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Excavation

Archaeological feature excavated during early planning for the Headwaters Site Project.

What Sort of Work Have We Been Doing?

Historic buildings and prehistoric objects have been substantial influences on the Headwaters at the Comal’s ultimate design. These irreplaceable resources continue to provide a wealth of excitement and interpretive context – and an ample dose of challenges – for the facility and its visitors as the project moves along.

Survey and Site Identification

Archaeologists have been a part of the Headwaters at the Comal development process since 2014 when the first archaeological survey was completed prior to construction. During that survey, archaeologists recorded archaeologically significant components of Site 41CM204 along with other areas that had been extensively disturbed during prior utility construction. In addition, from the 1930s through the 1950s, virtually all of the central half of the property had housed a massive fish rearing pond (an artificial pond that recently-hatched stock fish are raised to be released elsewhere). Archaeologists’ trenches indicated that this pond’s construction had destroyed any soils that might have otherwise contained important remnants of the site.

In addition to the archaeological resources, significant historic buildings attributed to the property’s use as the first municipal water supply for the City of New Braunfels were also investigated in more detail during this survey. The researchers concluded that a collection of 1930s-era stone buildings, water supply wells, and a concrete cylindrical cap over the Comal Spring were all parts of a historically significant New Braunfels Water Works District. Read more about the Headwaters Site’s historic background here.

41CM204 is a “site trinomial”, a nation-wide archaeological site numbering system developed by the Smithsonian Institution. The first number “41” represents Texas, the 41st state in alphabetical order. “CM” is the two-letter abbreviation for Comal County (other examples: “BX” for Bexar, “HY” for Hays, “TV” for Travis, etc.). The number at the end, in this case “204”, indicates this is the 204th site recorded in this county. The trinomial system is handy for archaeologists to reference specific site information or even to know how heavily an area was occupied or surveyed. For instance, Bexar County has more than 2200 recorded archaeological sites, while somewhere like Kenedy County along the coast is only up to 41KN23.

Monitoring

As construction kicked off in earnest, archaeologists occasionally visited the site to assure that no new artifacts or prehistoric living surfaces were damaged. As the work progressed, it was found that the fish rearing pond hadn’t caused as much damage to the site as was initially estimated. Additional undamaged portions of the prehistoric archaeological site remained in excellent condition. Archaeologists observed numerous small prehistoric rock hearths, stone tools, and preserved plant and animal remains that were in the path of the construction. While progress at the Headwaters continued, the development team, archaeologists, and federal and state representatives worked together to develop plans to conduct a larger, more detailed excavation at this increasingly significant archaeological site to learn more about how these earliest residents of the New Braunfels area lived.

Archaeologist, Mason Miller, pointing out some of the archaeological remains observed in the walls of newly-installed utility trenches at the Headwaters Site.

For a little fun, go to Google Earth and search “Headwaters at the Comal”, activate the time slider in the top of the image and go back to November 15, 2016 and you can see the group working through their plans while doing a site walk-through!

Water Flow Monitoring Vault Excavations

While Headwaters construction was ongoing, another project was completed on the property. This project involved installing/upgrading water flow monitoring equipment over three existing water lines in the well yard near Comal Springs. Archaeologists conducted their first controlled excavations in one of those locations, finding additional prehistoric hearths and artifacts (including the first recovery of prehistoric ceramics from the site) that placed the deposits in this location between the Early Archaic and Late Prehistoric periods (8800 to 500 B.P.). The archaeologists were able to dig down within these units to expose a continuous, vertical soil column, that, when compared to the recovered artifact counts, indicated distinct, overlapping occupational zones. You can see these zones in the horizontal profile drawing where the line graph has three peaks at different depths. In other words, the excavations in this area showed a series of periods, separated by centuries or millennia, where different people lived on the site. These occupational layers provide researchers with excellent opportunities to learn about people by comparing the findings from one group with another, identifying how different people lived at the site differently. One of the hallmarks of significant archaeological sites.

