7th Annual Lower Pecos Archaeolympics at Seminole Canyon

Throwing a spear with an atlatl is one of the eventsof anicent skill at the Archeolymics.

Throwing a spear with an atlatl is one of the events of ancient skill at the Archeolympics.

Reporting today’s blog post is Vicky Munoz, Archaeology Intern at the Shumla Research and Education Center.

The 7th Annual Archeolympics was held February 22,2014 at Seminole Canyon State Park near

Vicky Munoz

Vicky Munoz

Comstock, Texas, about 35 miles west of Del Rio.  The Archeolympics is a primitive skills competition featuring atlatl and spear throwing, rabbit stick throwing, and frictiion fire starting. Ancient people who lived in the Lower Pecos region of Texas used these three basic skills for daily life, but few contemporary folks practice them today. It’s not unusual for today’s paleo-triathletes to compete in all three events.

Participants included Boy Scout groups from Del Rio, Texas; the Experimental Archaeology Club at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas; and a group from San Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas; as well as individuals with a special place in their hearts for Archaic skills, some coming from as far as Houston.

The rabbit stick throwing competition was first up. A rabbit stick is a non-returning boomerang, and was used all over the world as a primitive hunting device.  The paleo-athletes took turns lining up and throwing at two defenseless soccer balls that stood in for rabbits about 20 feet down range. Each competitor had three shots per turn. This event, or any of the events for that matter, isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most participants missed the targets, but the crowd went wild when one of those “rabbits” bit the dust.  Watch the short video below by Jack Johnson to see the power of a rabbit stick against a mighty opponent, the “Pumpkin.”

A few of the competitors even had hits on all three throws! The bar was set high in this year’s games. Winners had to be determined by sudden death.   Juan Carlos won in the youth category (second place went to Josh Allen), and Lauren Kempf in the adult (second was Fabian Castillo and third was Jerod Roberts).

Friction fire starting was the second event of the day.  This is definitely the sprint event for the games. The event was open to all ages, but only five competitors were brave enough to enter: Robin Matthews, Jack Johnson, Charles Koenig, Bryan Heisinger, and Jerod Roberts. The rules for this event are deceptively simple: Start a fire using nothing but a spindle or hearth-board as fast as possible. No bow drills, all muscle.

Charles Koenig makes fire

Charles Koenig makes fire

Competitors arrange their kits in front of them on the ground. When the flag drops, the race begins.  Within 30 seconds, two were beginning to feed their hungry embers to create that fire. Charles Koenig and Jerod Roberts were neck and neck, but it was the previous champion, Charles, who eventually came out on top with a blistering time of 46 seconds.

The other competitors had to be reminded that the race was not over, and that there were two more places on the podium still up for grabs. They quickly went back to trying to conjure fire. Jack Johnson, also a previous friction fire race champion, added drama to the race by dropping out not just once, but twice, citing exhaustion. He had been doing fire starting demonstrations most of the morning and didn’t have enough energy saved up for the race! Jerod Roberts had also burned most of his energy giving Charles Koenig a run for his money, but managed to get another ember going, only to lose it once more. Exhausted and somewhat defeated, Roberts took a timeout. Watch this short video to see how to start a fire with a sotol drill and hearth stick.

Meanwhile Bryan Heisinger (see http://www.aswtproject.wordpress.com, Feb. 25, 2014), with laser like focus and coaching from the new champion Koenig, began

Friction fire starting race

Friction fire starting race. Photo courtesy Megan Vallejo.

to get his embers glowing. A newcomer to the sport, Heisinger later recounted how he was so determined to get a fire going that he was forgetting that he also needed to breathe! Clocking in over 4 minutes, Heisinger took second place as the others looked on, clearly feeling the burn (pun intended) in their arms. At just over 6 minutes, Robin Matthews and Jerod Roberts declared a draw and were awarded third place.

After halftime, the atlatl and spear throwing competition began. The sport was divided into  amateur, skilled, and team events. This is the real crowd pleasing event and the one with the largest number of competitors.  Apparently launching pointed darts at animal targets really gets the adrenaline going. Some competitors are so serious that they bring their own darts and atlatls from home.

Robin Matthews throwing with atlatl and spear

Robin Matthews throwing with atlatl and spear. Photo courtesy Shumla.

Scoring is as follows: three points for hitting the target of the deer in the heart/vital area, two points for a hit on the neck and face of the deer target, one point for a hit on any other part of the flesh. The rules to this are also deceptively simple: earn the most points in three attempts.

