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Discovery and Investigations

Collage of images related to the discovery of the Kincaid Shelter site
Close-up view of a folsom point

"I was stunned by the beauty of the workmanship. The hair on the nape of my neck bristled erect. I had never seen anything like it, and instinctively knew it was special."

—Gene Mear, on finding a 12,000-year-old fluted Folsom point while screening backdirt at Kincaid Shelter in the late 1940s.

From "All Things Considered, It was Fun While It Lasted," a small volume in which Mear recounts, among other experiences, how his work at the site changed the direction of his life from studies in chemistry to a career in geology.

photo of Gene Mear
Gene Mear looks over a trench dug through the shelter by the TMM . The young college student's discovery of three Folsom points in the shelter is what triggered the chain of events leading to systematic investigations of the site. Photo by Glen Evans.
map of TMM excavated units
Map of TMM excavated units (marked with dots) and location of treasure-hunters' pits (denoted with horizontal lines) in Kincaid Shelter, as drawn by Glen Evans. Click to enlarge and read key.

Only a small area of the surface deposit within the shelter remained undisturbed, but fortunately there had been comparatively little disturbance in the deeper zones and in front of the shelter.

photo of crewmembers and a wheelbarrow
A crew member holds a screen over a wheelbarrow in front of the shelter where it will be filled with another load of dirt. All sediments from the shelter were screened for artifacts and then hauled to a dump site below. TARL archives. Click to see full image.
photo of field camp tents
Visitors pose in front of the field camp tents with crew member Powell Goodwin, right, during the 1948 investigations at the site. TARL archives.
photo of field school students
Hard day at the shelter. University of Texas field school students take a break from excavations during the 1953 project at Kincaid. The woman sporting the horned-rimmed glasses, in center, is Dee Ann Suhm, who went on to become a professor at UT-Austin, director of TARL, and author of numerous landmark publications on Texas archeology.
photo of field school notes
A page of field notes written by then-student Dee Ann Suhm at the U. T. field school at Kincaid in 1953. The young student's careful attention to detail was evident even then.

In December of 1947 while hunting on the Kincaid Ranch, young college student Gene Mear and several of his friends visited a rockshelter in a low, limestone bluff on the Sabinal River. They examined some loosely piled-up dirt that had been thrown out of a pit dug in the shelter fill and found several flint artifacts and burned bone fragments.

His curiosity and latent geological instincts aroused, Mear returned to the site several times, usually accompanied by Kenneth Rochat, and screened quantities of the loose, disturbed fill in the shelter. His labors paid off: among the items he recovered was a complete, exquisitely made Folsom point. "I was stunned by the beauty of the workmanship. The hair on the back of my neck bristled erect. I had never seen anything like it, and instinctively knew it was something special."

After finding two additional Folsom points, Mear reported his finds to Ellen Quillin, director of the Witte Memorial Museum in San Antonio, and she, in turn, reported the discovery to Glen Evans of the Texas Memorial Museum.

An experienced geologist who had also investigated several important "early man" sites, Evans was excited about the site's potential significance. Roughly 20 years earlier in 1927 at Folsom, New Mexico, the same type of thin, fluted projectile points had been discovered embedded in the bones of extinct bison. Prior to that time, it was believed that the first cultures in America were no more than several thousand years old. The New Mexico discovery revolutionized perceptions about the peopling of North America, pushing estimates of the time of first migrations back into the Late Pleistocene.

In September 1948, Evans accompanied Mear to Uvalde County to see the shelter, and the two cleaned off a wall section of fill exposed in one of the old pits. The shelter deposits were seen to be stratified (layered), with bones of extinct animal species in place in the lower deposits and cultural materials associated with bones of modern animals in the upper layers. The possibility of gaining important new information was obvious, and plans for excavation immediately were initiated.

Controlled Excavations Begin

Excavation at the Kincaid site was done in two stages. The first stage, in the fall of 1948, was sponsored by the Texas Memorial Museum (TMM) and was directed by geologists Sellards and Evans. During this first stage of excavation most of the shelter deposits were removed down to the culturally sterile fill near the bottom of the shelter, and deep trenches dug in the terrace deposits in front of the shelter.

Before systematic investigations were underway, Evans and the TMM crew evaluated the extent of disturbances to the shelter fill. Several large pits had been dug inside and near the shelter. In addition to the deepest of these old pits and trenches, there were numerous smaller areas where the fill had been dug into and otherwise disturbed. Only a small area of the surface remained in its original position but, fortunately, there had been somewhat less disturbance in the deeper zones and in front of the shelter.

From people living in the area it was learned that the pits and holes had been dug by "treasure hunters," men who were down on their luck and hoping for a change in fortune. Hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s, they hoped to find some of the legendary treasures described in books by J. Frank Dobie and other authors.

Evaluating the damage, Evans saw that other forces also had taken a toll on the shelter deposits. Small rodents had burrowed into the shelter fill. There were also larger burrows, probably made by badgers or coyotes digging into the rodent dens. Some of the larger burrows had collapsed, causing overlying deposits to be displaced. In some of the open burrows, materials obviously belonging in the uppermost layer had filtered down into lower layers or deposits. Roots from brush and small trees growing on the slope in front of the shelter had worked their way inside, causing considerable disturbance, particularly in the upper two feet of deposits.

