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Q. Can I visit the archeological sites featured in Texas Beyond History?

A. That depends. Most land in Texas (96.7%) is privately owned and therefore so are most archeological sites. You must have the landowner's permission to visit archeological sites on private land. Fortunately, some of the most interesting sites in Texas are on public land and can be visited at certain state and national parks.

Keep in mind that there really isn't much to see at most archeological sites unless excavations are underway. By joining the TBH partner organization Texas Archeological Society or one of the many regional and local societies and associations across the state, such as the TBH partner organization Southern Texas Archaeological Association, you too can participate in archeological investigations.

Q. What is an artifact?

A. An artifact is anything modified by human manufacture or use.

Q. How do archeologists find archeological sites?

A. Archeologists often identify prehistoric archeological sites by finding the chips left from making stone tools like arrow and dart points. Cooking stones and broken pottery are sometimes found, as well as bones from ancient dinners. Historic sites often are marked by broken glass and china, wells, building foundations, and domestic plants. Archeologists systematically walk across areas looking for these artifacts and other signs of archeological sites. There are many other methods for locating archeological sites, including aerial photography, remote sensing, oral history, and archival research.

Q. Where can I go to collect arrowheads and fossils?

A. While artifact and fossil collecting is illegal on public lands, it is not unlawful on private property as long as permission is granted by the landowner. It is the responsibility of the collector to know who owns the land, to understand the laws that apply, and to obtain permission to enter private property. We do encourage you to take an active part in preserving Texas' heritage for future generations by adopting a "look but don't touch" approach to appreciating archeology.

Q. What do you learn from artifacts?

A. Artifacts have the potential to tell many things about the way people lived in the past. By carefully examining their shape, evidence is collected on their manufacture, age, and uses. Archeologists can also conduct replicative experiments to gain a better understanding of how tools were made and used, or how shelters were built. Physical and chemical tests provide detailed information on the age of organic materials, and the types of residues left on tools.

Q. What is the oldest archeological site in Texas?

A. There are quite a few sites across the state that have the distinctive remains associated with Clovis people, the earliest well documented archeological culture in North America—about 13,000-13,500 years old (11,000-11,500 B.C.). One of the largest and most important Clovis sites in North America is deep in the heart of Texas, the Gault site near Georgetown (see the Gault site exhibit). There is also tantalizing evidence that people may have visited Texas several thousand years earlier. One example is at Bonfire Shelter, where humans may have have killed and butchered now-extinct animals including mammoth, horse, and camel about 14,400-15,000 years ago (12,400-13,000 B.C.). As explained in the Bonfire site exhibit, the evidence for human involvement is fairly convincing, but still not certain. The search for definitive evidence of "preClovis" peoples is one of the most exciting and controversial problems in North America. Texas has several candidates, but none that are beyond question.

The standards of proof for the earliest evidence of humans in the New World (North and South America) are rigorous as well they should be. Many claims of great antiquity have proven to be false upon close scrutiny of the evidence. A good example is the Lewisville site, a site that today lies beneath the waters of Lake Lewisville south of Denton, Texas. There in the 1950s, prior to the damming of the lake, local archeologists from the Dallas Archeological Society uncovered a series of small burned patches thought to be remnants of campfires ("hearths") or possibly natural fires (such as those created by lightning strikes). Associated with these were the bones of numerous animals including some that became extinct at the end of the last ice age (the Pleistocene, which ended about 11,000-12,000 years ago). A few stone tools were also found, but only one of these, a Clovis point, was found in direct association with one of the hearths. Radiocarbon assays from charred materials from the hearths indicated an age of greater than 37,000 years ago, much older than other Clovis dates. If the dates were valid, Lewisville would be the earliest definitive human habitation site in North America and archeologists would have to completely revise their understanding of Clovis culture.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, controversy raged over Lewisville: was it or was it not the earliest known archeological site in the New World? The local archeologists were accused of salting the site with the Clovis point, an archeological sin of the worst kind. Finally, between 1978-1980, prolonged drought lowered the lake levels and a team led by archeologist Dennis Stanford from the Smithsonian Institution of Washington was able to reexamine the Lewisville site. The local archeologists were vindicated—Lewisville is a legitimate Clovis archeological site, but its original dating was found to be faulty. The problem, it was discovered, was that pieces of lignite (a form of coal that outcrops in the area) apparently had been used as fuel along with firewood by Clovis peoples, giving a falsely old radiocarbon age. For a more complete account, see the Lewisville site article in The Handbook of Texas Online.