As the shoot-out began, the wind began to calm down a bit which was a big help to the competitors as they were throwing into the wind. For most of the hunters, the prey eluded them and they went hungry that night but of course, there is always a winner. In the amateur category, Amanda Castañeda took first place with second to Joe Taylor. Amanda delivered a fatal blow to the deer as well as one to her competition.

Those with more experience (and confidence) compete in the skilled category.  At this level, the competition is fierce with friends and couples being pitted against one another. Playful verbal jabs are slung at one another, especially within groups where they’re all vying to be the alpha atlatl hunter. It’s all-out war.

Charles Koenig, who also blazed his way to the top in friction fire race, took the top spot in the skilled category with Mallory Marcone taking second, and Jim (just Jim) taking third place. The youngest winner in the skilled competition was Willie Canseco, age 13.  Here’s a short clip of the atlatl event, courtesy of Michael Strutt and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In the team atlatl category, the group known as the Eaglenesters took first place. Troop 255 managed to slip in and snatch second place, and the Sharknados defeated the remaining competition in sudden death for third place.  Each team got five shots at the target. Teams were composed of 2-5 people, with every member taking at least one shot.

Prize objects for winners

Prize objects for winners. Photo courtesy Shumla.

Ultimately, it’s important to note that these competitions aren’t just for pride or fun. Each first place winner received a beautiful Perdernales style projectile point knapped by Kinley Coyan from Sanderson, Texas. Unlike the recent Sochi Olympics, however, no national anthems were sung, nor flags raised.

The Archeolympics is the brainchild of National Park Service Archaeologist, Jack Johnson, Amistad National Recreation Area, and organized for the last five years by Park Ranger Tanya Petruney, Seminole Canyon State Park. The

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

purpose is to give the public the opportunity to get hands on experience while learning about the lifeways of the prehistoric Lower Pecos inhabitants, including demonstrations on flintknapping, fire starting, plant processing, cord making and, weaponry. The event is sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, The National Park Service, The Rock Art Foundation, and the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center. The event continues to grow every year but as of right now, this is one of Texas’ best kept secrets. Other events similar to this are held around the state year round. For more information on this check out the Texas Atlatl Association Meetup page (http://www.meetup.com/ATLATL/).

Well, that concludes this year’s Archeolympics! If you “like” the Seminole Canyon State Park Facebook

Great competition. Photo courtesy of Shumla.

Great competition. Photo courtesy  Shumla.

page, they will update you on when the next Archeolympics will be held plus all the other super cool things they have going on all year round. A special thank you to all the staff and volunteers! Without them this event would not be possible. Hope to see y’all next year!


Winter in the Canyon: ASWT Project Blog

Bush struggles to grow through rock

Bush struggles to grow through rock

The Ancient Southwest Texas project, led by Dr. Stephen L. Black of Texas State University, is working in Eagle Nest Canyon, about 1/2 mile up from the Rio Grande in south Texas  this winter. Here’s Steve talking about the problem of seasonality in the desert at 29.8086 degrees N and 101.5596 degrees W, where it can go from hot to cold almost in an instant.

Winter in the Canyon.

via Winter in the Canyon.

Butchering Bison the Stone Tool Way

Charles Koenig butchers a bison with stone tools

Charles Koenig butchers a bison with stone tools

My guest today is Charles Koenig, assistant project director of the Ancient Southwest Texas Project archaeological research in Eagle Nest Canyon during Spring 2014.

Hi Charles, thanks for being with us today. I know you’re an experienced hunter, but a

Charles Koenig

Charles Koenig

few years ago you had the opportunity to do something few contemporary people have done: butcher a bison using stone tools. How did this come about?

Hi Mary, thanks for the opportunity to talk about the bison project.  I would say I was in the right situation at the right time.  During the fall of 2011 I was President of the Experimental Archaeology Club (ExArch Club) at Texas State, and I was contacted by Dr. Jon Lohse from the Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS) here at Texas State.  At the time Dr. Lohse and CAS were doing research on bison bones recovered from Spring Lake in San Marcos.  Dr. Lohse came to me and said Hugh Fitzsimons was willing to donate a bison to be butchered with stone tools, and that myself and a few members of the ExArch Club could take this on as a project.  Because I had more experience butchering animals than other people I became in charge of the butchery part of the project.

 What kind of tools did you use? Did you make them yourself?

