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Digging in the Tropics: 1994 and 1995 TAS Field Schools at the Lake Jackson Plantation

TAS excavations
Trees bordering Lake Jackson provide a shady setting for TAS field school excavations. Photo by Sue Turner.
rubble to be removed
Beginning field school in 1994. Note all the rubble in the center of the picture that will be removed, brick by brick, over the next two years!

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mapping the site
Mapping the site. Crewmembers get ready to shoot in positions with the transit. (Photo by Mott Davis.)
Joan Few
Bug Bites Build Character! Joan Few, principal investigator at Lake Jackson Plantation, delivers a morale-building message for workers in the tropical clime. Photo by Sue Turner.
excavating front porch
Excavating the area just west of the front porch of the main house. This area served as a dumping place for household trash and produced many buttons, personal items, dish fragments and an almost complete ceramic pitcher.
excavating kids
Amid apparent chaos, there's lots of learning going on. Members of the kids program excavated several important structures at the field schools. Photo by Mott Davis.
Pinky Roberts and Francis Stickney
TAS stalwarts. Pinky Roberts, ace TAS T-shirt designer, and the late Francis Stickney, check field notes. Photo by Sue Turner.
Bob Turner
An empty wheelbarrow clearly brings joy to Bob Turner. Photo by Sue Turner.
young crewmember
A young crewmember learns the art of holding a stadia rod for a transit reading. Photo by Mott Davis.
Brenda Whorton and Jim Blanton
Brenda Whorton and Jim Blanton (right) share a moment's respite at the dinner table after a hard day's work. Photo by Sue Turner.
Skip Kennedy
Former TAS president Skip Kennedy (right) takes a breather to visit with a friend. Photo by Sue Turner.
Jim Word
TAS members admire the handiwork at the mill excavations. The late Jim Word, longtime advocate of archeology in west Texas, is on left. State archeologist and former TAS president Pat Mercado Allinger is at far right. Photo by Sue Turner.

Conducting two TAS field schools at the Lake Jackson State Archeological Landmark (LJSAL) required strategic planning worthy of a military campaign, coordination between a bevy of "stakeholders," and, of course, lots of labor and luck. These efforts paid off in significant archeological accomplishments, field education for beginners, and many good times. Good fortune smiled on the project as well: the humidity was low, the nights were surprisingly cool, and the mosquitoes and alligators decided to clear out when the TAS moved in!

The 1994 and 1995 TAS field schools were conducted at the Lake Jackson plantation and sugar mill complex as well as at the nearby Follet Lake site. These field schools provided the TAS membership with two types of archeological opportunities: the chance to excavate the structural remains (i.e. brick walls) of a Texas antebellum sugar/cotton plantation or to work on a massive late prehistoric Rangia shell midden. Along with archeological operations and training provided to novices, there was the usual fun and antics among the crews.

The two "Clute sisters" (i.e. Andie Comini and Brenda Whorten) made their zany debut at these field schools. Wearing outlandish wigs and costumes, they dropped into every work area at the field school bringing smiles from weary, heat-exhausted workers. And who could forget Andie Comini's motor home? It resembled a large Gateway computer box on wheels with accompanying long horns and braying trumpet?

The Long Road to the Starting Line

Long before field school could set up and excavations begin, however, there were months of preparations. Members of the Brazosport Archeological Society (BAS) and Houston Archeological Society (HAS) battled the elements and tropical critters to prepare the site. In an environment rich in heat, humidity, snakes, mosquitoes, and virulent poison ivy, these hardy crews cleared away vegetation and huge expanses of brick and rubble prior to the actual field school.

There were tactical hurdles as well: strings of meetings, planning sessions, debates, reevaluating, compromising and ultimately agreement among the major stakeholders of the proposed field schools. Each had a role and significant interest in the operations; each made a major contribution to the efforts. In addition to the TAS field school committee and BAS and HAS members, there were the Lake Jackson Historical Museum (owner of the LJSAL); the City of Lake Jackson (owner of the park where camping and programs were held); the Texas Historical Commission (administrator of LJSAL's archeology); Brazosport College (site of the 1994 archeological lab); and Brazosport Museum of Natural Science (site of the 1995 archeological lab and temporary repository for all the artifacts found at the LJSAL and Follet Lake site.