Q. Did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time in Texas?

A. No. Not even close. The last dinosaurs to roam the earth, including the area that became Texas, became extinct about 66 million years ago. The earliest humans may not have arrived in this area of North America until shortly before 13,500 years ago (11,500 B.C.). Some scientists think humans probably arrived by 15,000 years ago or maybe even as much as 20,000 years ago. This still leaves quite a gap!

Q. But what about the human footprints along side dinosaur footprints I heard about?

A. If you want to see something bad enough, you will. The alleged human footprints are vague impressions that could be anything. Some of them have been "enhanced" by true believers who wish to disprove evolution. These claims are made by so-called creation "scientists" who reject evolution as just another "theory." There is a mountain of evidence worldwide concerning the dating and evolution of dinosaurs and humans—the two never co-existed except in the funny pages and Jurassic Park.

Q. What tribe lived here (or made this)?

A. Texas archeologists hear this question all the time and often the answers we give are not very satisfying. We usually don't know and can't know because there were hundreds of different "tribes" who lived in Texas at the time of earliest historic records and there were at least 13,500 years of prehistory during which many more hundreds of distinct groups must have existed. Want a longer and more complete answer?

The fact is that most archeological sites in Texas formed in prehistoric times, before the arrival of people with writing systems (Spanish and French explorers, soldiers, missionaries, and traders). For the first several hundred years of recorded history, from the arrival of Cabeza de Vaca in 1528 to the mid-1700s or even later, we have comparatively few firsthand accounts and most of these were not written to describe the native inhabitants. Historians have a great deal of trouble in tracing the location of even the well-known groups during this era, much less the movements of hundreds of different groups who identified themselves by a distinctive name in Texas when the first Europeans arrived on the scene.

The arrival of Europeans in Texas triggered many changes, most of them bad for native peoples. Diseases like smallpox wiped out up to 80% of the Indian population. Horses and guns made it easy for mounted raiders like the Apache and Comanche to dominate the landscape causing many other native groups to flee. Some were taken as slaves, others had little choice but to join up with other refugees. Because of these changes, many of the best known tribes in Texas were relative newcomers. Take the Tonkawa for instance. Long considered the quintessential central Texas tribe, it is now known that the Tonkawa actually arrived in Texas in the early 1700s. This is still long before the families of most "Native Texans" arrived in the Lone Star state, but 99% or more of the Indian things found in central Texas can't possibly be those of the Tonkawa.

Now think about the 13,500 years of prehistory that we know about in Texas. That is more than 500 human generations of people that lived and died in Texas and adjacent areas. For most of this time the people lived as hunters and gatherers who were highly mobile and moved from place to place during the year. So, any one spot in Texas, especially a good spot with permanent water, was probably visited by hundreds of different groups over the 500 generations. Without written records, we will never be able to answer the "who were they" question for most places.

One last complication is that the word "tribe" means different things to different people. Do we mean people who all spoke the same language? People who all spoke the same dialect of a language? People who lived together as one group? People who called themselves by one name? All these things can be different. Take the Caddo "tribe" or, as the Caddo would prefer, the Caddo Nation. In historic times, the Caddo tribe consisted of at least 25 affiliated groups, some of whom spoke different dialects and were sworn enemies of one another. To learn more about the state's earliest peoples, take a look at Prehistoric Texans in our Kid's section (it's not for Kid's only!) .