What We’ve Learned So Far

Archaeologists have found that the Headwaters property is a largely intact, heavily utilized landform that contains numerous, mostly small, isolated thermal features (hearths) and occasional large middens, scattered all around. These features consisted of burned rocks, i.e., rocks that were heated-up and used for slow cooking, or rocks that were arranged in a circle or bowl to contain a cooking fire. In most instances, these features contained plant material such as seeds and nuts, bone fragments from animals, charcoal, stone tools, and debris from tool-making, suggesting good organic preservation and excellent research opportunities.

So far, nine radiocarbon samples have been submitted for analysis. Of these, six produced a cluster of dates ranging from the later centuries of the Middle Archaic to the early Late Archaic (generally 3000–4000 years BP). An additional carbon sample from a feature near Blieders Creek returned a date to the Late Prehistoric period, likely extending the occupation at the site at least to within the last 800 years. One radiocarbon sample collected during the vault excavations produced an Early Archaic-age date, roughly 7,900 years ago. Watch this video for a quick summary of how radiocarbon dating works.

In addition, 25 temporally diagnostic lithic tools (primarily dart, spear, and arrow points) collected during monitoring and vault excavations support the radiocarbon sample data with very fine Middle Archaic and Middle-to-Late Archaic examples. Nine additional points from the Early Archaic and Paleoindian periods, however, suggest the site has been occupied throughout the range of recorded human history in the area. There is also an outside chance that early-Paleoindian (older than 11,000 years BP) artifacts are below of all the other deposits.

Animal remains from the site included a range of species, but the most common bones were from large mammals, such as deer, and very large mammals, such as bison. Deer and bison were not the only animals at the site though. Rabbits, turtles, and birds were among the assemblage as well. We do not yet know if all of these types of animals were eaten, or if they were just living in the area at the same time the people were there.Unfortunately, the archaeologists discovered that the soils containing the Late Prehistoric and early Historic deposits had been removed from a large area of the site, most likely from land developments in the twentieth century. Artifacts and features dating to the Late Prehistoric and early Historic periods were not found above the Late Archaic material—instead, a thick layer of asphalt base material was identified directly atop intact deposits. Though these later occupations are likely no longer around, particularly in the vicinity of the buildings and the asphalt-covered areas, there are some small pockets of Late Prehistoric deposits elsewhere at the site that can be recovered, such as near Blieders Creek.

The Excavations

Archaeologists took what has been learned so far to figure out what more could be learned from additional investigations at Site 41CM204. Digging out features and gathering artifacts is all well and good, but what they really wanted to know about the site is how people lived there, and why the Comal Springs were such a great place to be (in addition to its natural beauty and fresh water, of course). To find out more, the team came up with a set of questions about the past lives of those people, and then set about figuring out what information they needed to answer those questions. “How did people live there?” “Were they there for a short time, like a campsite, or long term, like a village?” “How did it change over time?” “In what ways did the environment change over time?” “What did they cook?” “How did they cook it?” “What tools were used?” “How did they hunt?” and so on.

Once the questions were set, the team figured out how to get the answers. Archaeologists set up four excavations blocks in various locations around the site, avoiding the buildings and the landscaping already put in place. The blocks ranged in size, but were set up using a metric grid system. It’s like setting a imaginary grid over the whole site and digging out some of the squares. The blocks were placed near locations where features (hearths, artifact concentrations, etc.) had already been found, to see if the team could find more. Since the site was known to have really deep deposits, some units (each square in the grid) were dug out to 3 or more meters below the ground. That’s almost 10 feet down!

Overall, the team planned to excavate around 90 “cubes,” or 90 1-x-1-x-1 meter blocks (think Minecraft blocks (below). For comparison, that amount of dirt would fill over 4,755 5-gallon buckets, or create a pile over 14 feet high. That much dirt would weigh roughly 135 tons (122,000 kilograms), about as much as a blue whale (or 20 Tyrannosaurus rexes! or 14.7 million pencils…). Our backs feel sore just writing about it! These units were excavated by hand, using shovels, trowels, and brushes. Once the dirt was pulled out, it was screened. That is, it was put through a giant sieve in which all the dirt fell out the bottom, and the artifacts stayed in the screen. Then, the artifacts were sorted, counted, weighed, and put in paper bags. The team also collected samples for carbon dating, micro and macro botanical analysis (looking at plant pollen [micro] and fibers [macro]), and other special studies such as burned soil, organic residue, and some of the burned rocks. Results of this testing and reporting are still to come!

