By: Stephen L. Black, M. Katherine Spradley, and Michelle
The discovery of two well-preserved human crania in a
crevice overlooking a spring-fed creek near Austin, Texas,
led to medico-legal, archeological, and bioanthropological
investigations aimed at understanding the context and
biological affinity of the crania. Archeological excavations
uncovered no evidence that the crania were interred in the
crevice during prehistoric times. Skeletal analysis showed
they were of Native American ancestry. Radiocarbon dating
indicated they are contemporary to one another and probably
date to the seventh or eighth century A.D. Measured stable
isotopic rations of carbon (13C/12C) and nitrogen (15N/14N)
derived from human bone collagen samples from the crania are
not consistent with other burial populations from the region,
having higher nitrogen values than all other comparative
samples. The crania also showed polish from repeated handling
and several of the molars in one cranium had been glued in
place. Taken together, these lines of evidence suggest the
crania were removed from an unknown locality outside the
Central Texas region, kept in a private collection, and
placed in the crevice recently.
JOURNAL TEXAS ARCHEOLOGY HISTORY :CREVICE INTERMENTS DECONSTRUCTEDStephen L. Black, M. Katherine Spradley, and Michelle D. HamiltonABSTRACTe discovery of two well-preserved human crania in a crevice overlooking a spring-fed creek near Austin, Texas, led to medico-legal, archeological, and bioanthropological investigations aimed at understanding the context and biological anity of the crania. Archeological excavations uncovered no evidence that the crania were interred in the crevice during prehistoric times. Skeletal analysis showed they were of Native American ancestry. Radiocarbon dating indicated they are contemporary to one another and probably date to the seventh or eighth century A.D. Measured stable isotopic rations of carbon (13C/12C) and nitrogen (15N/14N) derived from human bone collagen samples from the crania are not consistent with other burial populations from the region, having higher nitrogen values than all other comparative samples. e crania also showed polish from repeated handling and several of the molars in one cranium had been glued in place. Taken together, these lines of evidence suggest the crania were removed from an unknown locality outside the Central Texas region, kept in a private collection, and placed in the crevice recently. CREVICE INTERMENTS DECONSTRUCTED e discovery of two well-preserved human crania in a narrow limestone crevice overlooking a springfed creek in western Travis County, Texas, led to medico-legal, archeological, and bioanthropological investigations aimed at assessing the contextual and biological anity of the crania. While it was soon realized that the crania were not of modern age and thus of no interest to criminal investigators, from an archeological perspective their appearance in an open crevice with minimal protection from the elements was unexpected. Were these aboriginal interments? If so, the crania had the potential to add considerably to knowledge of the hunter-gatherer population of the region, provided they had been placed in the crevice in aboriginal times. is article describes how the signicance, context, and cultural aliation of the crania were assessed using a multidisciplinary approach. SITE SETTING AND BACKGROUND e crevice where the crania were found lies within the Balcones Canyonlands along the eastern ank of the Edwards Plateau in Central Texas (Figure 1). In this area the limestone plateau is deeply dissected by steep-sided winding canyons prone to ash ooding, a major reason why the Colorado River was dammed in the 1940s to form the chain of reservoirs known as the Highland Lakes. e site of discovery overlooks a spring-fed creek that empties into the Pedernales River, a tributary of the Colorado. e creek ows
2year-round as the result of natural springs upstream where permanent natural pools support stands of bald cypress, forming something of a deeply shaded oasis within the relatively dry, juniper-dominated limestone uplands. e site lies within the Central Texas archeological region, which has an abundant and lengthy prehistoric record of hunter-gatherer life spanning over 13,000 years (Black 1989; Collins 2004; Prewi 1985). In contrast to the adjacent Blackland Prairie and Texas Coastal Plains to the east and southeast, the Edwards Plateau lacks large cemeteries in open seings, although small numbers of burials are known from open campsites (Steele et al. 1999). Instead, most known prehistoric burials across the Plateau occur in sinkholes, rockshelters, and, occasionally, in crevices. Given the ample evidence of sustained human occupation in the region, it appears that the natural sinkholes that abound across the karstic limestone expanse of the Plateau were used as cemeteries (Bement 1994:133-135; Perula 2001:34-41). Although multiple human remains have been recovered from several sinkholes, most of these locales have notoriously poor bone preservation conditions (e.g., Alvarez 2005; Givens 1968). e Plateaus most thoroughly investigated sinkhole cemetery Figure 1. Location of the crania locality in Texas.
