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Behind the Scenes: Triumph of an All-Volunteer Operation

LUAS volunteers screening dirt from excavations at the Graham-Applegate site. Photo by Joyce Sloan.
LUAS volunteers screening dirt from excavations at the Graham-Applegate site. Photo by Joyce Sloan.

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Chuck Hixson, project director at the Graham-Applegate site, working with a LUAS member in the field.
Chuck Hixson, project director at the Graham-Applegate site, working with a LUAS member in the field.
Pottery vessels made by Chuck Hixson, using prehistoric firing techniques and local clays. Photo by Susan Dial.
Pottery vessels made by Chuck Hixson, using prehistoric firing techniques and local clays. Photo by Susan Dial.
Teamwork in the excavation unit. From left, Janice Zimmermann, Charlotte Graham, and Gene Schaffner. Photo by Chuck Hixson.
Teamwork in the excavation unit. From left, Janice Zimmermann, Charlotte Graham, and Gene Schaffner. Photo by Chuck Hixson.
Gene Schaffner excavating one of the houses at the rancheria site. Photo by Chuck Hixson.
Gene Schaffner excavating one of the houses at the rancheria site. Photo by Chuck Hixson.
Volunteers take a break from excavating chores. Photo by Joyce Sloan.
Volunteers take a break from excavating chores. Photo by Joyce Sloan.

By Susan Dial

One story that remains to be told about the Graham-Applegate site is what has gone on behind the scenes—how an all-volunteer crew of archeological novices has been led week after week by a quiet young archeologist to uncover a 1000-year-old village. In some ways, their story is just as remarkable as that of the rancheria, for it has taken determination and an unusual blending of personalities to continue the project in the face of sparse funds, bad weather, and dwindling numbers in the crew. Of the three dedicated Llano Archeological Society (LUAS) members who have seen the project through from day one, each credits the others with a large measure of the success.

Chuck Hixson: "The Perfect Teacher"

The quiet but steady force behind the Graham-Applegate project is Chuck Hixson, an archeologist trained in the southwest but knowledgeable about the idiosyncrasies of central Texas prehistory. While attaining his B.A. and M.A.degrees in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, Hixson developed a keen interest in southwestern pottery-making technology that developed into a thesis project (his topic was a study of the paint on Mogollon Black-on-White pottery). Today, he has transformed his technical knowledge into an art. Using open firing pits and aboriginal techniques, Hixson produces exquisitely thin-walled, bone-tempered vessels from clays he has collected from throughout the local area. Several of his vessels are on display at the Nightengale Archeology Center in Kingsland, providing a startlingly graphic example of the artistic capabilities of the Late Prehistoric peoples in Texas. He also reproduces prehistoric Southwestern pottery of several different styles, including the fine Mimbres Black-on-White.

At the site, landowner and LUAS member Charlotte Graham credits the mild-mannered archeologist with keeping them motivated for the twice-weekly digs which have somehow stretched over a three-year-period, through torrential rains and searing heat. "He's the perfect teacher," she says. "He doesn't beat us down or make us feel stupid." Hixson's habit of producing frequent, detailed, electronic site maps has served to bring into sharp focus the patterns and shapes emerging from the ground; they no doubt serve as well as a motivating force for the crew to continue trying to "complete the picture," as house after house emerges.

In LUAS, Hixson has served as president and as a general organizer, and he still leads many of the group's monthly field trips. Under his tutelage, LUAS members have recorded bedrock mortar holes in stony ledges, visited historic ranch sites dating to the 1870s, and investigated huge rock mounds thought by the landowner to be burial cairns. Hixson also serves as a steward for the Texas Historical Commission, giving periodic talks and assisting landowners in preserving and documenting cultural remains on their properties.

Of course, the landowner Hixson most vividly recalls meeting for the first time was Charlotte Graham, who came into the Nightengale Center "carrying a handful of Scallorn arrow points." It was a critical connection that developed into a friendship and strong working relationship. And from it emerged the opportunity to tell the story of the folk who lived a thousand years ago, at what has become known as the Graham-Applegate Rancheria.

Charlotte Graham: From Collector to Colleague

Charlotte Graham, on whose rocky acres the Graham-Applegate site was first discovered, serves the project in a far greater capacity than mere landowner. Both in her kitchen "lab," where she has single-handedly washed, labeled, and catalogued nearly 12,000 artifacts, and on the site, where she has developed a keen eye for subtle clues in the earth, the California native continues to play a critical role in site operations. A "recovered" collector, she has taken on a more steady, scientific approach in her work. Where at one time she and her sister, Janice Zimmermann, occasionally picked up and probed for arrow points and tools from the slopes and draws near her house, both now have learned the value of plotting artifact locations, excavating systematically, and preserving the context of all the evidence.

Graham is adamant about safeguarding the site; in fact, she is convinced that she was meant to have the property for just that reason. While driving through the area with a realtor several years ago, she says she felt a particular twinge when she saw the property that was to become her home and, as it developed later, the excavation site. "For some reason, I knew I had to have it. We made a deal on the spot. I didn't know why, then, but I think now it was because I'm supposed to be the guardian of the site and to help tell the story."