Last but not least among interested parties was the Dow Chemical Company (owner of the Follet Lake site, provider of funds for both years' major speakers, and, perhaps most importantly, the underwriter of each year's Porta-Potty expenditure!)

These stakeholders were singly and as a group presented with the most optimistic vision of what the two TAS field schools would look like. Buy-in by all stakeholders was essential if these field schools were to be successful. And, as was demonstrated by each stakeholder, their ardent support for the field schools went far beyond what was expected of them.

Learning Opportunities Unlimited

Both field schools provided the participants with opportunities to learn more about the two sites being investigated through presentations and demonstrations. In addition, prominent Texas ar-cheologists gave talks about work they performed on other sites in the region. To add to these learning experiences, a special presentation was given each year. In 1994, Edwin C. Bearss, Chief Historian of the National Park Service, Washington, D.C., discussed his work in discover-ing and raising the sunken Union Ironclad, the USS Cairo.

At the following year's field school, ceramics expert George L. Miller led a workshop in historic ceramics. Known for his nineteenth-century ceramic cost indexing (an economic approach to interpreting ceramics from archeological sites), Miller attracted a number of people who registered for field school solely to be present at this workshop. Some drove from as far away as New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and Kansas to attend. Typically, his workshops are given on the East Coast, are much smaller, and thus more difficult to attend. The all-afternoon presentation was done "in the round" and is still touted by Miller as his largest ever workshop.

Kids and Divers Explore New Realms

Participants in the children's program maintained a strong presence during both field schools. Younger children worked on Building A, the storehouse. They exposed the double brick floors of this building and opened several smaller units adjacent to the building. These children also toured many county historical sites and museums and, on two occasions, somehow ended up at Surfside beach and the jetties. Older children with years of field experience were integrated into many of the adult crews. There were reservations at first about doing this, but it turned out to be a successful change in operations.

The work of the underwater archeology crews (which came to be known as the TAS Navy) attracted attention as well. Braving muck and a tangle of aquatic plants, Brenda Whorton and assistants surveyed the bottom of the oxbow lake to determine if it could have been smaller during the nineteenth century and used a magnetometer to look for anomalies. Their efforts paid off: they discovered the original road (now underwater) leading from the sugar mill to the other side of the lake where the slave quarters and other buildings were located.

Although the divers had been assured that there were no alligators present, the critters apparently returned soon after the TAS field school cleared out. The very day after field school ended, Joan Few learned that a 5-foot alligator was spotted in the lake!

To learn more about the Texas Archeological Society and how to participate in the annual field school held each June, visit their website at

A little music is just the right note for relaxation at twilight. Photo by Sue Turner.

TAS open house
TAS Open House at the end of Field School. Notice all of the bricks stacked on the right that have been removed one by one during excavations of the sugar mill.

crew members
Crowding in the units is fine among good-natured crew members. Photo by Mott Davis.
crew members around a well
Andie Comini shows her delight in finding lime at the bottom of the well being measured by Johnny Pollan.
workers at the sugar mill
Sugar mill workers. Crew chief Brownie Roberts (in orange shirt) directs operations in the mill area. Note the curved opening of the flue chimney on the right.
yield sign
Sign of the times during project planning? Photo by Sue Turner.
Dick Gregg
Dick Gregg, Houston Archeological Society, on the right along with Gary Vickers of the Brazosport Archeological Society in the red shirt, and an unidentified volunteer, remove a band from the treadmill excavated in the sugar mill.
members of the bas
Members of the Brazosport Archeological Society and the Houston Archeological Society carefully removing bricks and rubble from the ruins of the sugar mill.
at the screens
Crew members enjoy the pleasures of sifting dirt through the screens. Photo by Sue Turner.
Mapping Lake Jackson
Nautical archeology. A survey and mapping expedition to the bottom of Lake Jackson was led by diver/archeologist Cathy Hoyt.
excavation under a tent
Getting into gear. Crew members toil under a tent, unearthing heavy iron machinery parts from the mill while others play, er…, do survey on the lake. Photo by Mott Davis.
a little dirt
A little dirt, some heavy metal…. It just doesn't get much better. Photo by Sue Turner.
TAS members pitched their tents in a park-like setting during field school. Photo by Mott Davis.
Teddy Stickney
Rock art specialist Teddy Stickney shows her rock-steady skills with the stadia rod. Photo by Sue Turner.