The first step for investigators was to remove the old waste heaps and other disturbed materials in order to minimize the danger of mixing artifacts and faunal remains belonging in different stratigraphic layers, or zones. The disturbed sediment was hauled out of the shelter in wheelbarrows and passed through screens to salvage artifacts and bones. The process of clearing out debris required more than two weeks. After the debris had been removed from the shelter, the entire surface of the undisturbed fill was painstakingly swept clean with whisk brooms.

With a more-level floor in front of them, Evans and his crew laid out a grid system made up of six-foot squares across the undisturbed shelter fill. In order to be able to study the stratigraphic relationships between deposits inside and outside the shelter, they first dug contiguous rows of successive squares to form long trenches, extending from the back wall of the shelter. The two principal trenches thus developed were between lines B-C and A-C, as shown on the grid map above, left.

The crew then excavated the remaining squares and plotted cross-section profiles. When possible, each square was excavated in six-inch (15 cm) vertical cuts, or levels, but thicker cuts were made at some places where large boulders, tree roots, or burrows made the usual six-inch cuts impractical. Excavated material was screened, typically through one-quarter inch screens; artifacts were logged by provenience (location); and sediments were hauled out of the shelter to a spoils dump area.

The TMM crew succeeded in investigating and documenting most of the shelter deposits, with the exception of several units near the back where ancient travertine had hardened and cemented the fill. The workers completely removed the ancient stone pavement and excavated the underlying zones to near bedrock in several areas. A section of fill near the front of the shelter was left in place as a "witness column" to preserve a record of the stratigraphy for future investigators. Artifacts, animal bones, a sample of paving stones, and field records were packed up and brought back to Austin for analysis.

U.T. Students Join the Effort

Five years later, during the heat of summer, the second stage of excavation got underway at Kincaid. Led by anthropology professor T. N. Campbell, the effort was jointly sponsored by the Texas Memorial Museum and the Department of Anthropology of the University of Texas. Unlike the previous work, the project was conducted as a summer field school to train college students in archeological methods and techniques.

During the field school, the remainder of the culture-bearing deposits of the shelter were removed, further excavation was done in the terrace deposits in front of the shelter, and five test excavations were made in the terrace deposits under small bluff overhangs immediately east and west of the main shelter.

Among the field school students was a young woman destined to become a major figure in Texas archeology. Dee Ann Suhm (later Story) received her basic training at Kincaid, went on on to earn a Ph.D in anthropology, teach at the University of Texas, and become the director of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory. Her field notes from Kincaid reflect, even then, a careful eye for detail that she used effectively in writing landmark publications such as An Introductory Handbook to Texas Archeology, published in 1954 with Edward Jelks and Alex Krieger.

Over the course of roughly four months of excavations during the two field projects, a total of 55 squares were dug. All collected artifacts were assigned numbers according to their provenience, including a generic lot number to designate materials found out of their original context. Evans estimates that at least half of the artifacts were from the disturbed fill, or backdirt scooped out and left in piles by the treasure seekers.

A Voice from Beyond

While excavating the site in 1948, Evans remembers having a brush with a furtive individual who, unbeknown to the crew, was watching over the procedures.

He recalls: "I was digging a profile out in front of the shelter when I heard a low voice saying, 'You're diggin' in the wrong place.' It was one of the local people, hidden in the brush—likely one of the people who had dug at the site seeking treasure. But it was clear he wasn't prepared to show me what he thought was the right place."

And of course, Evans notes, the true treasure at Kincaid was very different than what the strange man was after.

Large arrow to click on to follow Kincaid Shelter exhibit
photo of Kincaid Shelter
Backdirt piles left by treasure hunters can be seen mounded in the front of the shelter (bottom right ) after TMM investigators cleared away brush. TARL archives. Click to see full image.

Click images to enlarge

cover and title page of Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver
Books such as J. Frank Dobie's Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver, published in 1939, inspired treasure hunters to dig for legendary riches in area caves and shelters such as Kincaid. Original Tom Lea cover art and frontspiece courtesy of Mrs. Tom Lea and the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center, Dobie Collection.
photo of Evans' notes
Work log and payroll (click to enlarge) from Glen Evans' notes lists the small start-up crew for the TMM project (including an individual named Woodrow Wilson, presumably not related to the former U.S. president). Paleontologist Grayson E. Meade was among those added to the crew, and anthropologists Thomas N. Campbell, Alex Krieger, and J. Charles Kelley were frequent visitors to the site during TMM excavations. TARL archives.

Prior to the 1927 Folsom discovery in New Mexico, it was believed that the first cultures in America were no more than several thousand years old. That find revolutionized perceptions about the peopling of North America, pushing estimates of the time of first migrations back into the Late Pleistocene.

photo of Glenn Evans
Geologist Glen Evans stands in one of the large pits left by treasure hunters inside the shelter. Evans directed Texas Memorial Museum field work at the site. TARL archives. Click to see full image.
photo of stones
Stones from the pavement, shown lined up across the front of the shelter, were removed after documentation so that the investigators could excavate the layers beneath them. The small tree at left marks the location of the "witness column" left in place by TMM crews to preserve a record of the stratigraphy. TARL archives.
photo of UT Field School crew
The University of Texas Field School crew, headed by anthropology professor Thomas N. Campbell (left), poses in front of the shelter before beginning excavations in 1953. The field school dug the remaining shelter fill and excavated sections of the terrace in front of the shelter. TARL archives. Click for more detail.
photo of Glenn Evans
Glen Evans, shown in trench in front of the shelter. One day while working, Evans heard a voice from the underbrush nearby, telling him that he was digging in the "wrong place."