Texas State archaeologist recreates history in prolific Central Texas site
By David King, University Marketing
Michael Collins came of age during a period Texas author Elmer Kelton referred to as “the time it never rained.”
One of the worst droughts on record gripped much of the United States, including Collins’ hometown of Midland, in the 1950s. Lakes dried up. Unceasing heat desiccated the soil. Agricultural activity slowed to a crawl.
The West Texas winds did not slow down. They stole the dirt, carrying it by the ton, hundreds of miles, in swirling, choking clouds. Collins remembers a horseman riding under a barbed-wire fence — and not being able to touch the bottom strand.
But while the drought and the winds were stealing topsoil from West Texas, they were giving Mike Collins a gift: archaeology.
He remembers walking out onto the erosion-ravaged landscape near Midland and finding bones of long-extinct animals like mastodons and mammoths, along with remnants of ancient horses, bison and camels. He discovered arrowheads and spear points and even what appeared to be tools, hacked from stone called chert, more commonly known as flint.
“I began to realize that these were records of a past you could learn about, just by studying the materials,” he says.
He made notes on what he found. By the time he was 13 years old, he was a member of the Texas Archeological Society. His father bought him back issues of the society’s bulletin, and he devoured them.
Many of the artifacts Collins found as a teenager were from a historical period called the Clovis Era, so named because evidence for it had first been researched in Clovis, N.M., less than 250 miles from Midland. At that time, the site was believed to be the oldest human habitation of the Americas, some 13,500 years old.
Now, Collins’ fascination, his passion, his life is summed up in steel on the tailgate of his Ford Expedition. One of his few indulgences is a personalized license plate: CLOVIS.
The big pipe
Collins, who has been a research professor at Texas State since 2009, sits in a folding chair, next to a gaping, square-edged pit that at the moment is home to a half-dozen volunteer archaeologists. On three of its terraced levels, the volunteers are using garden sprayers to dampen black clay, which they then gently scrape off and collect in five-gallon buckets. Data is meticulously recorded on paper forms.
Collins takes off his straw cowboy hat and looks down into the pit at the volunteer crew that drove from Virginia to work — for free — at the Gault Site. Named for one of the previous owners of the farmland northeast of the town of Florence, in the world of Paleo-Indian archaeology — the study of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas — Gault simply is the most important site ever, anywhere.
Collins gestures at a white PVC pipe that shoots straight up from the lowest level of the dig. Handwritten on the pipe, in red permanent marker, is a series of numbers, smallest near the top and progressing downward: 6,000. 6,250. 7,000. 9,000. 10,000. 13,500. The last one visible before the pipe disappears in a groundwater-filled hole is 13,800. As in 13,800 years old.
“We have some preliminary dating that suggests they’re going to reach 15,000 years ago,” he says.
When Collins arrived at the University of Texas in the 1960s to study archaeology, that simple observation would have been considered heretical. He estimates that 98 percent of the world’s archaeologists at that time believed the Clovis people were the first in the Americas. Orthodoxy said they had crossed the land bridge from Siberia and migrated south, following and hunting the herds of mastodon and mammoths. There were no people here before Clovis. That was that.
But the kid who had started an archaeology club at Midland High School in the 1950s was having his doubts.
Standing outside the dome that covers the dig, Collins picks up a piece of chert; it’s scattered everywhere on the ground. He takes another stone and chips at it, at just the right angle, until he creates an edge as sharp as a glass shard. He rubs the sharp edge on a piece of wood, smoothing its rough edges. It’s a tool that could be used to make a handle for a larger tool or whittle the shaft of an arrow or spear.
“My granddad used to collect pieces of broken glass to do the same thing,” he says. “You get that same sharp angle, and you can get a lot of work done.”
Collins, who went on to earn a master’s at UT and a doctorate from the University of Arizona, kept coming across such examples of stone tools from Clovis sites: scrapers for different uses, scythes for cutting grass, axes, spear points and many more.
“He saw this very early on, and he saw it from an unusual angle,” says Clark Wernecke, an archaeologist and executive director of the Gault School of Archaeological Research, the public and educational outreach arm of Collins’ project. “He saw it from looking at the tools. He said ‘This is not a pioneer’s toolkit.’”
In other words, Clovis people weren’t chasing mammoths across the continent with spears. They were much more settled. They had all kinds of tools. Art. Architecture.
