Schoolchildren visiting the Gault Site in Bell County likely can be heard for miles as they holler into the Texas brush, “Archaeologists don’t dig dinosaurs!” Then they return home and make sure their parents know that it’s paleontologists who mess around with fossils. Archaeologists are looking to explain human history as expressed through its technology, its ancient tools.

“We’re interested in all of humans’ past, starting with five minutes ago,” said D. Clark Wernecke, Ph.D., the executive director of the Gault School of Archaeological Research, a nonprofit organization staffed with archaeologists working to make sense of the millions of artifacts from the Gault Site.

The oldest prehistoric archaeological site in the United States, dating back tens of thousands of years, is just east of Florence. Yet more Europeans inquire about the Gault Site than Bell County folks, Wernecke said.

“TV programs give the impression that archaeology is found elsewhere: the pyramids, Angkor Wat. People say, ‘I wish we had some cool archaeology, too,’” Wernecke said “Well, we do, right in Bell County.”

Deep in the woods, people are digging holes, then painstakingly passing dirt through screens to see what pops up. Then the artifacts are sorted and analyzed, often in college laboratories.

The results of all the blood, sweat and tears of field excavation are pages upon pages of reports. Artifacts are washed, catalogued, analyzed before being stashed in endless rows of drawers at curation facilities.

Still, archaeology, with its mountains of dirt, enlivens a dusty historical record.

“Archaeology is a way for people to understand their shared heritage,” Wernecke said. “It also feeds a sense of local pride, provides correct knowledge about history and reveals complexities that aren’t always apparent by the written historical record.”

Wernecke said Americans tend to have a different relationship to history than folks in Europe, where Old World archaeology is popular and every child knows about Paleolithic cave paintings.   

Yet in school textbooks, little is written about the U.S. prior to European contact. Wernecke said one of the popular fourth-grade textbooks has 2 1/2 pages on 16,000 years of history.

The Gault Site

Gault feels like a long way from Killeen, but it’s really only about 25 minutes on farm roads winding through the rough-and-tumble Hill Country. The site is enveloped by commercial quarrying operations.

The rocky resources were just as popular 16,000 years ago, with the Native American inhabitants, as they are today. Dr. Tom Williams, assistant executive director of the site, has sharp eyes, locating several stone tools on a walk through the site. The ground was paved with stone flakes, the bits of chert left over from making stone tools.

Buttermilk Creek, a tributary of the Salado River, runs through the site, dipping underground in places.

“It was a wonderful place to live,” Wernecke said. “It’s in an ecotome, or ecological transitional area, so it was like living between HEB and Home Depot, with plenty of resources to exploit.”

The Edwards Plateau is ripe with freshwater springs and because of a dash of lucky geology, it also is replete with chert. Edwards Plateau chert tools have been found 1,500 miles away and the region was one of the largest sources in North America, Wernecke said.

Archaeologists have known about the site since the 1920s, but modern excavations started in 1998 with archaeologists from the University of Texas at Austin.

“There might be other sites like it elsewhere, but likely no longer exist; because of flooding it’s hard to find really old sites,” Wernecke said.  

Archaeologists have defined 22 distinct technologies that can be found on Texas sites.

“Gault has all 22, plus one more that’s older than all of them that we didn’t know about before,” he said.

They were astounded to find evidence of people living in the area 16,000 years ago, which is earlier than Clovis technology.  Clovis technology, first identified in New Mexico and named after a town there, previously was thought to be the first cultural technology in the Americas.

Before the Gault Site was excavated, artifacts from all North American sites predating Clovis would fit on a folding table.

“We have 150,000 artifacts from that stratum at Gault, including the oldest house in North America,” he said.

It even had a stone floor.

“No one wants to sleep on that Texas clay and wake up all wet,” Wernecke said. So the inhabitants pushed together a gravel bar and held it together with a structure.

More than 2.6 million artifacts were recovered from excavations of just 3 percent of the Gault Site.

“It’s an obscene amount of stuff,” Wernecke said. “Finding 30,000 artifacts is a really awesome site and here we have millions. People will be working on this collection for a hundred years.”

