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Ancient Southwest Texas Project excavations hoping to shed new light on ancient Southwest Texas

Photo by: Karina Rivera | Staff Photographer
Dr. Black leads the Archeology Program in making some impressive findings in uncovering the development of the Lower Pecos region.

The Center for Archeological Studies is researching what was thought to be a simple hunter-gatherer culture. The excavation, located in a mile-wide canyon downstream from Langtry, Texas, is revealing itself to be much more.

The excavation is known as the Ancient Southwest Texas Project. Steve Black, anthropology associate professor, launched the long-term research program in 2009, according to the project’s website.

Researchers returned to Eagle Nest Canyon in January with 10 staff members and graduate students.

The main focus is a trench excavation of Eagle Cave, a rock shelter believed to be used for over 15,000 years by hunter-gatherer tribes. An alluvial terrace known as Sayles Adobe is another point of emphasis for the crew.

The two sites are different types of shelters, according to Victoria Pagano, anthropology graduate student currently working her thesis on the Sayles Adobe site.

There are few sites like Sayles Adobe in the canyon, Pagano said. It is located in the middle of the canyon rather than under a rock shelter.

“(I’m conducting) a comparative analysis of the activities that would happen there at the open sites compared to the rock shelter sites that would happen there at Eagle Nest Canyon,” Pagano said.

The canyon is home to famous sites such as the Bonfire Shelter and some of the most intricate and complex primitive art murals in the world.

“Historically, the Lower Pecos Canyonlands have always been a harsh environment,” said Britt Bousman, anthropology professor. “We have evidence of what we thought was a primitive hunter-gatherer society, but are now realizing that these people had very complex understanding of spirituality and how to survive in such an arid environment.”

Amanda Casteneda, research team member, recently finished her master’s thesis on the ground-stone mortar and pestle found in the canyon. She said the team discovered the society was eating a varied diet.

“They were able to process many different types of food out there,” Casteneda said.

The team is currently excavating the two sites in the canyon and gathering material and data for analysis in the lab.

“With every year in the field, you will need at least three to four years in the lab analyzing the material,” Black said. “There is a lot we can learn from from studying the remains of cultures, but at this stage, it is mostly just reconnaissance.”

The site also serves as a field school for archeology students who are trying to gain hands-on experience.

“This serves as a great chance to educate students,” Bousman said. “That is one of the most important reasons we are out at Eagle Nest Canyon.”