A Day of Archaeology in Deep West Texas


Spirit Eye (41PS25) is a prehistorically occupied cave system located in Presidio County, Texas just north of the Chinati Mountains (Fig. 1). The cave system is situated on the lowest level of a North/South trending limestone cliff. Access is possible via two entrances, lower and upper entrances that lead to a central U-shaped main chamber that connects with a smaller internal horizontal and vertical shaft system. Extensive prehistoric use of the cave is evident on the well-developed cultural talus deposit laden with thousands of pieces of debitage, various ground and chipped stone tools, and a distinct black anthropogenic soil. There are also historic food and beverage containers on this talus slope, remnants of years of looting into the rich and well-preserved prehistoric deposits.

The deposits within Spirit Eye are not pristine. Evidence of looting is clear: outside both entrances mounds almost three meters tall of screened cave fill are the first indicators of the destruction. As you move into the internal chamber, the portion near the lower entrance resembles a mineshaft from untold looting exploits, and near the upper entrance from the back wall of the cave to the opening is a large stratified mound over a meter tall comprised of looted cave fill. The persons that mined Spirit Eye were all after the same thing–the unique perishable artifacts that this cave preserved (Fig. 2).

The artifact assemblage from Spirit Eye offers a unique and holistic view into technologies that made prehistoric adaptation to the Chihuahuan Desert possible. In an effort to salvage some of this valuable information, the Center for Big Bend Studies of Sul Ross State University began the first systematic excavations in the cave in early May of this year. In operationalizing the excavation, we knew it would be important to understand the periods of looting, and what has emerged is a complex and storied history. By the 1960s, artifact collectors at Spirit Eye conducted intense periods of excavation fueled by both black market values and personal curiosity. Understanding this history has enabled us to relocate and claim orphaned collections in curational facilities like TARL and private collections, all of which contain unrivaled artifact assemblages. These looted collections, including many artifacts and a mummified set of human remains recovered from a private collector in the 1990s and now housed at TARL, will be one aspect of our investigations.
Our goal is to understand how the years of unsystematic excavation progressed and to develop research methods that can be used to salvage data from this and other extensively looted archaeology sites. Although our work is still ongoing, we have already recovered thousands of artifacts discarded by collectors, most of them perishable. Not surprisingly, these include domestic artifacts like quids, human coprolites, cordage, various kinds of processed plant fiber, faunal artifacts, foodstuffs, and carved wooden artifacts (Fig. 3). The site, while severely impacted, holds far-reaching research potential that requires an unconventional research design. We are very much at the beginning stages of this research, but it is obvious that we can use Spirit Eye as a laboratory to push the possibilities of research in perishable artifact analysis.

Contemplating and Communicating the Palaeolithic landscapes of Wales

This post has been published on behalf of Elizabeth Walker at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

I’m Elizabeth Walker, currently the Interim Head of Collections Management for Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. I’m an archaeologist by background specialising in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology of Wales. After a busy week attending meetings for the delivery of new displays at St Fagans National Museum of History, discussing the arrangements for bringing items in on loan and dealing with questions of collections management from all areas of the Museum I decided to have my own rare day of archaeology today.

So what have I been doing? The day began by planning a public behind the scenes store visit to see some of the remains from mammal species now extinct in Wales. As my bus brought me into Cardiff this morning I looked across at the city stretched ahead and I began to think how different the landscape of Wales was throughout the Palaeolithic. There were no roads or permanent settlements. People were mobile hunter-gatherers walking through their landscape, dependent upon the climate, the passing of animals and the fruits of the season for obtaining their food.

Reconstruction painting showing Cardiff as it might have looked 230,000 years ago

The Welsh caves have provided a wealth of evidence for Palaeolithic peoples’ lives and the Museum has been conducting excavations in caves to uncover and interpret them. Excavations have taken place at Pontnewydd Cave, Denbighshire where evolutionary early Neanderthal remains have been found associated with the bones and teeth of the animals that would have been around 230,000 years ago. These mammals include the cave bear, leopard, cave lion, narrow-nosed and Merck’s rhinoceros along with species still familiar to us today; horse, wolf, red deer, bison, voles and lemmings. On Gower, Bacon Hole has revealed evidence for straight-tusked elephants and hippopotamus during the last interglacial. A time when there were no people, as they didn’t get across the English Channel before Britain became an island.

A straight-tusked elephant tooth from Bacon Hole (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

As the last ice advance began to take hold the land-bridge reformed and people entered Wales. At caves including Paviland Cave and Cathole Cave, Gower, mammoth and woolly rhinoceros remains have been recovered from excavations, along with hyaena, reindeer, bison and other large mammals. As the last ice advance retreated people followed the herds of horse and deer back into Wales and Museum excavations at Hoyle’s Mouth and Little Hoyle, Tenby, have generated ample evidence of people’s cultural debris; stone tools, debitage from making stone tools, butchered and cut-marked animal bones discarded after their meals and after removal of the skins and other resources necessary to sustain human life. These help provide an insight into the lives of the people who once lived in Wales 10,000 and more years ago.

