Archaeology digs into Fort Hood rock shelter excavations

A Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute project that kicked off in July 2003 will continue for the next few years – under the watchful eye of the U.S. Army.

Mercyhurst faculty and students have been charged with the task of excavating a handful of historically significant rock shelters found on the nearly 200,000 acres of U.S. Army training facilities located within Fort Hood, Texas.

According to James Adovasio, Ph.D., director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute (MAI), the college was invited to participate in the excavations because of its reputation as the leading resource in the world for handling rock shelters. Found scattered across the landscape, rock shelters were used over the centuries as camping grounds and for protection from the elements, a usage that often left them with layer upon layer of relics and artifacts. Excavating and understanding the often mixed layers found in rock shelter floors is an art honed by the MAI after its experience handling the world-famous Meadowcroft Rock shelter outside Pittsburgh, Pa., plus others in Mississippi, West Virginia and Kentucky.

“This project includes the examination of rock shelters, a type of site in which we specialize,” explained Adovasio. “We have the best rock shelter excavation capabilities in the country, and we have developed rigorous protocols for dealing with these shelters – that is why we are involved in this.”

The project began with some initial work this past summer, but next summer marks the true beginning of what promises to be a multi-year seasonal dig at Fort Hood, an prospect that affords outstanding learning opportunities for Mercyhurst archaeology students as well as students from other institutions.

Fort Hood is the largest military reservation west of the Mississippi River, with more than 220,000 acres. It is located on the Edwards Plateau in central Texas, and is home to, among many others, the major mechanized units of the U.S. Army. For decades the military has systematically surveyed the acres used for training exercises, locating hundreds of archaeological sites throughout the reservation. Both federal and Texas law mandates those surveys before an area can be used for training, and if the survey and subsequent study of a site identifies it as significant, the area is protected from the rigors of training. Nearly 1,110 prehistoric sites have been recorded on Fort Hood, and another 1,100 historic European settlement sites have been identified.

“Now, the fort and the Texas Historical Commission wants these sites intensely studied,” said Adovasio. “We, in turn, were looking for field training opportunities, particular rock shelters as well as open sites.”

As the MAI winds down its extensive work at the Allegheny National Forest site, Buckaloons, it had began searching for a new site for summer field school – and the Fort Hood offer was too good to pass up.

“The Fort has a specific set of needs and we are looking for a new vista to offer different opportunities in the field – this works out for everyone,” said Adovasio.

MAI staff and students are expected to work at the Fort Hood sites for the next five summers, reporting their findings at the end of each field season. About 15 students will spend approximately seven weeks in Texas each summer to complete the excavations.

The MAI personnel will work with Dr. Cheryl Huckerby, the cultural resource project manager at Fort Hood. She said the main goals of the project are preservation and information gathering, but added that those fit in with a larger movement underway at Fort Hood.

“We are concentrating on the rock shelters in particular because they are a unique resource and we have quite a few of them on the installation,” explained Huckerby. “But we are also focusing there because they contribute an enormous amount to the understanding of the history of this area.”

The latter reason is key, said Huckerby, because of a movement toward mitigation on the installation. Because not every site can be protected from the damage done by training exercises involving live ammunition, tanks and other heavy equipment, the fort is working to protect the best of the sites – the rock shelters and their cache of history.

“We want to preserve the information contained within our boundaries, and excavating the rock shelters is one of the best ways to do that,” said Huckerby, adding that the rock shelter to be excavated first is in remarkably good shape. Not only has it never been looted or vandalized, the findings of earlier minor investigations into the site are well recorded.

The information extracted from the rock shelters by Mercyhurst archaeology students and staff will be applied to those archaeological questions of the area surrounding Fort Hood and the state of Texas, and eventually, the information infused into the findings of archaeologists at work across the United States.

“What I envision is that we have this overall goal of understanding and preservation, but within that are opportunities for students to do research, master’s projects as well as the hands-on work,” said Huckerby.

Fort Hood was established as Camp Hood in the early 1940s and originally measured only 108,000 acres. It was officially opened in September 1942, and was used during World War II for training tank destroyers. After being renamed Fort Hood in 1950, the military camp continued its mission of training mechanized units of the Army for combat. The fort is named for famed Confederate general from Texas.

Archaeological resources on the fort date from about11,500 years ago to the present and include all of the major periods now recognized in Texas prehistory. All artifacts found on Fort Hood are catalogued and stored by the Fort Hood Cultural Resources Management Program at the fort.
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