Texas Archaeology Month at the Alamo - Week One

Tiffany M. Lindley, PhD, RPA, Archaeologist
October 1, 2021

The month of October is Texas Archaeology Month, and International Archaeology Day is October 16. Across the state, archaeologists use this month to highlight the valuable information that investigations have produced, as well as bring attention to the state’s rich cultural heritage. Archaeological sites across Texas are amazing resources that can teach us about some of the earliest people who lived here to historic buildings, battle sites, and shipwrecks. This month we bring you a little bit about archaeology at The Alamo through a series of posts.

What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the scientific study of the human past using material remains. Archaeology is a subdiscipline of anthropology, which is the comparative and holistic study of humanity and human behavior.

The archaeological process roughly follows the scientific method and includes multiple steps:

  • Formation of a hypothesis
  • Review of options for testing the hypothesis
  • Site identification (background and literature research)
  • Formulation of research design
  • Gathering of data (e.g., survey, excavation)
  • Artifact processing and analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Reporting
  • Curation

Archaeologists follow standards, regulations, and an ethical code set forth by the Society for American Archaeology and, in Texas, the Council for Texas Archaeologists. Oversight and compliance are provided by the Texas Historical Commission.

At the Alamo, we mostly practice historical archaeology which is focused on past societies that left behind written documents and histories, often this refers to time periods after the arrival of Europeans. Historical archaeologists utilize documents, maps, and historic photos when interpreting the archaeological record.  Since the site has been occupied during both the prehistoric and historical period, we encounter objects that predate the Spanish arrival, as well as see a continuation of indigenous technology into the historical era.

The archaeological record refers to the physical evidence of the past uncovered through archaeological investigations. The archaeological record includes artifacts, features (immovable remains, such as structures or hearths), and even the surrounding landscape. When conducting investigations, archaeologists carefully and meticulously document everything. This means taking copious notes and photographs, producing scaled drawings and maps, and documenting provenience of all cultural materials.

Provenience is the precise physical location of an artifact or feature in three-dimensional space. Provenience is critical in archaeology because the location of artifacts and their context can provide information such as function or temporal significance. For example, an individual stone tool won’t provide a lot of information, but a stone tool found next to a bison bone can tell an archaeologist that bison were hunted and how the tool may have been used by the hunter.

The Alamo archaeologists use a variety of archival records to help inform us to what may be found at the site.  One valuable resource used by Alamo archaeologists are the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. These maps were published by the Sanborn Map Company and exist for multiple years in various cities throughout the U.S. In San Antonio, the earliest Sanborn maps date to 1877 and, although the Alamo appears on the 1877 map, the first year that provides complete details of the landscape surrounding the Alamo comes from 1885 (see below). The Sanborn maps assist archaeologists in interpreting the archaeological record, especially in downtown San Antonio which has been a hub for commerce, trade, and residence for centuries. Historic structures and their building materials are visible on the Sanborn maps, which aids archaeologists in identifying uncovered foundations.

1885 Sanborn Map depicting Alamo Plaza, the Alamo, and surrounding vicinity
1885 Sanborn Map depicting Alamo Plaza, the Alamo, and surrounding vicinity

Get to know the Alamo archaeologists, Kristi Miller Nichols and Tiffany Lindley

Did you always know you wanted to be an archaeologist?

Kristi: Actually, no.  I intended to follow a path in biological sciences and thought I may become a medical doctor.  For my first semester of college, I was told I needed to sign up for an elective and my choices were Intro to Sociology, Intro to Anthropology, or Intro to Archaeology.  I had to make a quick decision and thought that since I liked the Indiana Jones movies, archaeology may be fun to learn about.  My professor of that class was so passionate about her work as a Peruvian archaeologist that it was infectious. I soon took more classes about archaeology and anthropology, changing my major.

Tiffany: Growing up I was always interested in old things, like antiques, and loved learning about ancient cultures, but never really thought of archaeology as a career option. My first semester at college I took an archaeology course and once I realized that archaeology is an actual job, I immediately knew I wanted to pursue it.

What question are you asked the most often and how do you answer it?

Kristi:  "If you find gold, will you share it with me?"  I get asked about finding gold a lot.  Interesting enough, I have only found one piece of gold, and I’ve been doing archaeology for over 24 years.  What I found was an earring someone had likely lost more recently, so not a groundbreaking archaeological find.   I often explain to people that artifacts do not belong to the "finders”" when we are investigating and that artifacts will be analyzed, catalogued, and stored for future research.  It is rare to find artifacts of monetary value, as much of what we do find are objects that would have most likely been refuse at the time (broken pottery, used bottles, old nails, etc.).  If it was something of great value, people tend not to throw those things aside.

Tiffany: “What is your favorite discovery”? This is a hard question for me to answer because I love archaeology and I’m excited about all aspects of it. If I had to choose just one artifact it would be a small, fragmented piece of jade I found at the site where I did my dissertation research in Belize. It’s not a flashy artifact but because of its context I was able to learn a lot about the household where it was found.

What is your favorite part of archaeology?

Kristi:  I honestly love getting in the dirt, smelling the earth, and uncovering things that people had used in the past.  It is great to learn about how people used locations by looking at their "trash", seeing what they used, ate, and built during their lifetime.

Tiffany: Being able to provide a voice to the past through material culture. The objects we leave behind tell the whole story of who we are.

What is the goal of archaeology at the Alamo?

Many times, the historical records of a location do not delve into the daily lives of the people that lived there.  Archaeology at the Alamo is useful to help fill in the gaps about what we know about the people that lived here and how the site changed over time.  In some cases, we find information that may have been otherwise lost to history.

Sanborn Map Company (map)
(1885) Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas. Sanborn Map Company, Jul. Library of Congress. Electronic resource, accessed September 29, 2021.

Society for American Archaeology
2021 Teaching Archaeology. Society for American Archaeology. Electronic resource, accessed September 30, 2021.