3is the Bering Sinkhole site near Kerrville, Texas (Bement 1994). ere the bodies seem to have been interred whole as evidenced by the recovery of both cranial and postcranial bones. To the northeast of the Edwards Plateau along the Leon River and other Brazos River tributaries in western Bell County sizable rockshelters containing prehistoric cemeteries with dozens of graves are known to have existed (Russell 1936). Most appear to have been looted in the 1920s and 1930s with lile or no archeological documentation. e Aycock site (also known as Kell Branch Shelter 1) is a partial exception. is large rockshelter along the Leon River contained a cemetery with at least 32 burials, including three head burials (Wa 1936). Two of these consisted of crania interred while still aached to several upper vertebrae, while the third (Burial 4) was characterized as head only. ese crania were found amid extended and exed skeletons. Wa describes poorly controlled excavations and it is not at all clear that the crania were originally interred separately from postcranial elements or merely appeared that way when hastily exposed by untrained excavators. In the vicinity of the two isolated crania interments reported in this article, dozens of prehistoric archeological sites have been recorded within a 15 km radius of the discovery locale, including small rockshelters on the canyon walls, open campsites on the terraces of the Pedernales and Colorado rivers, plant baking facilities known as burned rock middens, chert outcrops where int was obtained for making stone tools, and various other sites that are collectively typical of the regional archeological record. Most of the known sites in the local area are along the Colorado River within Lake Travis. A modest amount of archeological research was done in the upper reservoir prior to the impoundment of Lake Travis in 1942, including the excavation of the Grelle site, a deep campsite that contained several human interments (Kelley 1941). A recent article reporting an isolated interment exposed on the shore of Lake Travis summarizes the known burial sites from the Colorado River basin upstream from Austin (Malof and Taylor 2011:254-259). Of these, only a single burial was documented within a rockshelter in Burnet County on Lake Buchanan (Field 1956), and it was purposefully covered with limestone slabs like certain other documented interments along the Colorado River. Nearby the Burnet County rockshelter, along the same sandstone blu, was a disarticulated crevice burial. Only the arm and leg were in place, and there was no trace of the skull or teeth (Field 1956:172). However, Field went on to note that the site ooded at high water periods, suggesting the crevice interment may have been partially washed away. DISCOVERY A hiker peered into a limestone crevice on the lower wall of a winding canyon and spoed an essentially intact human cranium on the oor of the crevice amid oak leaves and tree roots. e landowner contacted the Travis County Sheris Oce and a deputy soon arrived, who conrmed it was human and gingerly removed the cranium from the tight quarters, whereupon a second cranium was found directly behind the rst. Several detectives and an investigator from the Travis County Medical Examiners Oce examined the immediate vicinity and found no other human remains or associated material. Both crania were taken to the Medical Examiners Oce for evaluation of possible legal and forensic signicance. e subsequent Medical Examiners report indicated that the two isolated crania were too old to be of forensic signicance and likely
4represented two adult individuals of Native American ancestry. However, the medico-legal report did not address any contextual issues surrounding the crania. e skulls were returned to the landowner, who then contacted the Texas Historical Commission (THC) to determine if he had a Native American burial locale on his property. THC archeologist Daniel R. Poer visited the nd locale and briey examined the crania. Poer realized that the nding of two well-preserved crania in a crevice that was relatively open-to-the-elements was somewhat suspect. Nonetheless, he could not rule out the possibility that the crevice had been the original interment location and that additional bones or associated grave inclusions might be present. Poer examined the crevice and the surface of the area around and above the crevice and found no artifacts or other indications of prehistoric occupation. He recommended that the landowner seek additional evaluation.ARCHEOLOGICAL INVESTIGATIONS In May and June of 2009 we investigated the locale at the request of the landowner. Based on the initial archeological reconnaissance, two competing explanatory hypotheses were considered: Hypothesis A, the crania were originally deposited