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Ask Dr. Dirt

I Dig Texas!

Q: What's the most famous archeological site in Texas?

A: Remember the Alamo!! That famous battle cry comes from the most well known site in Texas—but it's not known for its archeology. Everybody knows about the Alamo because of its role in Texas history. The Alamo began as a Spanish Mission, a church compound where Spanish priests and their Indian converts lived and worked. To convert means to change your religious beliefs. So the Indians that lived in the mission with the priests were being taught new and different beliefs. You probably don't know the Alamo as a church though. It's best known for the bloody battle that occurred there in 1836. Lots of artifacts from the Alamo's early history (before the battle) are still buried there. We archeologists work there every chance we get—usually before some construction project is set to start. The construction workers are going to tear up the land anyway, (to put in new sewer lines, create a new shopping area or some other project), so we get to go dig first!

One hot summer about 20 years ago, I visited an air-conditioned dig at the Alamo! The old Radio Shack store across the street from the Alamo was supposed to be replaced by a shopping center. So after the store closed (and before they turned off the air-conditioning!), archeologists ripped up the wooden floor and started digging. at the Alamo!

Q: But I thought you said the Alamo was across the street?

A: Most people think of the Alamo as the famous church with the interesting stone front. But the church was only one part of a much larger area, called a compound. The Radio Shack store was built on what was left of the Alamo's outer wall. Do you think modern shoppers buying the latest electronic gadget knew they were on top of an archeology site? Today, that wall is across a busy street from the building we think of as the Alamo. Indians used to live in that part of the Alamo back when it was still used as a mission. The Indian tribes (mostly families) suffered terribly from disease and war. They had to move to a new, strange place and learn ways of life that made little sense to them.

The people running the mission, Spanish priests, brought lots of things—olive oil, fancy painted pottery and religious ornaments—from Mexico and Europe. But under the floor of the Radio Shack store, archeologists found lots of evidence that the Mission Indians kept some of their traditional skills—pottery and stone tool making, for example. At the same time, European goods like metal tools were taking the place of many native things. Archeologists have found all kinds of artifacts there—they even found cannon balls and broken weapons from the famous battle! No, they didn't find a set of headphones and a CD player—and if they did, they would know it was left behind from Radio Shack—not the Native Americans!

I've got to tell you, it was cool to be digging in the air-conditioning on a hot August day!

Q: What are some of the Indian tribes archeologists study in Texas?

A: Well, most of the Indian sites we study are "prehistoric." Remember, prehistory means before written history. None of the Indians that lived at those sites left behind a diary saying, "Today, I got sandals and salted fish for my birthday." That means that we often don't know a whole lot about them. Now, we do know the names of the historic tribes that were around when the Spanish and French explorers, traders, and missionaries showed up (in the 1500s and 1600s). Just think about it, something like 500 earlier generations of people lived on the same land you do. That means your great, great, great, great, great—say it 500 times—grandmother, could have lived in the land we call Texas, and we wouldn't know what languages she spoke or what the name of her tribe was. One thing is for sure, she wouldn't have been writing any of it down (although she may have drawn some pictures about her life. archeologists call this "rock art")! One of the best places you can find out more about the Indian tribes of Texas is from www.texasindians.com/. It's a fun, colorful website with some good information on many tribes.

Q: Where can I go to see Texas artifacts?

A: Wow—do I have a list for you! There are loads of museums in Texas. In fact, you could go to a museum every day for six months and still not see all of them! Of course, not every museum contains artifacts. Some contain modern art, or cultural items (like the Dr. Pepper museum) that are part of our modern society. Other artifact collections are in places that don't seem much like museums at all, for example, the French Legation (www.french-legation.mus.tx.us/) in Austin. As for history museums, there's the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston, the Presidential Museum in Odessa, the Institute of Texas Culture in San Antonio. I could go on all day! Instead, how about checking this link for more ideas: www.io.com/~tam/museum.html (The Texas Association of Museums).


Q: Who were the first people living in Texas?