At the start of the project we only had one major research goal, which was to study the use-wear on

Flake tool by Chris Ringstaff

Flake tool by Chris Ringstaff

the stone tools after we finished butchering the bison. At the time, Haley Rush was analyzing the bones recovered from the Rowe Valley archaeological site as part of her thesis research.  The Rowe Valley site is a Toyah-phase occupation site (about 600 years ago) in central Texas, and Haley wanted to take part in the project so she could compare the bones from Rowe Valley to the bison bones from our project to see if the Rowe Valley bones were handled in similar ways.  So, because Haley was researching Rowe Valley we decided to use replicas of stone tools recovered from Toyah-age sites: long flakes, end scrapers, and beveled knives.

Neither Haley nor I are competent enough flint knappers to make decent tools, so Dr. Britt Bousman put us in contact with Chris Ringstaff.  Chris is an excellent flint knapper, and he was generous enough to knap all the tools we needed.  With several of Chris’s tools we attached (hafted) them onto wooden handles to make them easier to use.

What we planned on doing was using the stone tools to butcher the bison, and then Dr. Bousman and undergraduate Sarah Himes would look at the stone tools under a high-powered microscope to see if using the stone tools left behind any use-wear on the stone tools.

 What’s it like? Is bison hide denser or tougher than deer hide, for instance?

Exposing the belly

Exposing the belly

Well the first thing I would say is it was amazing how sharp the flakes were.  I’m used to using steel knives, but I would say the flakes Chris made were just as sharp as any steel knife.  The flakes were the best tools for actually butchering the animals—the beautiful beveled knives were horrible for cutting.

Yes, bison hide is much thicker than a deer hide, but the biggest difference was the amount of bison hair.  The hair was very thick, and the most difficult part was just cutting through the hair into the hide.  After the initial cut is made, you don’t really cut through the hide again.

What are the steps in butchering a large animal like a bison?  Where do you start?

The first thing you have to do is start removing the hide.  You can theoretically start anywhere on the animal, but the hide and hair is the thinnest on the stomach, so that’s where people normally begin.

Slicing through the abdominable hide

Slicing through the abdominal hide

Once you make the first cut you can start cutting the connective tissue between the hide and the muscles and basically peel the hide off the animal.

Once you have the hide peeled away from the stomach area, you have to begin removing the intestines.  This is where butchering a bison is much different from a deer because you literally need to almost get inside the ribcage to cut all the connective tissue—imagine Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back.

What did you do with the entrails?  What would ancient people have used them for?

We did not do anything with the entrails, we had talked about taking the stomach and using it for stone boiling, but we ended up leaving it.  However, if we were doing this same butchery project 1000 years ago I’m sure we would have used most of the entrails and internal organs—this was, after all, a bunch of gringos butchering the bison.

How do you cut or break the bones?  It seems like that would be pretty hard.

Depending on how you field dress the animal, you sometimes do not even need to break any bones.  The only bone we had to break was the pelvis to remove the colon and other parts.  To do this we just used a large river cobble and smashed the pelvis, and then cut the organs out of the pelvic canal. 

Peeling off the hide

Peeling off the hide

Did you butcher the whole animal?  Like cut off the head? the hooves? Tell us how that was accomplished.

We did butcher the entire animal.  When we needed to remove any of the limbs (or the head) we cut around joints with the flakes and then cut any connecting ligaments—this way we didn’t need to cut through bones, which would have been very difficult.

 What happened to the bones?

Once we removed the muscle from the bones using flakes and scrapers we brought all the bones back

Smashing bones with hammerstones

Removing meat from bones

to San Marcos.  As a follow-up to this butchery part of the project, Haley Rush, myself, and several members of the ExArch Club crushed up several of the bones and then stone boiled the bones to extract the grease—that is another blog post entirely!

The idea of butchering a bison like ancient people might have brings up a million images or sensations to me.  What did it smell like?  What did it feel like? Was this just like butchering a deer?

Well, I would say the answer to this question will be different for each person who took part in the butchery part.  People always think butchering animals is bloody and smells bad.  Yes, there is some

Stone boiling the bones for grease

Stone boiling the bones for grease

blood and strange smells, but for the most part there is relatively little blood and only certain intestines (like if you cut into the stomach) smell bad.  I would say it doesn’t smell any different from walking down the meat isle at the grocery store.  I would say butchering the bison was no different from butchering a deer except for the bison is 5 times as big!

 What were you thinking or feeling during this experience?

