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Nature & Environment

The Trinity Project: The Shape of Time

Essay 3 of 10
Charles Allen leaves his canoe to examine rocks and shells along the Trinity River, 2012 (Photo: Laray Polk).
Charles Allen leaves his canoe to examine rocks and shells along the Trinity River, 2012 (Photo: Laray Polk).

In August 2001, Charles Allen found a partial skeleton along the banks of the Trinity River, near the boat ramp at South Loop 12. Allen, a master canoeist who is perhaps more at home on water than land, called archeologist Tim Dalbey to come take a look.

The next day, Dalbey verified what had been found were human skeletal remains of a female “from a burial eroding from the bank on the site.” The skull, he says, was partially covered in red ochre. Later he would take a bone sample from a rib and send it off for carbon dating. Test results showed the remains to be about 1,000 years old.

No one knows for sure where those bones are now, maybe in a brown box in an evidence room somewhere. That’s because when Allen and Dalbey returned the third day, Dallas policemen were on premises, removing the skeleton. The DPD took the remains to the coroner’s office, where Dalbey was allowed a couple of hours to conduct analysis and collect a sample.

A word of caution: if anyone finds “remains,” they should call 911, pronto. But Dalbey says when there are questions about the possible archeological significance of those remains, then additional measures should be taken. For one, he says, the city should have an archeological consultant on hand; perhaps someone from one of the many universities in the area. To his knowledge, it doesn’t, though he’s made the suggestion for years.

A recent inquiry to the city about protocol for handling potential archeological or paleontological discoveries by ordinary citizens as well as construction crews, prompted spokesperson Sana Syed to respond, “I have to say, this is probably one of the most unique questions I’ve been asked, and I have no clue.” She said she would look into it, and later in the day sent a link to the Texas Historical Commission (THC).

The answer is a catch-22 (unintentional on Syed’s part) for reasons that will be explained shortly. But for the moment, the question posed to the city is important to contemplate because every da­y — through natural processes of erosion along the river as well as construction projects within and around the floodplain and Trinity Forest­ — the chances of unearthing something significant increase. The possibility of incidental discovery also increases as more people hike, bike, and canoe there.

The THC, the source Syed suggested, is a public agency funded by the state, set up to evaluate buildings and sites centered on human activity (that is, it’s not in the animal-fossil business). Anyone can contact THC’s Archeological Division to report a find of possible historical importance “particularly if the site appears to be threatened with vandalism or destruction by a construction project.” Identification usually entails archeological surveys and test excavations that are often conducted by cultural resource management firms, referred to as CRMs.

If an archeology site is on private property, where most sites in Texas are located, according to the THC, it belongs to the landowner. Only the landowner can give permission to visit or study it. If a site is on public land, it’s a different story.

THC’s Brad Jones says, as currently constructed, the “Texas Antiquities Code covers all property that is owned or controlled by a political subdivision of the state, and requires that ground disturbing projects of a certain magnitude assess the potential for cultural resources.” That means a city, considered a subdivision of the state, would have to notify THC if it’s breaking ground on a large project on city-owned property, especially if a “historically significant archeological site is likely to be present in the project area.”

The process goes something like this: city notification triggers a THC review; THC issues an antiquities permit; a CRM firm examines the site; decisions are made on how to proceed with construction; a final report is generated. If artifacts are found, they’ll be attended to (that is, deposited in a state-approved facility). If the site is deemed significant, it could merit special status as a State Archeological Landmark (SAL) or for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

Assuming the city is in compliance with the Antiquities Code of Texas, then there would be no need for citizens to contact THC to report a potential site on public land where large-scale construction is occurring. And if a member of the general public wants to know more about the status of a site with a THC-issued antiquities permit, no dice. That’s because there are confidentiality laws associated with archeological site information. The laws exist to protect sites from looting or vandals while an investigation is underway.

In sum total, this means the citizens of Dallas bestow, perhaps unknowingly, a great amount of confidence in city officials to take care of our history, our artifacts, and our ancestors on the way to building new projects in and around the Trinity River. It means if we call THC for assistance, they may refer us back to city officials. (See? Catch-22.)

One of the newest Trinity River amenities, the Texas Horse Park, is a recent exercise of the Antiquities Code in the Dallas area. The park is located 6 miles southeast of downtown, near the gravel pits where Slaughter found all the animal fossils from the late Pleistocene, and 2 miles as the crow flies from where Allen discovered the 1,000-year-old human remains. During the excavation of the Texas Horse Park site, under Texas Antiquities Permit Number 4481, more than 3,000 prehistoric artifacts were recovered. For some people, like Dalbey, who worked at the site, it’s not surprising. He says indigenous peoples inhabited the Trinity River as early as 11,000 years ago based on material evidence such as burial sites, ceramic fragments, knives, arrowheads, and hearths. Prior the arrival of European settlers, in 1841, “Native Americans lived all up and down the Trinity River and it’s tributaries as well on uplands.”

In North Texas, both European settlers and colonists from the Peters Colony contributed to their permanent displacement. In 1850, eight of every 10 residents in Dallas were land-grant recipients of the Peters Colony (some are buried at Pioneer Cemetery). Their relationship with native peoples was complicated, to say the least.

Some of the choice Peters Colony allotments in Dallas County are located along the Trinity River and White Rock Creek (the general area now called the Great Trinity Forest)­. The lots, many now under city ownership, are the same alluvial terraces selected by indigenous people to engage in a range of activities, for which there is ample evidence of their daily lives.

A portion of that evidence­ — the 3,105 prehistoric artifacts found at the Texas Horse Park site­­ — currently reside with the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL) at the University of Texas at Austin. When asked about access to those objects, director Brian Roberts says TARL is not set up as a museum, nor do they generally publish photos of its holdings online. “We are happy, however, to arrange private tours.”

Not everyone can manage a trip to Austin, but there is a report, called a cultural resources survey, on the artifacts found at the Texas Horse Park. The city was queried about where the public can get access to that report produced by CRM firm Versar, but calls and emails remain unanswered.

For comparison, the city of San Antonio publishes its surveys online under the heading “Office of Historic Preservation: Archeology.” San Antonio, considered by many in the field to be the gold standard, also has a full-time city archaeologist.