A: Here's a scientific answer for you—we don't know! If you're going to learn to be an archeologist, you're also going to have to learn to say, "I don't know!" After all, the whole science of archeology is trying to find answers to unanswered questions about the past. There's bound to be times when you just don't have a clue—half the fun is getting to look for them! So here's what we do know: the earliest Texas residents we're sure about were people we call "Clovis" after the special spear points they made. One of the largest and most impressive Clovis sites in North America is right here in Texas near Georgetown. It is called the "Gault" site and archeologists from the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory are digging there now. You can read more about it in the Gault exhibit.


Q: Have any dinosaur bones ever been found in Texas?

A: Sure, lots of them, but that's not my job. I'm an archeologist and that means I study the things that people, not the T. Rex or the Tyrannosaurus, left behind. Dinosaurs lived in Texas long, long ago—millions of years before the first humans arrived. Forget Jurassic Park, no dinosaur ever saw a human being and no human being ever saw a (living) dinosaur. The scientists who study dinosaurs are called "paleontologists" and you can learn more about them by visiting the website of the Texas Memorial Museum. www.tmm.utexas.edu/.


Q: Did ancient people in Texas live in towns? If so, where are the towns now?

A: The Indians who lived in Texas for at least 13,000 years before the Spanish arrived lived in all sorts of places. Some of them were large villages where hundreds of people lived—a good example is the place now known as Caddoan Mounds State Park. We don't know its ancient name, but the ancestors of the modern Caddo Indians lived there about a thousand years ago. Other Indians often set up temporary camps along streams and rivers, near springs, and many other places. Now, why do you think they liked to live near streams and rivers? I'll give you a hint—there was no McDonald's around. . On hot summer days, Native Americans couldn't roll into the drive-through saying, "Can you super-size that Coke?" One example of a prehistoric village is the Graham-Applegate rancheria near Kingsland, Texas. Rancheria is a Spanish word that means temporary village.


Q: What kind of houses did ancient Texans have?

A: Lots of different kinds. In dry west Texas, the Indians often used natural houses—caves and rockshelters—when they needed to get in out of the weather. But usually they lived in the open, under the stars. You might be thinking, "Hey, cool! Just like camping!" Of course, anyone camping these days knows they can go back to their cozy house if it starts to rain, or snow, or if the wind is blowing their tent down. But the weather could be a real problem for Indians living in temporary shelter. In the winter, most groups built some sort of house that kept them warmer, drier and safer. The Caddo Indians of east Texas built large houses out of wood and grass that were shaped like giant beehives. The Mogollon Indians of far west Texas (near what is now El Paso) built rectangular pueblos out of mud bricks called adobe. Take a look at the one we archeologists named Firecracker Pueblo. The people who lived in the Panhandle sometimes dug large holes in the ground and built a roof over this "pithouse"—the earth acted as insulation to keep the pithouses warm.


Q: What about tepees like we see in the movies?

A: To build a tepee, Native Americans needed long poles and lots of buffalo hides. They are pretty heavy and can only be moved by horse (or automobile). Before automobiles and before the Spanish brought horses back to North America, there were no tepees. When the Plains Indian groups like the Comanche got horses, their lives completely changed. Instead of staying pretty much in one area, they moved wherever they wanted (to hunt buffalo) and dragged their teepee poles behind them with their horses. Hey, can you imagine dragging your house behind you while you went to find food? That could really work up your appetite!


Q: How do you know where ancient people lived?

A: We look for clues like artifacts, animal bones, and old campfires. If you know what you are looking for and you know where to look, there are lots of clues left behind by prehistoric peoples all over Texas. Clues like broken stone tools, fire-cracked cooking rocks, burned deer bones, clam shells, pieces of pottery, and all sorts of other things. Often, we find these traces in the same places where people live today—near reliable sources of water: creeks, rivers, and springs. But the clues are often hard to spot unless you have a trained eye and look carefully. Sometimes we find clues on the surface of the ground or perhaps on the side of a creek bank. But other times we have to dig. Hey, that's what I do best—I'm an armadillo after all—an armadillo archeologist! Texas is my home state, and it's full of the two things I love the most—dirt, and history—yahoo!!




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Texas Beyond History
TBH WebTeam
1 October 2001