Q. Does the public have access to artifacts excavated on state property?

A. Many of the artifacts recovered from excavations in state parks are on display in the park's interpretive centers. Parks such as Fort McKavett, Fanthorp Inn, Caprock Canyons, Caddoan Mounds, and Seminole Canyon contain many interesting displays. However, some artifacts from archeological and historic sites are considered important because of their unique qualities or scientific value rather than their aesthetic value. Access to these archeological collections is available to researchers. We hasten to add that one of the main goals of this website is to provide public access to what archeologists have learned from, and found at, investigated sites across the state.

Q. What are some good books to read on Texas Indians or pioneers?

A. There are many excellent historical references and stories about Texas Indians and the pioneers. Here are a few good examples of books on archeology: Caddo Indians: Where We Come From, by Cecile Elkins Carter; A Field Guide to Stone Artifacts of Texas Indians, by Ellen Sue Turner and Thomas R. Hester; Plains Indians, A.D. 500-1500: The Archaeological Past of Historic Groups, edited by Karl H. Schlesier; and Spanish Expeditions into Texas, 1689-1768, by William C. Foster. Your local library is certain to have many more books on archeology, and don't forget historical fiction novels. Some of them are well researched and can provide insightful details about the lives of early Texans.

Q. Do all archeological sites have names and numbers?

A. Today when an archeological site is formally recorded by a legitimate archeologist, it is always assigned a unique site number, and may or may not have a name.

Most archeologists name the sites they excavate or study in detail. Sites are named for landowners, landscape features, and various other namesakes and the names may not be unique or easy to reference. In Texas alone, for example, there are dozens of sites that have the name "Smith" as part of the site name. But many sites never get named-during a large archeological survey hundreds of sites may be recorded, most of which are never excavated. So to keep track of all the sites archeologists identify, we use individual site numbers.

Since the 1950s archeologists in Texas have assigned a unique number to each site they record using a simple and flexible numbering system developed by the Smithsonian Institution that is known as the Smithsonian Trinomial System. In brief, each site is assigned a three-part number that gives the site a unique identification number that avoids confusion between site localities. This site number is used on all site records, field notes, and collection bags and is a critical reference.

For example, the famous site now under Amistad Reservoir known as Arenosa Shelter is formally known as 41VV99. Texas was the 41st state at the time the Smithsonian Trinomial System was devised. VV stands for Val Verde County. And, Arenosa was the 99th site officially recorded in Val Verde County, Texas.

On this website, we prefer to use site names because names are more memorable than numbers. Nonetheless, serious students of archeology who seek further information about a particular site need to know the site number because that is how all the site records and collections are stored at archeological repositories such as the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL), publisher of this website. To make cross-referencing easier for the serious readers, we sometimes provide site numbers in parenthesis. Or, in cases where all of the sites being discussed are clearly in Texas, we drop the "41" and give an abbreviated version in parenthesis. For example, Bonfire Shelter (41VV218) or Arenosa Shelter (VV99).

For more information about site records, see this section of TARL's website.

Q. What are the Paleoindian, Archaic, and Late Prehistoric periods?

A. These broad periods were conceived of originally as "stages" of cultural development thought to be part of a general evolutionary or developmental progression in pre-Columbian North America:

Paleoindian > Archaic > Formative > Classic.

This 1950s scheme did not work in Texas and many other areas of North America north of Mexico. In part this is because there were no "Classic" cultures (such as the Maya or Aztec civilizations) and even "Formative" cultures occurred only in some regions such as the American Southwest. Instead it was realized that the evolution of cultures in much of North America was complicated and not uniform-it did not follow the same neat progression in most areas.

In Texas, the idea of "stages" was dropped in favor of three major cultural "periods" or "eras," Paleoindian > Archaic > Late Prehistoric. These were and are still thought of as representing a progression through time, but one that did not follow the same path and timing in all areas of the state.

