Recovery Archaeology on the Texas Coast
Collectors working with Professionals
by Tom Atkinson
Being interested in local archaeology, I have followed the conversations and controversies dealing with relations between the archaeological community and private collectors. Often one has to walk a fine line of political correctness when discussing the topic with people on either side of the argument. Most professional archaeologists take a dim view of private citizens collecting ancient artifacts and artifact collectors feel that archaeologists simply want to take away their collections and their enjoyment of finding and owning prehistoric relics. While there were frustrating periods for myself and others involved in this story, I am now confident that archaeologists and collectors can work together toward the goal of increasing our knowledge of prehistoric life.

In November of 2003 I was taking a stroll along the beach of one of my favorite little islands on the Texas coast where, along with great fishing and beach combing, there are occasional pottery shards and broken arrow points that show up on the shoreline. One morning, I saw what I thought was a large potsherd sticking out of the shell midden bank. After investigating more closely, I realized that I was wrong. The pottery turned out to be bone, including the skull of an ancient native that was beginning to erode from the low bank. I was both excited and perplexed at the same time. This was an exciting discovery but also I knew there is controversy connected with ancient burials. The bones became exposed during a period of high tide, that when coupled with the strong wind of a cold front, had eroded a section of shell midden on the island shoreline. This erosion is quite active on this section of the island and I was concerned that the erosion which uncovered the skull would continue, eventually exposing the entire burial. Since this area of beach is often used in the warm months by fishermen, kayakers, and tourists, there was no doubt in my mind that the skeleton would be seen and probably disturbed before any authorities were notified.

 I called a local archaeologist that I was familiar with for advice as to what steps I should take next. This professional had recently dealt with the excavation of a large coastal cemetery and is the preeminent archaeologist of this area. He was positive and helpful but not interested in becoming personally involved with another ancient burial at this time. Many Indian tribes are very open and helpful to archaeologists studying exposed burials though some native groups have caused difficulty. The idea of getting involved in conflict with native groups is often enough to make archaeologists shy away from burials.  So, I kept making phone calls and sending e-mails to anyone that might be of help. A call to one person led to suggestions to call another, etc. 
While I found most people in the South Texas archaeological community truly interested and wanting to help, the reaction was almost uniformly the same…”Burials are a real problem anymore”. …

I enlisted the aid of David Calame, a Texas Historical Commission archaeological steward (volunteer) for assistance. I also e-mailed Dr. Tom Hester, “retired” archaeology professor and author, who managed to connect us with another archaeologist, Skye Wagner, who is keenly interested in Texas coastal archaeology. This proved to be an excellent turn of events.
 This island is owned by the State of Texas (General Land Office), so the first thing that had to be done was owner notification. The G.L.O. archaeologist was contacted and eventually agreed to allow a salvage dig, if a professional archaeologist was in charge. He also agreed that Skye could fill that duty. 

Permits to excavate unmarked graves are issued by the Texas Historical Commission, so they needed to be persuaded that this effort to recover the remains was necessary. The THC does not issue excavation permits lightly. There must be shown a need to proceed with the work. A visit to the site with David Calame and Skye Wagner helped show the ongoing erosion that was going to continue to expose the bones. It was clear to all of us that this was an actively eroding ancient burial.

In December, after accompanying me to the site and examining the exposed bone, David and Skye got to work on obtaining the THC permit. With the recommendation from the State archaeologist to allow the excavation, the THC agreed to provide a permit only after we had a place to curate the remains and any associated artifacts. This sounded simple, so we contacted the local museum in Corpus Christi. The archaeologist in charge of the museum was very interested and said he would like to have the remains for study. This would have been the obvious choice for housing the remains due to the local proximity of the burial site to Corpus Christi. However, the City’s legal staff recommended not getting involved with an Indian burial. Obviously, a legal challenge was a fear.

