AUSTIN (KXAN) - At an archeological dig in far North Austin, University of Texas graduate student Stacy Drake holds two Native American artifacts in her hand. One is a dart point. That's a piece of rock, larger than an arrowhead, carefully chipped away to create a sharp pointed blade that could be attached to the end of a spear. The other artifact, somewhat smaller, is similar, and yet different in a fundamental way.
"This little one on the right here," says Drake, "is one of my favorites that we've ever found at the site because it looks like a dart; it has the base of a dart point. But at some point in time the natives who created it decided that it was no longer useful as a dart and so they started modifying it into a drill."
Gone on the modified piece is the sharp point at the end. It has been deliberately chipped away, leaving in its place above the base, a perfectly round and smooth shape, similar to a pencil. The very end of it is broken away, but it's clear that before that, the tool could easily have been used to drill into a bone or a piece of hide.
The experience of digging meticulously into the ground, one thin layer at a time, and unearthing such a tool sends shivers up the spine of people like Drake and fellow graduate student Debora Trein.
"We get to discover things every day," said Trein, "and things that haven't been looked at or touched for thousands of years."
"We have everything from historic, so from the early farmstead that used to be here we have glass and bullet cases and things like that.
And then we go back in time thousands of years to the archaic people that were here between maybe 6,000 years ago to 1000 AD, so it's a long span of time."
Trein, Drake and Robyn Dodge, a third graduate student teaching assistant have at their disposal a small army of worker ants to peel back the layers of the previously looted site near the university's J.J. Pickle Research Center.
"We get students who come in from all different backgrounds," said Dodge, "all different majors."
The undergraduates aren't just there to provide cheap labor. From the ground, they are digging up a significant part of their education.
"I'm getting six hours of credit right here," said senior anthropology major Chase Lumpkin, "for digging in the dirts and getting my hands dirty and playing in the mud instead of being in a classroom. I'd rather choose that over being in a boring classroom any day."
As Lumpkin passes another load of soil through a sifting apparatus, other students nearby are getting a lesson from Trein about the things they are finding in the dirt.
"This is what's called a primary flake," she says, "explaining that small chunk was among the first pieces to be knocked off a rock to create a stone tool.
The goal," said Dodge, "is to really just turn out students with skills to think differently about the world they live in, differently about the past, think differently about Austin; it has such a rich history culturally. And the students are a part of it; it's all original research."
But just because the work at the site is a training project does not mean it is any less rigorous than the search for human ancestors on the plains of Africa.
"We have to be sound in our methods," Dodge said. "We have to make sure that we're documenting everything precisely. The context from which the artifacts come out of is very important because there is information in the soil. There is information in the surrounding environment. We want to be responsible in interpreting that and responsible in training the students."
Part of the lesson includes creating a respect for the entire approach.
"The excavation is a very destructive process," Dodge went on. "The soil is coming out of the ground; we're churning things up.
"So we can only excavate once and we have to document it because it cannot be done again. Once you take the dirt out, once you pull the artifacts, you can't put them back exactly as you found them.
"So we catalogue everything. We map features. We are very careful in photography and illustrations."
But as the students dig, sweep, dump and sift, they learn about more than just procedure. They get inside the heads of people who wandered the land as long as 6,000 years ago.
"We always try to figure out or imagine," said Trein, "what that person might have been, or of the thought process that might have been going through that person's head while they were making that point.
"Sometimes by looking at tools, we can actually figure out how that person moved about the point, making it.
"There are studies that suggest that you can even tell whether that person was left- or right-handed. So these are all little pieces of evidence that give us an insight into a person's life thousands of years ago.
"We can sometimes figure out what they were eating. We get lots of fauna material, animal bones that are out here, things like deer, for instance.
"We might also get clues," Dodge
added, "from perhaps botanical material, plant remains, that kind of thing. We can look at the chert and perhaps even see where they were sourcing that stone from, who they may have been trading with.
"It's almost like you see the whole landscape changing and you see all of these different types of people, groups of people interacting here in this particular spot."
No matter what group of humans occupied the site at any one time though, they had one thing in common: They were drawn to the place by the water they found there. Even today, a spring ejects clean water to the surface, water that forms the headwaters of Shoal Creek, now a mostly dry creek bed farther downstream as it meanders through Austin to the Colorado River.
"Even in the Texas drought," Trein said, "there's still water running there. So this would have probably been a nice, a nice place to live."
At his sifting post near the creek, the undergraduate Lumpkin hedges his bets.
"I find human origins fascinating," he said. "So I find this place very interesting. I don't know if I'm going to stick with archeology my whole entire life but this is definitely a good starting point."
Looking around at Lumpkin and the rest of the students, Dodge smiled.
"Maybe they're inspired," she said. "Maybe they go on to grad school and become archeologists or maybe they realize it's not for them, because, you know, it's very tedious and meticulous.
"It's not for everybody but at least they participated in something that's pretty special."
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