In the traditional view, the Paleoindian period or era is thought to have begun about 13,500 years ago (11,500 B.C.) with the Clovis culture, which was followed by Folsom and various other early cultures until about 10-11,000 years ago (8,000-9,000 B.C.). Paleoindian cultures are known for their distinctive lanceolate spear points ("Paleo" points) and were characterized by archeologists as mobile big-game hunters. Paleoindian peoples traveled hundreds of miles in search of big game such as the mammoth, bison antiquus, and various other now-extinct ice-age mammals. In fact, some have argued that Paleoindians caused the extinction of these animals. This view is contested and humans seem unlikely culprits as the principal cause of ice-age extinctions-global climatic change to warmer and drier conditions was probably much more important.

Today, there is increasingly stronger, but still controversial, evidence of earlier cultures in North America prior to Clovis. So far, few if any convincing examples of well-documented Pre-Clovis sites in Texas are known. We have mounting evidence that the known Paleoindian cultures were more complicated (and interesting) than mere hunters of big game. In fact, Clovis culture is now seen as being broadly based on a variety of game and many plants and not nearly so mobile as earlier archeologists had envisioned. In Late Paleoindian times, these early cultures were succeeded by Archaic cultures across all of North America between about 10,000-11,000 years ago.

The Archaic period or era lasted thousands of years during which prehistoric peoples developed highly localized and successful cultures based on a broad range of hunting and gathering (also called foraging). Instead of lanceolate projectile points, Archaic peoples made different styles of barbed and stemmed broad-bladed dart points used with the atlatl or spear-thrower. They also used many other kinds of stone, wooden, and bone tools. Instead of being migratory, Archaic peoples lived in increasingly smaller territories because of population pressure-more and more people through time meant less and less "open" space. Hemmed in with more mouths to feed, Archaic peoples learned to exploit any and all local natural resources from rats to roots to bugs. In many areas, plant foods were particularly important and this ultimately led, in some regions of North America, to the development of agriculture.

In Texas the introduction of the bow and arrow around A.D. 600-800 is said to usher in the Late Prehistoric period. Some late prehistoric groups learned to make pottery at about the same time, but they maintained a traditional Archaic way of life based on hunting and gathering in much of the southern half of Texas. In east Texas, far west Texas, and north Texas, many cultures also adopted agriculture and settled down more permanently, living in villages and small towns. In Texas, the best known example is the Caddo cultural tradition in northeast Texas.

The Paleoindian, Archaic, and Late Prehistoric periods are really somewhat arbitrary classifications of convenience and habit. In each region, archeologists have subdivided the periods into subperiods (sometimes called phases or intervals) in various ways based on changes in certain artifact styles (mainly projectile points but also pottery and other types of artifacts). The arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century marks the beginning of the Historic period and the era of written history.

Q. What are assemblages and components?

A. Assemblages are groups of artifacts made and left behind at one place on the landscape (a site), ideally by a single group of people or by closely related groups. Ideally, archeologists prefer to study assemblages representing only a single culture dating to a short period of time; these are known as single-component assemblages. A site component is a group of artifacts and cultural features left during one occupational episode or relatively brief period. Often, however, site assemblages contain a mix of artifacts from different times, making it difficult or impossible to know which artifacts belong to the same occupational episode. In other words, we often can't separate the materials that date to different components except in cases of distinctive artifact types considered diagnostic of a particular culture or time period.

Q. What is lithic reduction?

A. Lithic reduction (or just reduction) is the process of taking a relatively large, shapeless piece of chert and reducing it into progressively smaller, purposefully shaped pieces that can be used as tools. The general reduction process is called flint knapping or just knapping (chert knapping just doesn't sound right), but there are several different reduction techniques involving different kinds of flint- knapping tools (such as hammerstones, antler billets, and antler pressure flakers) and different methods of applying force to remove material from the parent mass (called a core). Chert nodules can be reduced into a variety of flakes or blades (parallel-sided flakes made by a specialized reduction technique), some of which may be further reduced into tools themselves (these are called flake tools or blade tools). Alternatively, the nodule of chert can be reduced (chipped away) until only a single bifacial tool is left (a core tool).