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South Texas Plains Main
Prehistoric Texas Main

Since the 1930s, the construction of dams and reservoirs on Texas rivers has resulted in the discovery, excavation, and the inundation of hundreds of archeological sites. During the early 1980s, salvage archeology conducted at the proposed Applewhite Reservoir just south of San Antonio seemed to follow this trend. Archeological survey work and test excavations carried out in advance of reservoir construction identified dozens of sites that attested to 10,000 years of human occupation. In 1989, archeologists began full scale excavations at a buried site near where the dam was to be built. Meanwhile, bulldozers removed nearly 16 million cubic feet (450,000 cubic meters) of dirt for the planned spillway trench and, in doing so, exposed remains of an Indian encampment occupied almost 8,000 years ago and buried 18 feet below surface (6 meters). This site, which became known as the Richard Beene site, contained deeply layered archeological deposits that preserved a record of human occupation during the late Pleistocene and throughout the Holocene epoch at the northern edge of the South Texas Plains.

For nearly 10,000 years, small groups of hunters and gatherers camped near the Medina River at the Beene site. These people hunted deer, rabbits, and other game in the riparian and savannah areas near the site, gathered a variety of wild roots found in the area, and took fish and mussels from the river to supplement their diet. Evidence of this activity can be seen archeologically through the numerous stone tools, hearths, ovens, and animal remains found at the site.

The site was named after Richard Beene, an engineering inspector for the dam-design firm who discovered an important deeply buried layer in the footprint of the dam and alerted archeologists in time to prevent its destruction by heavy machinery. Archeologists from Texas A&M University (TAMU) conducted excavations here at the in late 1990 and early 1991 in the midst of the ongoing construction of the reservoir spillway. Though the initial archeological deposits were dated to about 5800 B.C., the continuing archeological excavations in the spillway trench uncovered additional areas of the site that required the site's boundaries to be expanded downward a number of times. In the end, the site was found to include components dating back to the 9th millennium B.C.

The Richard Beene site yielded over 80,000 artifacts, some of which were buried under 45 feet (14 meters) of overbank (i.e., flood) sediment. In all, 20 distinct archeological layers were excavated at the site yielding over 40 radiocarbon ages. This makes Richard Beene one of only a handful of sites on the entire U.S. Gulf Coastal Plain to yield a nearly complete record of occupation spanning the last 10,000 years.

map of the richard beene site
Map of the Richard Beene site and surrounding areas. Enlarge image

Any image marked can be enlarged.

photo of the excavation
Archeologists excavating at the Richard Beene site worked in the midst of an ongoing large-scale construction project. Enlarge image
photo of the excavation
TAMU archeologists and members of the Southern Texas Archaeological Association work near the base of nearly 45 feet (14 meters) of flood deposits.Enlarge image
photo of a hearth
Remains of earth ovens such as this one and other cooking facilities were found relatively undisturbed throughout the site, allowing archeologists to better determine the range of activities that took place at the site. Enlarge image
chart and photo of the stratigraphy
The unique stratigraphy of the Applewhite Reservoir area revealed many archeological deposits; archeologists excavated 20 distinct cultural layers at the Richard Beene site. Enlarge image
photo of cultural deposits
Low energy floods of the Medina River over 10,000 years sealed the cultural deposits at the Richard Beene site in distinct layers such as these. Enlarge image

In This Exhibit

In this exhibit readers can learn the story of life at the Richard Beene site throughout prehistory as well as the unique story of the Applewhite Reservoir project. The exceptional stratigraphy of the site allowed archeologists to identify patterns of artifacts and features in order to create a more complete accounting of the ways hunter-gatherer groups used resources found on the landscape.

In the first section, explore the Natural Setting of the site and the Medina River valley. The groups who camped in the area took full advantage of its location in the transitional zone, or ecotone, between the Edwards Plateau, South Texas Plains, Blackland Prairie, and the Post Oak Savannah.

The Investigations section illustrates the wide variety of material culture recovered from the Richard Beene site and examines what can be learned about prehistoric life by examining not only the artifacts but the contexts in which they were found.

The Applewhite Reservoir section tells the story of the construction of the reservoir spillway and the unique, often trying circumstances in which the excavation of the Richard Beene site took place. In addition, readers will learn about the abandonment of the project after voter referenda in 1991 and 1994, as well as about subsequent efforts to preserve the site as the centerpiece of an educational, research, and recreational facility in the abandoned reservoir area.

Life at Beene explores the ways in which life changed (and often stayed the same) for the people who called the area near the site home throughout the last 10,000 years.

In the Kids section, readers of all ages can learn more about life at the site with Dr. Dirt, the armadillo archeologist.

School teachers can download a lesson plan from the Teaching section that will help their students understand more about the evidence archeologists used to interpret the cultural remains at the Richard Beene site.

Credits & Sources acknowledges those who contributed to the work at the site as well as this exhibit.

photo of projectile points
These projectile points represent only a sample of those recovered from the various levels of the Richard Beene site. By examining the patterns of artifacts and features in each level, archeologists were able to determine the types of activities that once took place at the site. Enlarge image
photo of the medina river
View of the Medina River as it passes near the Richard Beene site. Prehistoric occupants of the site supplemented their diet with fish and mussels from the river. Enlarge image