The Things They Carried

Inside the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory.


On a day 4,000 years ago, a man living in what is now Southwest Texas’ Val Verde County set out on a hunting expedition. He packed a small woven pouch with the essentials: darts and scrapers made from sharpened stones, red ochre dye for painting, a set of sharp rodent jaws for ritual bloodletting, and a handful of hallucinogenic seeds. A robe sewn from rabbit pelts kept him warm.

What happened next is a mystery. It’s possible the hunter fell ill and died while on his trip, or maybe bad weather forced him to flee and leave his bag behind. One way or another, his pouch ended up tucked inside a cliffside cave. The cool, dry air in the cave kept the bag in nearly pristine condition until a UT archaeologist named A.M. Woolsey dug it up in 1936.

IMG_6505Today it sits in a drawer locked inside a cabinet, which is itself locked inside a climate-controlled room inside the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory. The bag is the star item in the lab’s collection, and it’s not hard to see why. Peering down at the pile of possessions feels weirdly intimate, like rifling through a stranger’s dresser drawers when he could return at any moment. Only this stranger has been gone for a very long time.

“Who was he? Where was he going?” asks Marybeth Tomka, BA ’81, MA ’88, the lab’s head of collections. “There are so many questions we can’t answer in archaeology. But the preservation is just phenomenal. To get a window into one prehistoric person’s way of life like this…” She trails off. “Let’s just say it’s extremely rare.”

Like many of the university’s most fascinating research spaces (see also: the nuclear reactor, the self-driving car, the Mach Five wind tunnel), the lab is tucked away at the Pickle Research Campus in north Austin. The occasional grad student can be spotted scurrying between the squat, beige buildings with coffee mug in hand, but mostly the campus is eerily quiet. And the archaeologists at TARL like it that way.

“We’re charged with protecting cultural resources,” says associate director Jonathan Jarvis, “and we take that responsibility very seriously.” The lab contains records on all 76,840 archaeological sites ever documented in Texas, but because of vandalism and privacy concerns, the collection is closed to the public. It’s even exempt from a Freedom of Information Act request.

That doesn’t mean the lab isn’t busy. On the day of our visit, UT anthropologist Deborah Bolnick and research fellow Jennifer Raff are working in the Humans Remains Collection. Wearing medical gloves and masks, they delicately handle a cardboard box filled with bones from a 3,500-year-old site called Skyline Shelter. Bolnick and Raff will take a few small samples of bone back to the main campus to perform an ancient DNA analysis. Mapping the genes of prehistoric people helps researchers piece together how and when humans migrated across Texas. “The ‘original original Texans,’” staff osteologist Kerry Wilhelm, BA ’03, calls them. The oldest remains in the collection are those of Leanne, a woman who was buried 11,000 years ago in present-day Leander.

Down the hall, 3,300 pieces of pottery fill the shelves of the Whole Vessel Collection. This room holds the world’s largest known collection of vessels from the Caddo, a Native American tribe still living in East Texas. Surprisingly, the priceless bowls and pitchers sit naked on the shelves, unwrapped and unboxed. Many artifacts are safest stored this way, Tomka explains, since researchers could damage items while removing them from packaging. Still, I’m afraid to sneeze.

White sheets are draped from floor to ceiling on the wire fencing around the vessel collection as a small gesture honoring the dead. “The vast majority of these vessels come from burial sites,” Tomka explains, “and we treat them with respect.” Throughout our tour, as she and her colleagues gently handle artifacts, their light touch and hushed voices convey not just caution, but reverence, too. The archaeologists seem never to forget that these bodies and objects belonged to real people who lived real lives—the “original original Texans.”

Photos by Anna Donlan


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