Already 13 master’s theses and six doctoral dissertations have resulted from independent research of the site’s collection, he said.

Archaeologists uncovered 600,000 Clovis artifacts at the site and some of the earliest art in the New World: small stones incised with geometric designs.

Archaeologists used optically stimulated luminescence technology to date the dirt in various layers in the site.

“OSL analyzes tiny particles of quartz and feldspar in the soil to determine when that dirt last saw the sun,” he said. It is a method that can reveal incredibly old dates, as opposed to carbon dating. “In Texas, we lose many organics older than 2,000 years,” he said.

Archaeologists are no longer excavating the main site, but are putting in a few small test units on a new piece of property, just uphill from the Gault Site’s wooded valley. “We’ve been peeking over the fence for a long time, wondering what was up there, and we’re pretty sure it’s going to be part of the Gault Site,” Wernecke said.

The landowner agreed to let archaeologists dig on his property.

Archaeologists are driven to dig, so it wasn’t easy to move past the excavation phase of the main site area.

“There’s always the tiny, tiny chance that if I dig just 2 meters this way is that jade monkey we’ve always been looking for,” Wernecke said with a laugh. “But it takes time, money and personnel to excavate a site.”

Artifacts found in Texas go into one of seven curation facilities that act like lending libraries for archaeologists and students. “Every day in the field equals about 40 days in the lab,” Wernecke said. It also costs money to have a collection stored in perpetuity, as the Gault collection will be at the labs at Texas State University and the University of Texas at Austin.

Thousands of volunteers have worked at the Gault Site, which is one reason why the organization won the Preserve America Stewards award under the Obama administration.  

The Gault Site is a Texas Historical Commission State Historical Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

What was it like?

No group of people more than archaeologists wish they could push a magical button and travel back in time, but science can reveal quite a bit, such as how the environment changed.

Right now it’s covered with low brush, grass and cacti sprouting their yellow flowers, but 13,000 years ago it would have been a relatively open live oak savannah with less prickly pear and juniper. “You would see nice tall grass and, with moister soil, it would stay green even in dry years,” Wernecke said. “It’s just a magical place.”

He said there is evidence that the Gault Site was a place for bands of people to gather, socialize and trade goods. “That might explain the sheer quantity of stuff here,” Wernecke said, gesturing to a valley floor littered with thousands of chert flakes and tools.

“Sometimes people have an idea that people were savage, but really humans have not changed all that much,” Wernecke said. “They were worried about the kids, were working toward their next meal and when they banged their finger on a rock they yelled in frustration.”

Wernecke said as hunter-gatherers at the Gault Site, people would have spent about 20 percent of their time working. In farming cultures the time spent working is closer to 85 percent.

Bell County archaeology

Wernecke estimated archaeologists are aware of about 10 percent of the sites in the county.

“Bell County is unusual in that way, because in most Texas counties only about 1 percent of sites have been discovered,” he said.

Archaeologists use mapping tools to determine likely spots for sites but it’s not terribly complicated: “If you have water, you have people,” Wernecke said.

Cultural resource management, or archaeology funded in federal and state contracts, is a driving factor for the high number of sites recorded in Bell County, but it also skews the research when most of the county’s 1,600 recorded sites are on Fort Hood or on the drainages near the two dams.  

Wernecke said that in Texas Historical Commission maps of recorded sites, Fort Hood stands out bright red, inundated with sites marked with red dots. Then two red arms extend out: the Leon and Lampasas River drainages.

The Corps of Engineers paid for archaeological surveys along the drainages of the Leon and Lampasas Rivers, which feed Lake Belton and Stillhouse Hollow, respectively.

Archaeological research at Fort Hood is robust, with about 60 research reports so far. “Fort Hood is huge so (private) companies are always working out there; it’ll take forever,” Wernecke said.

“At Fort Hood, sites range from Paleoindian to a German P.O.W. camp,” he said. In Texas, Paleoindian sites date from 10,000 to 6,000 BCE, or Before the Christian Era, according to the Texas Historical Commission.

