Digging for Treasure

UT’s Archaeology Field School trains future archaeologists—and yields thousands of ancient artifacts

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Ten miles north of the Forty Acres lies the West Pickle Research Campus—a nondescript office park just off Mopac Expressway. A brambly footpath winds into a small patch of woods, and at the trail’s end, 27 students are digging in the dirt.

“We’re essentially digging for treasure,” says Jenna Vonhofe, a biology and anthropology major. “On the first day out here, we played the Indiana Jones theme.”

Vonhofe and her classmates are enrolled in UT’s Archaeology Field School. Since 2008, the summer class has brought future archaeologists—and plenty of Indiana Jones fans from other disciplines—to get a taste of what fieldwork is like.

“This is the best way to get your feet wet in archaeology,” says UT archaeologist Fred Valdez, who also takes students to field school in Belize. “It’s a wonderful career, but it’s not for everyone.”

Only about 10 percent of the students, Valdez says, will go on to graduate school in archaeology. But all will leave the dig with a newfound appreciation for the diligence, meticulousness, and patience required in the field.

“When they find their first artifact, their eyes light up,” says graduate student Stacy Drake, a teaching assistant for the course. “And out here, we work as a team—it’s more collaborative than a traditional student-teacher relationship, which is fun.”

Valdez has been bringing students to the North Austin site each summer since 2008. All of Central Texas is archaeologically rich, he says, but this particular site is well-suited to excavation because of its proximity to water.

“We’re a few steps away from the beginning of Shoal Creek,” Valdez says. “People gravitate to water. This site was used for thousands of years for food processing.”

Finds at the site—which number in the thousands—include stone dart points that are up to 10,000 years old. The dart points were used much like a spear or knife, Valdez says.

But when you spend a summer digging, you unearth a lot more than the ancient tools you set out to find.

“Buttons, pieces of glass, a Snapple bottle from 1998, horseshoes, ceramic shards, barbed wire, and more,” graduate student Deborah Trein says. “We’ve seen it all.”

Like many archaeological sites, the North Austin site has been plagued by looters, who took artifacts, left trash,  and disturbed the layers of earth that help the researchers date each find. Learning to work around the damage is another vital experience for undergraduates.

“It’s great to see the students start recognizing problems and coming up with solutions on their own,” Drake says.

This week, as the class ends, the students are re-filling the pits with dirt and leaving the site just as they found it. In the fall, Valdez and his students will present their research at conferences and in academic journals.

“I never thought I’d enjoy waking up at 6 a.m.,” Vonhofe says. “But for this, I did.”

Photos by Matt Valentine.


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