ensor, Marcos, and Nolan was recovered from this component, there was also ample evidence of plant processing in the form of grinding slabs and sandstone earth ovens. The presence of adzes and choppers suggest that wood-working was also taking place.

Middle Archaic deposits, known as lower Leon Creek and upper Medina components, date to between 2,680 B.C. and 3,200 B.C. This period at the Richard Beene site seems to represent a relatively short-term cool and wet climatic interval. Projectile points and stone knives, along with evidence from animal bones in this component indicate that deer were an important part of the diet.

photo of the richard beene site
View of the Richard Beene site environs with the city of San Antonio in the distant background.
photo of the excavation
Archeologists working during the early phase of investigation at the Richard Beene site in late 1990.
photo of field inspector
Field inspector Richard Beene (center, wearing hard hat) discovered and saved an Early Archaic camp depostit from destruction by construction equipment. Site 41BX831 was renamed in recognition of his efforts.
An artist's reconstruction of life at the Late Archaic component of the Richard Beene site.
One Middle Archaic surface at the Richard Beene site contained accumulations of mussel shell such as this one, providing evidence that the sites occupants were utilizing the river as well as the uplands to bolster their diet.
Projectile points recovered from the Middle Archaic component included (a-d) fragments of Bell/Andice points; (e-f) Desmuke points; (g) Uvalde and; (h) Travis points.

By mid-February 1991, excavation of the Middle Archaic component at 41BX831 was nearing completion and work at other sites within the reservoir was beginning. It was then that the chief field inspector for the engineering company that designed Applewhite Reservoir made an unanticipated discovery at the site: an extensive and well-preserved campsite layer represented by concentrations of mussel shell and evidence of stone-tool production along with numerous hearths. This inspector, Richard Beene, immediately recognized the remains of this campsite and informed Thoms. Had Mr. Beene waited an hour or so to inform the archeologists, earth-moving equipment at the site would have obliterated the entire component. It was at this time that 41BX831 was formally named the Richard Beene site in recognition of Mr. Beene's efforts to save this important evidence from the bulldozers.

This campsite was discovered about 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) below the 5,300 year-old Middle Archaic component and was radiocarbon dated to more than 6,900 radiocarbon years ago (about 5,800 B.C.), meaning the deposits were of Early Archaic age. Within a few weeks it became evident that several other Early Archaic components were buried at the site at locations up to 4 meters (12 feet) below the Middle Archaic component, dating as far back as 8800 radiocarbon years ago (about 7,930 B.C.). Each new major discovery at the site required a revision of research plans by archeologists with Texas A&M and the Texas Historical Commission, as well as the San Antonio Water System.

photo of grinding slab and hematite fragments
Sandstone grinding slab fragment, consisting of burned and unburned fragments (meaning the artifact broke in Late Archaic times and one of the fragments was reused as a cooking stone); and a hematite fragment from the Late Archaic component at the Richard Beene site. Plant foods, possibly nuts from the floodplain or root foods, seeds, or perhaps prickly pear fruit, from the terrace were likely ground on slabs.
Early Archaic dart points from the lower Medina component. Enlarge to see identifications.
Artifacts from early Early Archaic period Perez component. Enlarge to see identifications.
Artifacts from early Early Archaic period Perez component. Enlarge to see identifications.

The Early Archaic components at Richard Beene date to a time span of over 2,000 years. The younger deposits from this period date to about 5,800 B.C. and fall within the Altithermal, a long-term climatic period of warm and dry conditions. Stemmed, indented base dart points similar to Bandy and Martindale types were recovered from this component. These deposits yielded more animal bone than any other component at the Richard Beene site, with deer and rabbit being the best represented. Also well-represented were river mussels (clams).

The oldest Early Archaic materials at the site date to between 7,700 and 7,900 B.C., towards the onset of the Altithermal. Angostura points were recoved from these deposits. Wood-working was represented in this component by adzes and Clear Fork tools. Few animal bones were preserved, but substantial numbers of mussel shells were recovered. This evidence, combined with evidence of plant processing in the form of an abundance of fire-cracked rocks, seems to indicate that the Early Archaic occupants of the site practiced a broad-based subsistence strategy which incorporated a variety of plant and animal foods.

The Early Archaic component also represents an abundance of small, family-size cooking facilities with and without fire-cracked rock (FCR). Rockless cooking features were considerably more common than those with cook stones. Overall, however, the diversity of cooking-related features was high with 8 of 12 of the feature types represented at the site. Those found in the Early Archaic component include: (1) five large basins with some FCR; (2) one large basin without FCR; (3) two oxidized lenses without FCR; (4) three small basins with a lens of FCR; (5) nine small basins without FCR; (6) two oxidized lenses with FCR; (7) four oxidized lenses without FCR; and (8) two small FCR concentrations.   

photo of a large earth oven
A large earth oven from an Early Archaic campsite dating to around 6,700 B.C. Ovens like this one would have been used to bake root foods gathered from the terrace areas near the Richard Beene site.
Chronological ordering of representative projectile points, adzes, and other selected items recovered from the Richard Beene site. Scale shows radiocarbon years before present.
Schematic stratigraphic cross-sections of the Richard Beene site with associated radiocarbon dates (all expressed as radiocarbon years B.P.).

In May 1991 a voter referendum to end construction of the Applewhite Reservoir passed by a slim margin, resulting in the end of archeological fieldwork at the Richard Beene site. Intermittent excavations, monitoring, analytical work, and report writing continued into 2006 and a monograph of the archeological and paleoecological investigations is currently awaiting publication.

map of the site location
Map showing the location of the various components of different ages within the boundaries of the Richard Beene site.