Killeen is growing in a southward trajectory, and archaeological sites will be impacted by the growth. “There are large areas of land south of Killeen with no recorded sites, but that’s because it’s private land,” Wernecke said. The most known artifact in the county now resides in the nation’s capital.

The Bell County Gorget can be seen in the American Indian Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

“It’s so unusual, it’s a national treasure,” Wernecke said. Road crews unearthed the circular shell pendant in the 1930s before a Temple dentist and historian acquired it.

It is engraved with a panther and a falcon or eagle. People from the Caddoan Tribe created it about 1,700 years ago, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

Preservation act

Thanks to Section 106 in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, archaeology has to be considered on any project requiring federal money, such as roads, bridges, pipelines and power lines; and on federal land such as military installations.

The state legislature passed the Texas Antiquities Code in 1969, requiring archaeological research on state-owned lands.

Under the NHPA, “historic structures that would be affected by federal projects — or by work that was federally funded — now had to be documented to standards issued by the Secretary of the Interior,” according to the National Park Service. Additionally, the law required states to form historic preservation offices to oversee and inventory sites, leading to the Texas Historical Commission.

Archaeologists operate under the review process outlined in Section 106 of the act: “Determining whether the work to be done would harm a site and if so, a way to avoid or minimize that harm,” according to the National Park Service.

One of the state agencies that funds archaeological work is the Texas Department of Transportation. TXDOT representatives could not provide exact figures on the amount of money spent on archaeology, but said the annual figure comprises less than 1 percent of the budget of an average road project.

“We’re committed to preserving the state’s historical information and natural resources for future generations,” said Kenneth Roberts, spokesman. “Archaeological sites are considered with due diligence.”

Even with antiquities protections, Wernecke said, the country has a “haphazard approach” to cultural resource management. It is done when required by law and when archaeologists are invited onto private land, with little in between, he said.

The law provides no protection for sites on private lands.  

“East of I-35, fewer sites are known, not because they’re not there but because it’s all private property,” Wernecke said. “So to find anything on private property we have to be invited by someone who is interested in archaeology and is not scared of archaeologists.”

A love of archaeology

Williams remembers feeling a sense of awe when he was a volunteer at the Gault Site, deep in a trench and seeing only walls of dirt seeming to close on all sides. “It’s a job and you’re thinking about what needs to get done and then you find a cool artifact and you realize you’re the first person to see, to hold, this item in 16,000 years,” Williams said. “It’s a special connection, a direct link to human ancestry.”

Wernecke agreed.

“You’re touching history; it’s not in a museum behind glass and a red rope.”

Wernecke long has nourished a love of history, devouring books as soon as he could read. “Then I found out you could touch history, maybe even make history, and I became fascinated with archaeology,” he said.

Still, his road didn’t lead directly to the field, but to business first. “I took some undergrad classes but I didn’t see a clear career path until the early 1990s,” Wernecke said. “I got the opportunity to go back to school and get my M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology, and I’ve been working in archaeology full-time ever since.”

In archaeology, good days can be really good while bad days are truly awful; both are equally memorable.

In the good column, both Wernecke and Williams met their wives on sites. Meanwhile, people still remember the 114-degree day that shattered records and threatened to break spirits.

“It didn’t feel a bit over 105,” Wernecke said with a grin.

Wernecke and Williams both see connections between the past, present and future.

“Archaeology gives us a deep-time perspective on key issues,” Wernecke said. “Here we are looking at the earliest people in the Americas, and they were dealing with a swiftly changing climate, which is pertinent to today.”

Williams said archaeology is telling an environmental story.

“We’re telling the story of people who lived off the land,” he said. “So we’re telling the story of the environment, as well.”

Wernecke and Williams are working to raise funds to expand educational offerings at the site, especially for schoolchildren. They give tours of the site frequently.  

“The idea is to work with kids around Fort Hood and Killeen, because education is a big part of our mission,” Wernecke said.

Archaeology is not an erudite scholarly mystery shrouded behind university gates.  

“It’s public, and we have to have the public involved,” Williams said. “That’s why we shout it from the hillsides.”

Emily Hilley-Sierzchula is reporter for the Killeen Daily Herald. Reach her at emilys@kdhnews.com

Herald reporter

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