Seemingly oblivious to the heat that had long since passed the century mark, the bevy of Aggies and their student colleagues from other top universities toiled meticulously in the hole in which they have dug themselves.
Digging oneself in a hole is usually not a good idea, but in this case it’s a matter of digging for artifacts that could shed even more light on the antiquity of man in America. The students’ dedicated digging is enhanced by having the privilege of doing so under the watchful eye of a nationally and internationally acclaimed scientist who is still basking in the archeological world for the game-changing study that he and his colleagues published earlier this year.
That would be Dr. Michael Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans, the Texas A&M-based entity that operates in various locales throughout North America and, perhaps, eventually in South America. The paper that Waters and his colleagues published in the prestigious journal Science documents that the first people in North America had pushed as far south as the Texas Hill Country about 15,500 years ago or approximately 2,500 years earlier than previously thought.
Their evidence included almost 16,000 artifacts taken from an archaeological site in Central Texas about 45 miles northwest of Austin. It has come to be known in scientific circles as the Debra L. Friedkin Site, so designated to honor the woman who, along with her husband, owns the land and made it available for archaeological research.
The groundbreaking paper can be viewed at the website of the Center for the Study of the First Americans (www.centerfirstamericans.com) and a non-scientific overview and photos of the site can be accessed at http://tamunews.tamu.edu/2011/03/24/texas-am-led-study-shows-earliest-american-residents-came-at-least-15500-years-ago/.)
Waters says he is happy to work with the students of varying experiences and backgrounds, introducing them to real-life research and, hopefully, inspiring some of them to be part of the next generation of teachers and researchers.
“How you teach students to do research is to do research,” observes the affable down-to-earth professor, adding that “teaching and research go hand in hand.”
Waters points out that in addition to the students out in the field with him, several others are back on the Texas A&M campus studying and analyzing artifacts previously recovered underscoring that lab work is another dimension of teaching and research. Some of the students in the field rotate in and out, the professor notes, with 15 to 18 typically out digging.
Three of the students, Jessi Halligan, Tom Jennings and Joshua Keen, are co-authors of the ground-breaking paper in Science. Some professorial researchers go through entire academic careers without having their names associated with such a profound finding and publication. This trio did it as hard-working Texas A&M graduate students.
Texas A&M accounts for more of the workers at the site than any other institution, but the Aggies work elbow to elbow with students attending Rice, University of Houston, SMU, University of Iowa, University of Arkansas, University of Tennessee and McGill University, a highly respected Canadian institution.
While those students swelter at the now-famous Texas site, 10 other students, mostly from Texas A&M, are participating in another Center for the Study of the First Americans dig in Alaska.
The McGill student, Brendan Fenerty, is an undergraduate who says he aspires to enroll as a graduate student at Texas A&M and study under Waters. “Dr. Waters and A&M have been on my radar for a long time,” he notes.
Another of the student researchers is Rick Anderson of Dallas. He attended Texas A&M as an undergraduate on a prestigious four-year Terry Foundation scholarship and has worked with Waters for three years in the field and the lab. This experience helped him obtain a full scholarship from SMU to pursue a doctoral degree in anthropology.
Jennings, who also is from Dallas, is a doctoral student who refers to his current status as "ABD" all but dissertation. He says he plans an academic career. “I want to be a teacher and researcher and find my own sites and help students learn about archaeology and make the public aware,” he explains. “I hope to find some really awesome stuff.”
Saying the students are “digging” is a bit misleading. More precisely, they are shaving small layers of hard-scrabble earth as they slowly go down from one strata to the next. They’ve been at it for almost two months during the current session, but their well-defined 6-meter by 4-meter excavation site only extends down into the soil about three and a half feet. It’s slow-going by design.
It’s slow going because it’s about as much about documenting as it is about digging. Paper flows out of the site even more rapidly than the old five-gallon paint buckets the students use to hold the carefully dislodged dirt.
The paper flows up from the hole to Halligan, a doctoral student from South Dakota. After working six years at the site, she now has the title of field director, which places her second only to Waters in the on-site pecking order.
With the hot wind blowing slightly, Halligan was observed using a couple of artifacts found on the surface to hold down the papers passed up to her for review and filing. Since those particular artifacts were on the ground surface, she explains, they have no archaeological context and are not nearly old enough to matter much in her frame of reference.
The students in the hole have the “luxury” of being under a flapping canopy. While it offers some direct protection from the grueling sun, it’s perhaps at least equally meant to protect the dig site from the rare rain and the direct rays that could turn the clay soil even more into something resembling concrete. To moisten the soil to ease its removal, the students use water-filled garden sprayers from which they can a produce a fine mist.
The hole is actually a series of well-defined cubicle-like areas within the overall site, with all sorts of tags stuck in the sides of the walls to show the precise depth at which items were found, documented and bagged after, in many cases, being photographed in place.
As for the bucketed dirt, it’s carried a couple of hundred yards away where the students wash it over fine screens to catch any previously overlooked minute artifacts. The dirt is then captured in a tarp-lined reservoir for eventual return to the site as a means of helping protect the site for a possible follow-up excavation as well to make the land again esthetically pleasing.
The students not only work together — they live together Monday through Friday in a mini tent city a few hundred yards away from the site. They organize in shifts to prepare meals and take care of other chores while out in the field.
Heat and chores aside, Waters and his student researchers are writing a new chapter in American archaeology from these Central Texas excavations. "The students are learning archaeological skills that they will later need and have the opportunity to see and discuss the artifacts as they emerge from the earth," he observes. "At the same time, the time depth of the human presence in North America is pushed back, with all this learned from the tip of a trowel."