Using the stone tools was the best part of the entire process because it really gives you a better feeling of what these people experienced.  For instance, we are used to knives with handles and you grip the handle whenever you use a knife.  Well, the flakes we used had cutting edges on all sides—which means your hand gets cut up just from holding the tool.  I can only imagine how rough and scarred people’s hands were from using stone tools all the time.

 What would you say you learned from this? How will this help you understand archaeological remains?

Although I don’t have room to talk about it here, I would say the most important part of the project for understanding the archaeological record was the stone boiling.  I’m used to making earth ovens where you put a lot of work in up front and then just let the oven do its thing underground for a couple days—not so with stone boiling.  We were out in the hot sun over a hot fire for 8 hours, constantly collecting fire wood, heating rocks, and skimming grease—it was a heck of a lot more work!  And, Haley was able to use the data from the stone boiling to compare to the archaeological assemblage from Rowe Valley which gave the overall project more focus.

Another thing I learned, or was forced to accept, was the beveled knives didn’t work to cut the bison, but the simple flakes did.  This was somewhat of a paradigm shift for me because many archaeologists like to call large bifaces knives, but based on my experience the large flakes are more knife-like than the bifaces.

Thanks for telling us about this, Charles. Not many people today have cut up a bison by any method, let alone using a technique that’s hundreds, and thousands, of years old. Learning about this certainly gives me a better appreciation for the lives of ancient people.

Earth Oven: Searching for the Trifecta

Prickly Pears with fruit

Prickly Pears with fruit

News from the archaeological research team in Eagle Nest canyon this spring. Follow them at www. aswtproject. wordpress.com.  The Ancient South West Texas Project is led by Dr. Stephen L. Black, Texas State University.

Earth Oven: Searching for the Trifecta.

via Earth Oven: Searching for the Trifecta.

What Does It Mean to “Finish” Writing a Book?

When is it ever done?

When is it ever done?

I had an extra cookie the other night to celebrate “finishing” the manuscript of Peyote Fire, for the second time. What exactly does “finish” mean?  Well, in this case it means I’ve got all the scenes written. Even though they may still not be in the right order, or written from the right point of view. In other words, I’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Give the manuscript a careful reading

Give the manuscript a careful reading

For one thing, I’ve still got to sit down and read the whole thing through.  I haven’t done that yet.  I’ve only read it as I wrote each section, one by one.  So I don’t even know if the story hangs together.  OK, I’ll put this on the list: Read entire manuscript.

Then, I’ll need to make all the changes and revisions I find as I read.  That should take a while.   Mark out the rest of February for that.  Add to list: Make changes.

Then, I’ll need to add the changes and revisions I wrote out on another list this afternoon. These changes arose from going back through my notes and comments from my profoundly wonderful and necessary friend Anna, who is serving as my accountability coach. Add to list: Make more changes.

Next week I’m starting a six-week novel-writing seminar, so I’ll have to incorporate the

Structure? What structure?

Structure? What structure?

suggestions and ideas I get from that as well. Put on list: Make seminar changes.

Then I’ll have to print the whole thing out and read it through again. There goes March.  Next I’ll have to work up my courage and send the manuscript to a few trusted readers.  Oh boy, I can’t wait to see what they have to say!  One of those readers will be my husband Steve, who is knee-deep in cave dust this spring leading an excavation in Eagle Nest Canyon.  I’m counting on him to be my primary fact-checker.  I have no doubt he’ll let me know if any of my facts about the ancient Lower Pecos are incorrect.  Mark off April to get over my shame.

Editing is essential

Editing is essential

Then, after I rewrite again to incorporate the wisdom of my readers (I’m just praying they don’t say chuck it and start over!), the fun of formatting will begin.  I’m stocking up on acetaminphen even now. Most writers will tell you this is their least favorite part.

Have I got marketing on the list?  Working on the blog, keeping up with Facebook, doing the social media thing?  And what about a cover?  Where am I going to find art for that?  If I decide to submit the manuscript to a traditional publisher, I’ll also have to find an agent.  How do I do that?

So you see, “finished” is a pretty loose concept when it comes to writing fiction. I’m hoping I can keep my momentum going long enough to see this project through. Meanwhile Deer Cloud is getting stronger and Jumping Rabbit is coming into her own.  I can’t wait to see how their story ends!

Life in a Desert Archaeology Camp

Early evening sky

Early evening sky

The Ancient Southwest Texas Project from Texas State University has posted their weekly updates on the Eagle Nest Canyon excavation, ongoing in Spring 2014, on their blog at http://www.aswtp.wordpress.com.  Click the link below to check their progress.