The following is a guest essay by Lisa Wrinkle, the Lower Pecos Program Coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in Texas.
I have always been fascinated with Native American and prehistoric artifacts and fossils. My mother and grandmother both instilled a sense of adventure in me when it comes to finding treasures in the field. Living on the Independence Creek Preserve in gorgeous West Texas provides ample opportunities and space to search for all kinds of interesting treasures, and one February afternoon in 2009 while hiking in a dry creek bed on the preserve with my mother and two children, I found just such a treasure.
Chapter 1: I See Something Near the Creek!
I noticed some bone-like material in a cut bank that had been washed out in a previous flood. They were situated on top of what looked like burned rock (an archaeologist term for rock used for hearths or campfires by prehistoric people) which peaked my interest and made me wonder if it might be something more than an animal that had randomly met a harsh fate.
I took a closer look and found that it was a jawbone, teeth and a vertebra. At first glance, the teeth appeared to be cow-like. However, my mom and I discussed the fact that because they were near the burned rock, that they could be prehistoric bison. We were very excited by the prospect because bison fossils are very rare in this area.
I happened to have a cow skull at my house just up the bank from the site and quickly retrieved it for comparison. The teeth looked similar, but not quite the same. We convinced ourselves that we may have stumbled across something significant—and possibly thousands of years old. At this point I was hooked and just had to get to the bottom of this mystery!
Chapter 2: Unraveling the Mystery
After several months of correspondence with various professionals in Texas, I was finally connected to John Seebach, an archaeologist at the Center for Big Bend Studies (Sul Ross State University) in Alpine, Texas. I described my find and asked for guidance on preserving the bones I had excavated and protecting what was left in the ground. I had been told prior to speaking with John to set up a grid-system over the bones and photograph the entire site to document what was there. So, I did just. I was thrilled to get an enthusiastic response from John about my grid along with rough instructions for preserving the bones with a polyvinyl resin called Butvar.
I set up an impromptu lab on my kitchen table and using toothpicks and Q-tips, I carefully cleaned the fossils and applied a thin layer of the resin with a paintbrush on each individual piece. I was worried to death that I would destroy the bones and make them worthless to the professionals, but to my delight, the process worked, and I was left with a mini-collection of preserved bones. Now, all that I needed was to get a professional out to take a look at them. After several months of emailing pictures, new finds and details about the site, John was able to visit the site.
Chapter 3: Wow, That’s Really Old!
The initial findings indicated that we did have a young prehistoric bison on our hands, likely lived during the Archaic to Late Prehistoric Period (6000 B.C.-A.D. 1529).
I was thrilled to learn the discovery was significant because the preserve is situated at the boundary of two geographical areas, the Trans Pecos and the Lower Pecos. The patterns and behaviors in the archeological record between these two areas change and little is known about why that occurs, although there are some theories. Additionally, there are only a few records of bison fossils in this region and a little east from here, they stop altogether so this discovery had archeologists hoping to answer some important questions around those two mysteries.
At The Nature Conservancy, we do a lot of public outreach for people of all ages about the amazing natural resources in Texas, like Independence Creek Preserve. We realized that this fossil discovery could be a great learning experience for budding archeologists so we decided to wait to do a full excavation until we could get students from the school to the site.
Chapter 4: More Sparks Fly Around the Discovery
That next summer, more archaeologists from the Center for Big Bend Studies including the director, William (Andy) Cloud, Sam Cason and David Keller visited the site. While exploring, Sam spotted another set of bones also in the cut bank a few hundred meters from the original set. His find included a shoulder blade and other various pieces. Upon further inspection, a feature with fire-cracked rock was discovered as well as a hearth or campfire that had been perfectly cross-cut by the bank.
Andy was interested in excavating this because it was a small intact feature that was easily accessible and could be collected and analyzed for carbon dating. So, with tools in hand, Andy diligently excavated the site and collected the materials for analysis.
At the end of the day, Andy, Sam and David went back to the house for a relaxed evening not knowing that I would be calling on their services later that night for an emergency excavation! As the evening progressed, so did the rain clouds.
Chapter 5: A Harrowing Rescue
As I lay in bed that night, I could hear the water pouring down and pondered if any of our newly discovered bones would be there in the morning. I decided that I just had to check on the fossils. So, armed with mud boots and a flashlight, I trudged my way through the muck and rain out to the bank where to my surprise, a fast flowing stream of water had begun to rise in the dry creek.
I was reminded of the flood waters that fast approached in earlier years and decided I had to act. I quickly made my way to the area where the new bones lay and found that several of them had already begun to fall to the base of the bank. I hastily moved them to higher ground and made my way back to the house. I told my husband that we had an emergency on our hands and that I just had to go wake up the guys to help me save the bones!
When I got to the house, I intruded on their quiet evening and with a little panic in my voice and told them of what I had witnessed. Like true superheroes, they jumped up, grabbed their gear and out the door they flew. It was quite serious but seemed so funny at the time…the super-archaeologists were on a mission to “save the bones” and that is just what they did.
Although, the funniest part was that in my mind, they would need to carefully extract each bone, write detailed notes, and carefully pack away each bone. In reality, they just ran down the path to the bones, opened their bags, and began filling them with whatever bones they could find—digging through the mud and water to find any pieces that had already fallen out of the bank and were being washed downstream. I remember saying to them “Geez, I could have done this—I didn’t need to disturb you guys and ask you to come all the way over here just to do that.” It was a comical series of events but a relief nonetheless to know that all the bones had been saved. Of course, when the hasty rescue was finished, Andy, Sam and David spent plenty of time carefully taking care of the collected bones and recording what information they could from each piece.
With such an eventful visit and all the new discoveries, the archaeologists seemed more determined to host a field school at the preserve and expose students to this hands-on training. I was very excited to hear renewed enthusiasm in their voices and offered to do whatever was necessary to get the ball rolling on the project. Of course, the field school would not be until the following summer, and I would have to wait it out a little bit longer.
Chapter 6: The Big Dig
Now, the time has finally come and the bison teeth have managed to hang in there on that eroded bank until now. I have managed to hang in there as well—putting my patience to the test and keeping my curiosity at bay. Earlier this week (June 5th to be exact), the crew rolled in to the Independence Creek Preserve with all of their gear in tow. I was so excited to see them and anxious for them to get started.
They began the week by placing a 1 meter x 2 meter test plot on the bank directly above where the original bison remains were found. Their goal is to dig down to the soil layer which holds the bison while inventorying any and all artifacts/features along the way. Excavation of the first 70 meters consisted of digging, scooping and sifting the soil to find what they could from the plot using less intensive techniques.
During this meticulous process, they have found a variety of tools used by early native Americans including scrapers and handfuls of “flakes” that had been chipped off of larger flint cores and unfinished pieces. They are currently entering the area of soil they were aiming for and have already found some interesting tools, but no new bones as of yet.
Maybe tomorrow will yield some new exciting discoveries!
To be continued…
(Image 1: Bison fossils. Source: Lisa Wrinke/TNC. Image 2: Archaeologist Andy Cloud is about to the excavate the campfire (the darker crescent shape in the bank). Source: Lisa Wrinkle/TNC.)