A former coach for the Pan American Games, Graham brings the passion and endurance of an athlete to her work at the site. But, she notes somewhat ruefully, "I had no idea what I was getting into when we first started." Nonetheless, even after several bouts of bad health including a recent stint in the hospital, she is back on the job, determined to "get to the bottom" of the site and the many unanswered questions.

Graham's experience with coaching among the Aborigines in Australia primed her with firsthand experiences with prehistoric lifeways. She recalls sitting in a hut—perhaps not unlike those being unearthed on her property—and watching the men come in from a hunt, carrying fresh kill. "They dropped the animal in front of the women, and then walked off. I mean, those women had to do everything!" Thinking about the people that lived here more than a 1000 years ago "gives me goose bumps," she says. "I dig down and I'm standing on the same surface they were. I don't even have to use my imagination to see it."

Gene Schaffner: A Versatile Lieutenant

Along with Graham, another critical leader at the site has been Gene Schaffner of Horseshoe Bay. A Missouri native and former nurse, Shaffner brings a questioning mind and meticulous care to her work, Hixson says. When she and her husband, Bob, moved to the Lake LBJ area from Illinois, they joined the Llano Uplift Archeological Society (LUAS). Gene Schaffner served as president from 1997-1999 and still leads tours for the public at the Nightengale Archeological Society in Kingsland.

On a recent 101-degree afternoon there, Schaffner took group after group through the center and—with the same enthusiasm—headed for the outdoor interpretive trails in the blazing sun. "She brings a lot of energy to LUAS," Hixson says. In addition to excavating, the Schaffners have also bought equipment, tarps, and ladders for the project, items which can break the budget of a small operation. Gene Schaffner also brings her photographic skills to the site—many of the images used in this webpage are hers.

Help Wanted

At the Nightengale Center, the camaraderie among the three is evident— there is much good-natured teasing. Charlotte Graham points out that the group of excavators used to be much larger "before Chuck made us dig trenches through the midden with a trowel!" (Many archeologists will use shovels or larger tools to excavate through the dense layers of rock in a typical burned rock midden.) The trench they dug was "thigh-high," Graham claims. "And then we did all the weighing of the rocks and sorting them all by size. That's when we lost a lot of our volunteers."

But, as the story is now known, Hixson and his crew moved on from the midden to uncover—with painstaking care—the remains of perhaps the largest "rancheria" yet documented in central Texas, a rare place indeed. The success of the small crew is still being told today in their detailed documentation of the ancient house remains and work areas, now shown in the maps and photos on this web page, and in the carefully catalogued artifacts in the lab. Many archeologists and professors who have visited the site have commented on the professional quality of the work being done by the all-volunteer group. And as they knuckle down to uncover what may be yet a SIXTH house at the rancheria, they are not too proud to ask for help.

For information on volunteer opportunities at the site, see How To Get Involved.

LUAS volunteers in front of House 1. From left, LCRA archeologist Dan Prikryl, Project Director Chuck Hixson; Frank Sloan, Gene Schaffner, Charlotte Graham, and ___***?). Photo by Andy Malof.
LUAS volunteers in front of House 1. From left, Frank Sloan, Charlotte Graham, Gene Schaffner, Bob Gillespie, Project Director Chuck Hixson,and LCRA archeologist Dan Prikryl. Photo by Andy Malof.

Excavators troweling in tight quarters to expose one of the features at the Graham-Applegate site. Photo by Joyce Sloan.
Excavators troweling in tight quarters to expose one of the features at the Graham-Applegate site. Photo by Joyce Sloan.
Chuck Hixson (left) and Wulf Gose confer over archeomagnetic sampling procedures for hearth stones form the site.
Chuck Hixson (left) and Dr. Wulf Gose confer over archeomagnetic sampling procedures for hearth stones from the site.
Charlotte Graham, in an early investigation of a hearth found on her property. The first artifacts were found by her horse!" Photo by Gene Schaffner.
Charlotte Graham, in an early investigation of a hearth found on her property. The first artifacts were found by her horse! Photo by Gene Schaffner.
Charlotte Graham at work at one of the excavation blocks at the site. Photo by Gene Schaffner.
Charlotte Graham at work at one of the excavation blocks at the site. Photo by Gene Schaffner.
Riotous displays of wildflowers make screening at the site a pleasurable task in the spring and early summer months.
Riotous displays of wildflowers make screening at the site a pleasurable task in the spring and early summer months.
Darrel Creel (left), director of TARL, is given a tour of excavations at the rancheria by Chuck Hixson, and Charlotte Graham. Photo by Steve Black.
Dr. Darrell Creel (left), director of TARL, is given a tour of excavations at the rancheria by Chuck Hixson, and Charlotte Graham. Photo by Steve Black.

Graham-Applegate Volunteers

Charlotte Graham
Gene Schaffner
Chuck Hixson
Janice Zimmermann
Ed Welder
Frank Sloan
Bob Gillespie
Fred Breckwoldt
Patti Boyd

David Boyd
Joyce Sloan
Pat Hatten
Gwendolyn Hatten
Kelly Garrety
Thomas Garrety
Andy Malof
Dan Prikryl
Michael Williams

Betty Inman
Sam Sloan
Vicki Almour
Ken Lindow
Karen Hillman
Marilyn Sjoberg
Jack Farrell
Lucile Harmon &
Austin Friends of Folk Art