We contacted Universities, museums and research groups. Finally, a small museum near the coast expressed interest. We waited for the next museum board meeting for approval. In January, I took Skye out to the burial again and we poured sterile sand over the exposed remains in an effort to stabilize them. Luckily, the tides are at their lowest during the winter months so we had some time before high water again would be threatening.

 After the small museum decided it was too new and too small to attempt a burial curation, I was beginning to despair; however, Skye soon received word from the Texas Archaeological Research Library that they would accept the bones if no other place were found soon. The staff at TARL understood that this excavation needed to be done or else the bones would start washing out onto a public beach. Eventually, permission was granted for the remains to be stored at the TARL for study and preparations for the excavation could begin.

 I was very relieved at this news after three months of wondering what would happen to the remains of this old fellow. I was also gratified at the cooperation I had received from the professional and avocational archaeological community. I believe that in attempting to do “the right thing” we were able to achieve the cooperation a project like this requires. All of the work done on this recovery excavation was voluntary and was my first archaeological excavation of any kind.

In late February, 2004 with permit in hand, Skye Wagner, David Calame, Charlie Gambill, Paul Stein and I headed out on my 18’ fishing boat with several hundred pounds of equipment and temperature in the 40’s. The tide was extremely low and the sky was clear with a brisk north wind blowing. We unloaded the equipment and got our game plan going with a one square meter excavation to determine the orientation of the remains. I thought the body would be parallel to the shore but Skye believed it would be perpendicular. Skye was correct.
 Once we made contact with the bone layer and actually saw how the body had been placed, things slowed way down. Measurements had to be made in order to establish a three dimensional orientation of the body within the ground. All of the soil excavated was screened and examined. The burial was relatively shallow and thousands of oyster shells that comprise a major component of the midden made digging somewhat difficult. Many fish and small mammal bones, fish otoliths (ear stones), and even a small shark tooth were recovered. Several pieces of Rockport ceramics were also excavated. This is a type of pottery peculiar to the lower-middle Texas coast that is often decorated and waterproofed with natural asphaltum (beach tar).
 After two days of digging with small trowels, wooden sticks and paintbrushes we had the bones pretty well exposed and in their natural position. The skeleton was fully extended, on its back and aligned North – South with head to the North. The bones remained articulated, meaning that each joint remained in its natural position from the time of burial. This man (we assumed he was male) was large; we figured probably at least six feet in height with no visible scars on the long bones. The teeth were ground considerably, as is common with aboriginal teeth and there was an abscess in the jawbone. The most notable item concerning the position of the skeleton was that the man’s hands were placed behind his back. It looked like his hands may well have been tied behind his back given the placement of the hands. This prompted some creative discussion for a while. 

No diagnostic projectile points were found in the grave; however, there were some grave goods. At the left elbow were placed two small, spherical creek pebbles. Over the chest, was placed a cake of asphaltum, the natural tar that washes ashore from oil seepage in the Gulf of Mexico. This material was used in daily life of the coastal Indian as glue, paint and waterproofing. That was it, nothing exotic.

Three days and two hours of digging, sifting, measuring and discussing later, we back-filled the hole, cleaned up our mess and ended the recovery phase of the operation. At this writing, the bones are in curation being studied and preserved. My hope is that we soon get a good scientific measurement of the bones age. No photographs of the skeleton are available since it is considered professionally unethical to publish photos or publicly display ancient human remains.

At this writing, the skeletal remains are being prepared for study over the summer months by a Ph.D. archaeologist working on an additional doctorate in this field. It will be interesting to find out more about this individual, such as: his age, general health, what time period he lived and other facts that an only expert can recover.

This skeleton was doomed to wash out onto a beach (indeed the process had already started).  If the bones were not soon covered with sand or disbursed by the tide, the public would have found the skull and other bones, caused problems with law enforcement or possibly even taken them. Either way, the context and other information recorded during a slow and careful excavation would have been lost. 
Persistence is important as well as willingness to preserve a piece of our Texas history and I encourage all amateurs to work with the scientific community in the effort to document as much of our collective past as possible. 
 Tom Atkinson 

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