This all seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Well, it is…

And while everyone at the Headwaters at the Comal wants to do their part to protect the site on which they’re working, the project is also subject to state and federal laws that manage archaeological and historical sites like these as well: the most notable being the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the Antiquities Code of Texas. Archaeological sites, historic structures, and other elements of human culture are grouped under the collective umbrella of “Cultural Resources.” Management of significant cultural resources is often brought into consideration in construction projects across the country.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966

At the federal level, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (as amended), and more specifically Section 106 of that Act, requires that federal agencies take into account the effects their actions could have on significant cultural resources. Significant cultural resources are those archaeological sites, historic buildings or districts, or other cultural sites that are listed on or considered eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Federal actions may include construction on lands owned by a federal agency (such as an Army base or a National Park), federal funds being issued for a non-federal project (such as road construction funds issued through the Federal Highway Administration), or permits (such as a permit issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers permitting construction-related impacts to a Water of the US). In all of these instances, Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires a federal agency to ask itself: “If I do this – If I issue this permit for construction or if I add this runway on this Air Force Base or if I give this local group money for construction – what is this going to to do important cultural resources?” The agencies consult with local parties including State and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO and THPO – respectively) to determine what is important and what should be done to manage those important resources. Texas’ State Historic Preservation Office is the Texas Historical Commission in Austin while each federally-recognized tribe has their own Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. For this project, New Braunfels Utilities needed a permit through the United States Army Corps of Engineers for the Headwaters’ construction near federally-managed waterways and in the process the Corps needed to know “If we issue this permit, what could happen to important archaeological and historic resources? And if there are important resources there, what should we do to make up for any damage that might come from construction?”

The Antiquities Code of Texas

In addition to federal laws, this project was located within Texas, which has its own state-level archaeological resource law: the Antiquities Code of Texas (ACT). Signed into law by Governor Preston Smith in 1969, the ACT requires that construction on any public lands owned by the State of Texas or any political subdivision thereof (counties, cities, public universities, utility districts, etc.) must evaluate and coordinate potential impacts to significant archaeological resources on these lands. Like Section 106, the ACT requires coordination with the Texas Historical Commission to determine what is important and what should be done to manage those resources.

Since this project required federal funds and permits and furthermore took place on lands owned by a political subdivision of the State of Texas (in this instance NBU), investigations at 41CM204 were completed under both federal and state laws. Through the Section 106 and ACT evaluation and coordination process, several historic- and prehistoric-age remnants located at the Headwaters Site were determined to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and as State Antiquities Landmarks (SALs), thus requiring the excavations that took place.

Public Outreach

It was a truly unique opportunity for a project like the Headwaters at the Comal to come along, whose mission of community outreach, conservation, and the relationship between people and the natural world are so perfectly amplified by the archaeology that underlies it. With the help of serendipity, the Headwaters at the Comal team wanted to make the most of this opportunity and much like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, it wouldn’t matter if people weren’t there to experience it as well.

During the excavations (October 2018 – March 2019), visitors were invited to  tour the site and talk to the archaeologists. They could even earn their “Honorary Archaeologist” badge by sifting through dirt to find artifacts (sorry, no one got to keep them, though…) and contribute to this important part of Texas’ history. You can read weekly for updates from the excavation blog here.

And, we knew many people are busy or living hundreds or thousands of miles away. How could they experience the site? Roughly once a week, one of our archaeologists hosted a live video stream from the site on YouTube Live, where they talked about the work that was going on, answered questions, and dug a little deeper into some of the “Why” and “How” archaeology questions that were asked by visitors.

We also hosted special evening and weekend tours to look into topics including prehistoric food, climate change and the historic buildings on the Headwaters site. You can read more about those programs in the weekly excavation blog posts on our site.

You can get caught up on all of these opportunities bookmarking this site. You can also get caught up on past videos and get alerts on future videos by subscribing to our YouTube Channel, and, of course, follow us, like us, and all that other fun.

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