in situ in the crevice in prehistoric times (i.e., over 500 years ago) as part of purposeful, primary interments; or Hypothesis B, the crania were deposited secondarily in the crevice in recent times, perhaps by looters who had removed the crania from another, beer-protected site. If Hypothesis A was valid, one would expect to nd additional bones, assuming the crania had accompanied bodies, and perhaps grave oerings or associated artifacts such as projectile points. Although there are other alternatives (e.g., Hypothesis C, the crania were deposited secondarily in prehistoric times), it seems unlikely that the crania could have been present in the crevice for long without leaving other traces such as fragments of human bone. It was noted that a number of maxillary teeth were missing from both crania postmortem, suggesting that the missing teeth might still be present in the vicinity. Aer photographically documenting the crevice and vicinity (Figure 2a-d), the brush overhanging the crevice was cleared and careful examination began. e locale consists of a narrow crevice and an adjacent low overhang at the base of a low, north-facing limestone valley wall. e walls of the crevice and the roof of the overhang are massive limestone blocks that have partially separated from the bedrock through geological processes. e crevice is lile more than 50 cm wide at its mouth (opening), narrowing to less than 30 cm wide where the crevice terminated, approximately 3 m into the blu. e crevice is partially lled with boulder-sized angular bedrock fragments, smaller limestone rocks, leaf lier, silt, and roots. e jumbled in-lled materials appear to have accumulated naturally, rather than having been purposefully added. e adjacent low overhang extends approximately 2.5 m into the blu along the crevice and gradually angles outward. At the mouth of the overhang its ceiling is about 70 cm above the bedrock oor, the maximum amount of clearance in the entire overhang. As one stoops and enters the overhang, the roof slopes steeply downward to the rear of the overhang. While native peoples in the region oen made use of natural rockshelters, this particular overhang has lile or no useful oor space. e mouth of the crevice and overhang is about 5 m from the edge of the nearby spring-fed creek, which is normally less than 15 cm deep at this point. e oor of the outside edge of the overhang is less than 50
5Figure 2. Find locality: a, front view of crevice; b, side view of crevice showing the low overhang; c, interior of crevice before archeological excavation (arrow points to approximate spot where crania had been removed); and d, interior of crevice after excavation.
6cm above the normal pool elevation of the creek. e crania were resting about 1 m above the surface of the creek. Although the creek has a relatively small drainage basin, the crevice and overhang are well below highwater ood levels in recent decades, and likely for millennia. Within the overhang, two rounded columns of unconsolidated but compact, silty, poorly-sorted sediment extend from the bedrock oor to the ceiling of the overhang. ese remnants show that the overhang was once lled with sediment, and that most of the original ll had been scoured out by oodwaters. Given the unconsolidated appearance of the sediment columns, the original ll is likely of relatively young age, no more than a few thousand years at most. Indeed, it is reasonable to speculate that the overhang and the adjacent crevice would have experienced multiple cycles of ll and erosion during the Holocene. e eld investigation was done with the working assumption that the crevice had been a primary burial site. Both the crevice (see Figure 2a) and the adjacent overhang area (see Figure 2b), where 10-15 cm or so of sediment covered most of the bedrock oor, were carefully searched. e overhang oor deposit consisted of fairly loose, unconsolidated silt containing gravel-sized angular limestone spalls that graded into dustsized particles intermixed with leaf lier. e sediment was excavated from an expedient trench 40-50 cm wide and 10-15 cm deep that roughly paralleled the crevice such that it encompassed the material directly down slope from where the crania had been found. It was reasoned that if skeletal materials had been housed in the crevice for any considerable length of time, skeletal fragments would have likely washed down slope from the crevice as colluvial deposits. e excavated sediment was screened through 1/4and 1/8th-inch mesh and carefully search for fragments of bone, teeth, and artifacts. None were found. Within the crevice the loose limestone rocks, leaf lier, and tree and vine roots were carefully removed in the immediate area where the crania were found as well as deeper within the crevice (see Figure 2c). Finding no trace of bone