SAN MARCOS, TEXAS — Murmors and the soft click of trowels on soil echo from beneath a small tent in San Marcos. Five feet below ground, in a large 4 by 3 meter square, several Texas State University students busily scrape away dirt, layer by layer. The students, who are part of an archaeological field school, are learning how to carefully study and preserve a wealth of information left behind by people and animals thousands of years ago.
Dr. C. Britt Bousman, Assistant Professor in Texas State's Anthropology Department, is leading the class. For four weeks in June, his students have dug deeper and deeper into the ground at the Aquarena Center off Aquarena Springs Drive in San Marcos.
Their mission is to learn field research, mapping and recording so anything they find can be carefully analyzed and a picture pieced together of the people who once occupied the area.
"What we're interested in is the dynamic, but all we have is the static. Our job as archaeologists is to take the record and put it together as it was in the past," Bousman said. "Archaeology is like an experiment that happened 8,000 or 6,000 years ago, and all we're doing is recording those events."
The site is not far from the Blanco River, and several natural springs bubble up out of the ground, under what is now Spring Lake.
"Everywhere that you turn dirt, there's archaeology -- unless it's been disturbed," Bousman said.
While the archaeologists don't have a complete picture of the people that occupied the area just yet, they have come up with an idea from previous geologic research and the artifacts the students have found so far.
Bousman estimates the students have dug down to where ground level was about 7,000 years ago. The name of the people and their language has been lost in time, but archaeologists may be able to identify the people through their artifacts, especially through the stone points they made for hunting.
Bousman pulls out several plastic bags containing small stone points. Each bag is marked with information that says exactly where each point was found in the dirt. The flint artifacts were each made, or "knapped," by a skilled craftsman. They were probably meant to go on the end of spears or arrows. Bousman says more analysis has to be done, but he pointed out how the stones changed in appearance as time progressed and the environment changed.
Not far from where one group of students is digging, another group stands in thick clay mud, up above their ankles. Using hoses and their hands, they gently separate the soil from tiny pieces of shell, stone and bone. The soil comes out of the large square, and what's found will later be analyzed in a lab and by experts in bone and ancient plants.
According to Bousman, a wealth of information is coming from this process, because they are finding things like small bones, which can tell them what the people were eating.
He believes the people who lived in the area were not permanent settlers. Instead, they would set up camp for a week to a couple of months at a time. The area would have been attractive because, even in times of drought, the nearby springs would have continued to bubble.
But over time, the environment changed dramatically, and the people had to adjust to those changes.
According to his research, Bousman says, about 5,000 years ago, Central Texas was under such a severe drought, there were virtually no trees in the area. The landscape would have looked much different than it does today. It was harsh, and the people who lived in the area would have had to adapt in order to survive. He says his class is finding evidence of that in what they are pulling out of the ground.
Bison were very important to many ancient people in North America, and according to Bousman, it was no different for the people who occupied the Aquarena area.
"Bison have an effect on all structures of human society," Bousman said.
When bison were in the area, it appears the people made larger stone points. Bousman's students have also found bones that could be the remains of bison. But there are many times when, according to his research, the bison left Central Texas and went to the north. That's when the people had to adapt and rely on other food for survival.
"The environment is not stable. It's always changing," he said. "Looking at the finds helps us determine how people are surviving in the conditions."
The field school is expected to wrap up soon. They will backfill the site with sand to protect it until another class of students is ready to return. While looting is a major problem in Central Texas, Bousman believes the site at Aquarena will be safe, because of the constant patrols by the Texas State University police.
Bousman says his students have only scratched the surface. They believe they may find more evidence of human occupation as they go deeper in the ground and back in time. In fact, the findings may bring him and his students back in years to come.