It also means that the nomads who wandered the continent were there earlier — somebody before Clovis.
The Gault Site was known as a wonderland for collectors of Native American artifacts for decades before Collins first visited it. Through the years, landowners have operated the land, which includes the bottomlands of the Buttermilk Creek, as a pay-to-dig site for collectors, who could find artifacts on the surface and just below.
The spring-fed Buttermilk Creek was one of the reasons the location was popular with prehistoric people.
The site also is at the intersection of two radically different landforms — the blackland coastal prairie of Texas and the rocky Edwards Plateau. A short walk east or west yielded different types of wild game, different edible plants, a different world. People who lived exclusively off the land needed that diversity.
They also needed tools. The Edwards Plateau, probably the world’s largest source of chert, supplied all the raw materials they needed.
“You’ve got diverse resources, water, stone for tools,” Collins says. “You have an ideal place if you’re living off the land.”
One of the first times Collins visited the land that became the Gault Site, he fell to his knees and spent several minutes examining artifacts and carefully placing them in a plastic bag as the landowners looked on in amazement.
He was at the site in 1991 and worked under a lease from 1999-2002. The possibilities were tantalizing; deep test cores showed a wealth of Clovis artifacts, as well as evidence of pre-Clovis civilization. But the gates stayed locked, even to the Anthropology Department from the University of Texas, where he was working at the time.
In 2007, the land came up for sale again. Collins used his own money to buy it, then donated it to the Archaeological Conservancy, so it would be protected and preserved for all time.
“It’s just a remarkable story, in a lot of ways,” says Jon Lohse, the director of the Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State, who worked under Collins at one of his brief early digs at Gault. “It’s a remarkable story for Texas history and prehistory. It’s a remarkable story for North American archaeology. For me, it’s a remarkable story about Mike’s personal and professional commitment to his research.
“It’s a remarkable story of how much interest the site has drawn from so many different people, and the opportunities that have been made available to schoolteachers and volunteers and students and professionals, so many people from so many walks of life.”
The idea of sifting through history draws people to Gault, and it’s also brought television crews from around the world to the Buttermilk Creek bottom. There’s plenty of history to find; Wernecke estimates that 2.4 million artifacts — 60 percent of all the world’s excavated Clovis artifacts — have been collected and catalogued, dwarfing any other Clovis excavation.
The oldest dated art in the Americas came from the Gault Site, images scraped into rocks 13,500 years ago. A stone floor at the site is considered the oldest architecture in North America.
And then there’s the tantalizing finds, items that in preliminary testing date to 15,000 years old — items predating Clovis and helping tie together discoveries across two continents that began to gain momentum in 1997.
Collins’ belief in a pre-Clovis people — forged from his knowledge of tools — has become mainstream in his field.
“Today probably around 95 percent of the people out there believe it,” he says.
“That alone is a hell of a career,” he adds, with a grin.
Wernecke continues to be amazed at the body of work compiled by Collins, who favors suspenders and Wranglers — and always a hat — when at the dig.
“It’s extraordinary,” says Wernecke, who admits he all but did handsprings when Collins offered him a job. “Any one of the things he’s done on this site would be a career-maker. You’d be walking around with your head held high the rest of your life. All of this at one site? It’s just, just unbelievable.”
Wernecke’s enthusiasm for the job isn’t limited, either. Colleagues, visitors and former students — one of whom earned a fellowship to work on a doctorate because she worked at Gault — praise Collins for both his vision and his humility. Virtually anyone who deals with him for any length of time comes away with the impression that he is willing to share what he knows with the world, willingly and without pretense.
“He is as humble as anyone you could hope to meet,” says Michael Blanda, assistant vice president for research and federal relations in Texas State’s Office of the Associate Vice President for Research. “People who have that rock-star faculty status, but still have that down-to-earth and approachable personality, are a pretty rare combination.”
The people who work for Collins hold him in the highest regard.
Several years back, Wernecke and the staff found out that Collins was missing one edition of the Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society that he had devoured as a teenager in West Texas: Volume 1, Number 1, from 1929.
They hunted one down, bought it, and presented it to him on his birthday. It was only fitting for a man who has dedicated his life to archaeology.
“Mike realized early on that there’s all these different aspects to what we’re doing,” Wernecke says. “Yeah, he could go in and dig some holes and come out with a book, and it would be the pinnacle of his career. Or he could go further and leave a lasting legacy.
“Just like the Clovis people.”