or a purposeful grave, hand excavations continued into the relatively compact, nergrained ll directly beneath where the crania had been located. e sediment was screened and searched for fragmentary skeletal and artifactual material with the same result: none was found. e ne matrix was a gray silt containing unsorted decomposed limestone fragments and pebbles, none of them noticeably rounded by stream abrasion. Because the crania had rested against the back wall of the compact crevice ll, the ll was cut back approximately 20-30 cm farther to search for any sign of additional remains (see Figure 2d). Once again, none were found. In summary, the archeological investigation of the crevice and overhang revealed no evidence that the crania had originally been interred there, with or without other skeletal elements. e lack of additional skeletal fragments fails to support Hypotheses A or C. is leaves Hypothesis B as the best explanation to account for the nding of two crania. In other words, it is highly likely that the crania were deposited in the crevice relatively recently, probably within a decade of being discovered. Otherwise, the bones would have quickly deteriorated given the clear evidence that the crevice was exposed to moisture, roots, rodents, insects, and slope wash from the hillside above the crevice, as well as periodic inundation from creek ooding. e preservation conditions are judged to be very poor as the crevice would have alternated between dry and wet conditions depending on the weather, the alternating cycles being deleterious to skeletal preservation.
7 SKELETAL ANALYSESCondition of Remains Both isolated crania were originally given Medical Examiner case numbers; however, they will be referred to here as C1 (Cranium 1) and C2 (Cranium 2). Based on the overall color and texture of the bone and the overall biological morphology, both crania are archeological in nature and not of forensic signicance. e preservation of C1 is excellent (Figures 3 and 4). e entire cranium is complete with only a portion of the le mastoid process broken postmortem, as indicated by the light (fresh) color of the fracture in comparison to the rest of the cranium. e cranium exhibits dierential staining with colors of light brown to dark brown to black. e majority of the cranium is light brown with dark brown coloring on the superior and inferior portions of the vault. e cranium has some weathering indicative of water damage on the le fronto-parietal region of the coronal suture. A light coating of soil is evident in the orbital sockets as well as the nasal aperture. e frontal bone and parietal bones possess a shine on the surface of the bone, a typical nding when bone has been continuously handled or touched as trophy or display objects (Haglund and Sorg 1997). Roots are also present in the orbital area suggesting the cranium has been in contact with an earthen surface. e preservation of C2 is also excellent (Figures 5 and 6) with the exception of the postmortem fractures at the cranial base. Additional postmortem damage is seen on the cranium in the eye orbits and the anterosuperior portion of the maxilla above and around the zygomaticofacial foramen and the le mastoid process. In addition, the le zygomatic arch is almost completely broken o and the occipital bone, at the base of the cranium, is completely broken o. Rodent gnawing is evident on the occipital bone around the posterior portion of the fracture margin. e cranium is stained a light to dark gray and has soil and roots in the cranial vault suggestive of contact with an earthen surface. Additionally, close inspection of this cranium revealed the presence of adhesive material (presumably glue) securing several teeth into their alveolar sockets, strongly suggesting a secondary deposition by an unknown modern individual. SEX AND AGE Sex and age were assessed following standard methodology outlined in Buikstra and Ubelaker (1994). Following methods outlined by Ascadi and Nemeskeri (1970), both crania exhibit features suggestive of males. ese features include projecting nuchal crests, rounded supraorbital margins, and large supraorbital ridges. Although sex estimation is considered population specic, Walker (2008) found the Ascadi and Nemeskeri method suitable for Native Americans. Age was estimated based on degree of cranial suture closure following the methods of Meindl and Lovejoy (1985) and further rened based on observations of dental loss and arition. Based solely on cranial sutures, age is estimated between 28 to 56 years for C1. However, based on the antemortem tooth loss of this individual, the age is most likely 50+ years of age at death. Age is estimated between 31 to 61 years for C2, although a more likely age is between 30-40 years based on the dental arition of this individual.