Adult and juvenile cave bear teeth from Pontnewydd and Paviland Caves (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

My behind the scenes tour this morning saw Museum visitors being excited at seeing a selection of these bones and teeth from the Museum collection close up. These mammal remains are kept in the Museum where anyone can arrange a visit to see them.

Photos from the Behind-the-Scenes tour

So after my day of archaeology what shall I do now? Despite the rain, rather than taking the bus I think I’ll spend the next few hours walking through Cardiff, across the Cardiff Bay Barrage and along the Wales coast path through Penarth on towards Barry. I’ll pass the findspot of the Lavernock Palaeolithic handaxe and I’ll think about the landscape and the mammals that once roamed South Wales and plan out my weekend gathering, picking some cultivated fruits. So in my own modern way I will continue some of the activities of the Palaeolithic people – but I’ll be wearing my technical waterproof clothing, rather than damp animal skins!

Lavernock Handaxe (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales


Drawing Cave Art in Kentucky

“Awe” would be the word that sums up my experiences on the Day of Archaeology. I spent the weekend working in a cave documenting prehistoric rock art; a project that completely ripped me out of my archaeological comfort zone putting me back into the position of archaeological newbie with a lot to learn.

I spent the project under the care of Brandon Ritchison, an archaeologist who recently graduated with a Bachelor Degree from the University of Kentucky and is on the way to a graduate program in the fall. He was building on research he completed for his Undergrad Thesis and intends to present it at the Southeastern Archaeology Conference this year (so you can get all the details about the research project there, I will not share them in this post for a variety of reasons). I owed Brandon some labor in return for his help on my dissertation field work earlier in the year and I had been in caves numerous times during middle and high school field trips to Mammoth Cave National Park. What I didn’t realize was that this was  a “wild cave”… about as far away from Mammoth Cave’s manicured paths, modern lighting, and massive open spaces as you could get.

Packing for this excursion was much different than other projects. We weren’t excavating, just taking photos, drawing, and marking things on a map. My field pack consisted of lots of food and water (it was 106 degrees outside) and light sources (I think I had 7 lights of various sizes), LOTS of replacement batteries, and a long sleeve shirt. Brandon provided a helmet with lantern.

Me geared up and ready to go. I wore a long sleeve shirt in the cave.

The road the lead to the cave was blocked by fallen trees and we had to hike about an hour and a half through the hundred degree weather to the cave entrance. Arriving at the entrance is where I realized that this weekend would be spent outside of my comfort zone.

Instead of a wide cavernous opening (see the Mammoth Cave Website link above for an image of the opening I was expecting) there was a solid rock wall with an opening about .75 meter high at the base of it. I hadn’t asked Brandon about the dimensions of the cave because, honestly, up until that point I hadn’t thought of it. I wasn’t sure if I was afraid of small spaces because, honestly, up until that point I never had to crawl into something so small.

A few things got me through that initial trepidation:

  1. A map showing that the cave opened up after about 14 feet (5 meters) of crawling
  2. curiosity about my own psychological limitations
  3. there was a really cool breeze coming out of the cave… 60 something degrees is a lot better than 106 degrees
  4. knowing that I had already Tweeted about doing this for Day of Archaeology and wanting to post something more fun than stopping at the entrance of a cool cave and turning around.

So with an advanced apology of possibly freaking out, I followed the rest of the team crawling into the ground and then it was instantly dark. I mean REALLY dark, to the point where I really couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or shut. Flicking on the lights illuminated a ceiling covered with cave crickets, there was a salamander, and a few bats.

Cave Crickets covered the ceiling in most areas


The map showed that the cave was about 700 ft (200 meters) deep and had multiple passages. The first section that we were standing in was large enough to put a four lane highway in, the ceiling varied from a few stories high to a few feet.

The cave was wet and about half of the walls had been covered in flow stone which had been destroyed by early Kentuckians who mined it and carved the crystalline rock into knick-knacks. The floor was covered with sharp stones from this mining and there were a few traces left of their activity.


There was a variety of cave art. Much of it was historic graffiti consisting of names and dates of different visitors to the cave. These were either etched into the walls and ceiling or “candle marked” with the soot from torches, candles, or lanterns.

In certain areas there were prehistoric petroglyphs (art that is incised into the rock). Surprisingly, the only way that most of this art was really visible is when your headlight is off and the wall is indirectly illuminated at an oblique angle. This made collections of zigzag lines and concentric squares stand out in relief. Sometimes it was so faint, I wondered if most of the cave’s visitors even realized that it was there.

The corner of some concentric squares only visible when the light is at an angle.

Lighting made the art very difficult to photograph and draw, but I opted to spend the day drawing a concentration of art several meters long that covered the ceiling. The other option was to belay across a very deep pit and squeeze through a rock tube that was about the diameter of my shoulder width for about 10 meters before reaching the final cavern.

This was the easy part

Being my first time in a wild cave I decided not to push my luck and I would tackle that challenge when I return on a future expedition. After spending about 8 hours in the cave we crawled back out of the cave.

Water on the cave ceiling where I spent most of the day

While the project was fun, the archaeology was interesting, and I was already making a list of caving gear I wanted to buy, but I had never been so glad to see the hot summer sun.

Light at the cave entrance as we were leaving.