Thunderstorms almost cut short the first-ever archaeological field work at Camp Tyler, but about a dozen University of Texas at Tyler students persevered. They were there to unearth pieces of East Texas history, and they endured late-winter temperatures and periodic downpours to do so.
Earlier this year, anthropology students spent their Saturday combing through soil in an attempt to find artifacts from prehistoric people. The first discovery happened shortly after they arrived when a group of students uncovered a pottery sherd they believe could be more than a thousand years old.
For assistant professor Dr. Thomas Guderjan, this was an early sign the excursion would be a success.
Guderjan, who has conducted excavations in Belize, Peru and the southern and southwest United States throughout his 30-year career, said this was the first time he took an archaeology class to conduct field work in East Texas. Afterward, he said it wouldn't be his last.
"The group was just so amazingly effective," Guderjan said of the students who participated, most of whom had never conducted field work before. "(They) are motivated, interested (and) made sure they understood what they were doing before they got out there. They did a great job. I was thrilled and impressed."
Guderjan said Camp Tyler, located off McElroy Road in Whitehouse, is a prime location to find historic artifacts. Although the property's dense forest bordering Lake Tyler is in the heart of former Native American territory, he said it has never been formally researched.
Past the camp's main road and a few hundred yards up a trail into the woods, the students separated into teams and got to work.
They started with a surface survey, which helped them find locations that would be suitable for a shovel test pit. When they identified a desirable site — often located on high ground — one person would begin digging a hole in 20-centimeter increments.
The soil was lifted onto sifting screens, which the rest of the team would shake and pound until the loose dirt fell through. Resting on their knees and with gloves on their hands, the sifters carefully pored over the soil, hoping to find projectile points — which often are referred to as arrowheads — or pieces of pottery.
"The problem is, sherds and points all look like rocks," said Kevin Austin, a senior double-majoring in English and social sciences, who wielded a shovel for most of the day.
"It was amazing," he said. "It was nice to see that I can take the skills I've been learning and turn it into a career."
The students received guidance from Mark Walters, a volunteer archaeological steward for the Texas Historical Commission, and Bo Nelson, who has extensive experience conducting field research in Texas.
Walters assisted Austin's group, which identified a pottery sherd within an hour of digging. That discovery set the tone for the day, during which Guderjan said students found about 20 artifacts that date back to the Caddo Indians, who resided in East Texas from about 2,500 B.C. to 750 A.D. However, he said it is possible the artifacts predate the Caddo people.
One of the big finds of the day was a Gary projectile point. Although projectile points look like what many would call an arrowhead, Guderjan said they could have been attached to a spear or used as a cutting tool.
"We find that they're … pointed stone tools that were probably Swiss army knives," he said. "They were probably (connected) onto a handle and you carried this around with you and you cut and scraped and jabbed with it."
In addition to the projectile point, the students also discovered flakes and chips that Guderjan said are remnants from the creation of other stone tools. He said these artifacts are valuable because they tell the story of what occurred at a given location.
"The manufacture of stone tools is a pretty interesting process. Knowing how it's made tells you a lot," he said. "If I made a projectile point here … we would leave a mess here. That mess is archaeological gold."
But the gold metaphor doesn't extend to the physical appearance of the artifacts. The students' discoveries were dirty and brown, hardly distinguishable from the other remnants of the forest floor.
Rain that soaked the students in spurts throughout the day made finding these pieces even more difficult.
"Personally, I'm used to that," Austin said of battling the elements. "But it was nice to realize that that could be a situation I would have to deal with in the field. It made me realize that it's not an office job."
While some teams retreated to shelter during the heaviest downpours, Austin and Daniel Parker didn't stop digging.
Parker, a senior history major, said he plans to enroll in a master's degree program at the university this fall and later pursue medical anthropology. This was his first opportunity to conduct live field work.
"It was really exciting and interesting …" Parker said. "It makes it even more exciting that we were able to add to the already immense database that the state has as far as Caddo sites."
The state of Texas maintains information about archaeological research, including the locations of dig sites. Guderjan said the students' findings at Camp Tyler will be documented for future research purposes.
Parker said he hopes to continue researching the area and other students have discussed returning to the site later this year.
Guderjan also will lead a study-abroad trip to Belize this summer. Students who participate will have the opportunity to study Mayan history and excavate sites that are thousands of years old.
Austin said he will be among the students who participate in the travel program, and he's excited about the opportunity for more field experience.
"I don't plan this being my last field school to go to," he said. "It's really going to introduce the whole learning-through-doing process to me."