8Figure 3. Anterior view of C1. CM
9Figure 4. Inferior view of C1. Note the rectangular section of the occipital that was removed for radiocarbon dating. CM
10 Figure 5. Anterior view of C2. CM
11 Figure 6. Inferior view of C2. CM
12 RADIOCARBON ASSAY AND STABLE ISOTOPIC ANALYSIS Samples from both crania were submied for radiocarbon assay to determine their chronological age. e samples consisted of a rectangular section from the occipital region of specimen C1 and a molar from specimen C2. ey were submied to Beta Analytic for collagen extraction, AMS (accelerator mass spectrometer) dating, and isotopic measurement. e resulting radiocarbon assays (Table 1) were very similar and strongly overlap at the 2 sigma probability level. Table 1. Radiocarbon and Isotopic Data. e conventional radiocarbon ages before present were calibrated using OxCal 4.2 with the following results. At the 95 percent probability level, C1 has an age estimate range of A.D. 660-770, while C2 has a range of A.D. 660-775. e radiocarbon ages of both crania are slightly younger but strongly statistically overlap with the radiocarbon age of the isolated burial from the nearby Carpenter Bend site, with a reported age of 1350 + 40 B.P., which yields a calibrated 2 sigma range of A.D. 615-770 (Malof and Taylor 2011). In terms of the local chronological sequence, all three of these individuals date to the Terminal Archaic period, at the end of the long Archaic era during the transition from the use of atlatl to the bow and arrow as the primary weapon system. While adoption of the new weapon system is traditionally considered the hallmark of the Late Prehistoric era, Lohse et al. (2014) argue that the new era did not begin until A.D. 1300 with the return of bison to the region and the onset of the Toyah phase (or interval). e ratios of stable isotopes of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) derived from human bone collagen reect dietary contributions from plants and animals (Mays 2010:265-277). Katzenberg (2008) provides a useful overview of stable isotopic analysis. Of these two isotopic ratios, carbon data is available from a larger number of human burials from hunter-gatherer contexts. e measured stable isotope values for Cranium 1 (-16.8 C and 10.2 N) and Cranium 2 (-17.0 C and 11.1 N) are quite similar to one another, although C2 has a slightly more enriched nitrogen ratio. e isotopic values of the crania fall within the general range of hunter-gatherer populations, rather than sedentary populations reliant on maize, which became a dietary staple in many areas across temperate North America aer A.D. 1000.
13 A recent in-depth study of carbon and nitrogen isotopes from various hunter-gatherer burial populations in the adjacent Gulf coastal plain of Texas suggests that the values derived for both crania are consistent with what would be expected from inland populations (Hard and Katzenberg 2011). e closest geographic comparisons are with two prehistoric cemeteries just below the Edwards Escarpment in and near San Antonio, Texas, some 125 km to the south. A sample of six individuals dating to the Late Archaic period from the Olmos Dam site have signicantly lower nitrogen values (8.7 to 9.3) as well as somewhat lower carbon values (-17.3 to -19.3; Hard and Katzenberg 2011:Table 7b). Seventeen hunter-gatherer burials from the Coleman site also have signicantly lower nitrogen values (7.6 to 10.0; Mauldin et al. 2013:Table 2), although the carbon ratios of both crevice crania fall within the Coleman range of carbon ratios from collagen (-15.6 to -18.2). Turning to the Edwards Plateau, there are fewer comparative samples and only carbon isotopes are available for most. Focusing on C values, the ratios derived from both crania at -17.0 and -16.8 are lower than the Carpenter Bend individual (-18.3), the geographically closest comparison (Malof and Taylor 2011). Looking to the west, both crania ratio values fall slightly below the mean value (-17.4) from seven samples representing at least ve individuals from the Stiver Ranch Burial Sinkhole near Junction (Alvarez 2005) and well above the -15.8 mean value from 16 individuals from Bering Sinkhole to the northwest of Kerrville (Bement 1994:Table 15). e N values (10.2 and 11.0) of both crania are also well above the 8.1 mean from the Bering Sinkhole population. In summary, while the C values from the recovered crania are within the range of prehistoric burials across and just below the Edwards Plateau, the N values are signicantly higher than the comparative sample from the greater region. is suggests that the individuals represented by these crania had a substantially dierent diet than would be expected from a local population. e high nitrogen values could indicate a diet heavily reliant on sh like that Hard and Katzenberg (2011) inferred from riverine populations on the Texas coastal plains. