Deep in a Hole: the perils and pitfalls of excavating a deep terrace

James W. Karbula

We had no idea in 1992 that our University of Texas Summer Field School would turn out to be such a major undertaking. Prehistoric cultural material found near the surface of the Eckols site (41TV528), west of Austin, Texas, promised interesting rewards for the scheduled six week course. Before we had even turned a significant pile of dirt, however, it became evident that the site was much more than just an 'arrowhead patch.' Today, several years and thousands of man hours later, we still have not reached the bottom of the cultural deposits. What began as a simple six week field course has turned into a multi-year project involving hundreds of student, amateur and professional volunteers. Although the initial field school was well funded, subsequent excavations have operated entirely upon a 'shoestring' budget. In addition, the search for excavators has been an all-consuming, never-ending task.

In 1992, it was wide-eyed visitors from neighboring Texas Tech University who labeled the site an 'arrowhead patch.' They were somewhat shocked and amazed at the frequency with which we were recovering projectile points, after they had labored elsewhere all summer in the hot desert sun to find one or two. I still remember their faces as they sat and watched fraternity members in our group compete for projectiles on a minute to minute basis. Their reaction mirrored my own, as I was unprepared for the depth and complexity of the site deposits. Although I readily took on the role of analyzing and writing up the excavations as the topic of my doctoral research, I have been deep in a hole ever since, literally.

The site is located on a broad terrace at the confluence of two streams which flow on a perennial basis in west Travis County, Texas. The area is known as central Texas Hill country and is replete with faunal and floral resources. The Eckols site appears to have been a campsite that was occupied on a seasonal basis for thousands of years. In 1992, members of the UT field school recorded hundreds of chipped stone formal tools and literally thousands of bone fragments and burned limestone rocks (fireplace remnants), all in the upper meter of sediments. However, despite great attention to detail, and the documentation of thousands of artifacts, the end of the field school did not mark the end of the cultural material, and then the students were gone.

The 1992 University of Texas Field School in progress. Excavations are taking place 50-60 cm below the ground surface, a zone of very high density cultural materials.

Faced with a freshly opened site of great potential, and no excavators, Dr. Thomas R. Hester and I scrambled for ideas. At first, we assembled those students who had been absent and owed us class time. We then contacted members of the Travis County Archeological Society, a local branch of dedicated avocational and professional archaeologists. In addition, the call was put out to interested graduate students, and we were able to continue with a small crew into the fall of 1992. Field school data had already indicated that occupation on the terrace extended back to at least 3500 BC. Much to our delight, the immediate follow-up effort recorded an even older occupation, radiocarbon dated at approximately 4000 BC. However, our feeling of satisfaction was quickly supplanted by shock and surprise, when on the last day of the 1992 season, we uncovered evidence of deeper, extremely ancient cultural material.

Unfortunately, there was no immediate exploration of this occupation zone because of the onset of winter and the deer hunting season. The site is located on a cattle ranch, and deer hunting is big business. Although the ranch ownership has been extremely cooperative and tolerant of our efforts throughout the years, we have annually been forced to yield to overzealous people with big guns, khaki pants and lots of time on their hands. (It would seem that the ranch ownership has some aversion to us dodging bullets.) In any event, the continuation of cultural material deeper into the terrace presented substantial problems in terms of logistics and manpower. The winter months were indeed a forced break, but allowed us the necessary time to reorganize.

In the spring of 1993, excavations were conducted on an ad hoc basis, whenever sufficient volunteers could be assembled. These were the real dog days of the project, when it was maddening to have unlimited cultural material to excavate, but not the manpower to do it with. Even though recruiting efforts were broadened to include members of the Southern Texas Archeological Association, crews were very small and hard to come by. I began to post notices in the UT Anthropology department and was able to gather a few undergraduate students. Equipment and supplies were less problematic, as I requisitioned them from the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL), where I had been working part-time. Limited funding for certain supplies was available from The Friends, a support group for TARL. At this point, the excavations crawled along, relying more on enthusiasm than anything else.

Finally, we got a real boost when professors in the Anthropology Department became aware of the potential benefits that my excavations could offer. Here was an opportunity to supplement class lectures with hands-on excavation experience. Dr. James Neely began to include several days of on-site class time as part of his Field Techniques course. Dr. Fred Valdez and others offered extra credit, along with the opportunity to substitute excavation time for major grades. As you might imagine, there were soon much larger groups of enthusiastic 'volunteers.' These students documented the remains of an ephemeral campsite that may date to approximately 6000 BC. Late in the fall of 1993, we were beneath this occupation zone and again digging in semi-sterile sediments. Unbelievably, on the last day of the field season, much to our chagrin, we once again uncovered evidence of deeper, older cultural material on the terrace.

During subsequent seasons, I took a different tack and expanded my list of student volunteers to include other colleges in and around the Austin area. In 1994 and 1995, my informal affiliation with instructors at Austin Community College began to pay dividends when word spread among their archaeology students. Their program was relatively new at the time and several instructors welcomed the opportunity to participate. In addition, volunteers were obtained from The University of Texas at San Antonio and also Southwest Texas State University, in nearby San Marcos. We continued to draw support from classes at UT and from the local professional societies. By this time, Dr. Neely's Field Techniques course was a regular event on the calendar. Finally, years of marshaling support were coming together.

Other problems have been equally trying, not the least of which has been the weather. Central Texas rainfall of late has tended to come in brief but heavy downpours. We have tried every type of covering for the site that one might imagine, only to watch them all torn asunder by the elements. We finally learned that whatever material we used to cover the site with, would soon be strewn in tiny pieces among the contextual deposits. In addition, every rainstorm brings a fresh load of silt into the hole. On one occasion this past year, back to back four inch rains completely filled the three meter deep pit with water, until it looked like a swimming pool. The ladder we had been using to climb down with broke loose and floated across the excavation block. I will never forget last Memorial Day, when a young lad named Philip and I surveyed the damage, and laughed, in order to keep from crying.

During the past year, we have been and are still excavating what surely must be the lowest component.

In 1996, a small, loyal group of excavators is supplemented by students from the UT Anthropology Department and Austin Community College. Work proceeds at nearly 3 meters deep in the terrace.

Evidence suggests that it predates 6000 BC, and is probably Late Paleoindian, by North American chronologies. Thus, we are excavating occupational debris of some of the earliest inhabitants of the continent. At the moment, the crews are small and we have been plagued by problems with the weather and with looters. Throughout it all, I remain focused on finishing the site and on finally reaching the bottom. (Some decade it would be nice to graduate.) We are currently tunneling a 1x1 meter test pit, in the attempt to find the latest end to the cultural deposits. Although this test pit is now 3.5 meters deep, there are still an estimated 2 meters or more of fine grained alluvium beneath us, and with every shovel full of dirt, there are additional butterflies in my stomach.

If I can offer any insight from this experience, it would be to never underestimate the power of archaeology, in terms of the interest that it holds for the local community. There are literally scores of people out there, young and old, from every walk of life, who are interested enough to participate, each according to their own skills. All they need is the opportunity to pursue what fascinates them. Archaeology is a far-reaching, broadly-based phenomenon and help for under-budget, under-staffed projects is out there, if you can just tap into it.

James W. Karbula is a Research Associate for the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory and a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. His areas of specialization include lithics analysis, distributional studies and the method and theory of south-central Texas archaeology. James enjoys being 'Deep in a Hole' as well as living, hiking and camping in the highland lake areas of central Texas.

James W. Karbula 1996


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