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS Two isolated and well-preserved crania found in an unprotected limestone crevice along a creek west of Austin, Texas, are of Native American ancestry as shown by skeletal analysis. Radiocarbon dating shows they are contemporary to one another and probably date to the seventh or eighth century A.D. at the end of the Archaic era. Archeological excavations uncovered no evidence that the crania were interred in the crevice during prehistoric times. ere were also clear indications that the crania had been stored and handled aer original disinterment. Traces of an adhesive in the maxilla of one cranium suggested that several of the teeth had been glued in place. e other cranium had traces of handling polish on the frontal and parietal bones. A plausible, but speculative, explanation consistent with the facts is that the crania were removed from an unknown locality, kept in a private collection and handled for a period of time and then surreptitiously placed into the crevice to return the human remains to the earth. Regardless of motivation, the crevice where the crania were found in 2009 was not the original locality where the deceased were interred. is assessment is based on the lack of additional evidence of human osteological or dental material in the crevice, and the fact
14that the crevice is essentially open to the elements and is situated less than 1 m above a permanent stream prone to periodic ooding. e chance of an interment remaining intact and undisturbed in such a seing for over a thousand years is considered extremely unlikely. Several lines of evidence also suggest that the crania are probably not from the prehistoric populations of the region. To begin with, prehistoric human remains previously found on the Edwards Plateau, such as the skeleton found less than 15 km to the north along the Colorado River (Malof and Taylor 2011), are characteristically poorly preserved relative to the condition of these crania (cf. Steele et al. 1999:144). Measured stable isotopic rations of carbon (13C/12C) and nitrogen (15N/14N) derived from human bone collagen samples from the two crania are not consistent with other burial populations from on and near the Edwards Plateau. e nitrogen values are higher than all other comparative samples from the region, suggesting a dierent diet, perhaps very high in sh. UNEXPLORED RESEARCH AVENUES is study shows the value and necessity of taking a multidisciplinary approach to evaluating the signicance, context, and cultural aliation of isolated human skeletal remains. While the origin and specic cultural aliation cannot be determined from the available data, as more craniometric, isotopic, and genetic data become available from prehistoric North American populations, future studies may be more precise in identifying regional populations for isolated crania recovered from looted or disturbed contexts. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS We would like to thank Meredith Tise who assisted with the initial analysis, as well as Brooke Boyer and Chris Hodges, who assisted with the eldwork. Robert Hard kindly shared isotopic insights. Several anonymous reviewers of this paper provided very helpful suggestions.REFERENCES CITEDAlvarez, C. 2005 Stable Carbon Isotopes from the Stiver Ranch Burial Sinkhole (41KM140). Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 76:165-172. Ascadi, G. and J. Nemeskeri 1970 History of Human Life Span and Mortality. Akademiai Kiado, Budapest, Hungary. Bement, L. C 1994 Hunter-Gatherer Mortuary Practices during the Central Texas Archaic. University of Texas Press, Austin. Black, S. L. 1989 Central Texas Plateau Prairie. In From the Gulf to the Rio Grande: Human Adaptation in Central, South, and Lower Pecos Texas, edited by T. R. Hester, pp. 17-38. Research Series 33. Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayeeville.
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