‘They were us’: An oral history of the Big Bend National Park archaeological survey

Robert Mallouf, in his role as state archaeologist, works to recover one of two severely eroded sites after Big Bend National Park requested his assistance. Photo by Mark Denton, Texas Historical Commission.

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — In June, local archaeologists and history buffs celebrated the online publication of a massive archaeological survey of Big Bend National Park. The nearly thousand-page report — A Sampling of Archaeological Resources in Big Bend National Park, Texas — provides a blueprint for future researchers to dig even deeper into the region’s past. 

Eight years of formal field work went into the publication — and many more into the unglamorous process of grant writing, data analysis and editing. Dozens of people contributed writing, data analysis and digging skills to complete the monumental project. 

An archaeological survey’s primary focus is scouting and recording sites rather than exhaustively investigating and excavating one location. The collected data helps give researchers an idea of what traces of human history might be found in a given area and records significant sites for future investigation. 

The survey required archaeologists to closely examine roughly 62,000 acres, or 8% of the park. The survey represents the largest survey of its kind in the state — and possibly the largest ever conducted in the National Park Service.

The resulting document has much to teach us about the lives of Indigenous people in the Big Bend over the past 11,000 years: what they ate, where they lived, how they adapted to a constantly shifting environment. 

The Big Bend Sentinel spoke to some of the folks who brought the Big Bend survey to life. What follows is an oral history of the project’s beginnings, trials, triumphs and key findings. 

Survey authors David Keller, Tom Alex, Robert Mallouf, Andy Cloud, Richard Walter and Andrea Ohl contributed tales, as well as biologist Betty Alex and self-described “shovel bum” Warren Kinney. 

The survey is dedicated to the memory of Candace Covington and Blake Cochran.

Robert Mallouf holds up two fingers, signaling a new roll of film. This photograph was taken in 1973 while Mallouf — alongside interdisciplinary teams of scientists that included geologists, botanists, zoologists, and historians — floated the canyons looking for sites and creatures of interest. The expeditions were conceived and led by then ex-Texas Senator Don Kennard of Fort Worth. “This was when the Lower Canyons were still wild,” Mallouf said. “We had a mountain lion walk through our camp screaming.” The project would eventually earn that stretch of the Rio Grande the federally protected title of a Wild and Scenic River. Photo by Curtis Tunnell, Office of the State Archaeologist.

The survey’s beginnings: “A million dollar project”

Contrary to romantic depictions of archaeologists in pop culture, much of their work is bureaucratic. If a government entity wants to build on public land, an archaeologist must first scan the area to make sure they’re not bulldozing through a significant piece of history. 

Big Bend National Park had seen relatively few archaeological projects over the years, in part due to its establishing legislation. The park was set aside for its natural history and “recreational potential” — it was never intended to be a park focused on historical investigation and interpretation.

This survey represented decades of archaeology for archaeology’s sake, putting human history and inquiry at the forefront, rather than septic tanks or power lines. 

That’s not to say that the project wasn’t without its boxes to check and paperwork to shuffle — the research would help the park stay in compliance with shifting legislation requiring cataloging and inventorying cultural resources. 

In 1973, Robert Mallouf — who would later become the architect of the survey project — conducted an archaeological reconnaissance of the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, motivating him to continue digging into the area’s rich human past.

When he was tapped as the state archaeologist in 1981, the wheels of what would eventually become the survey started turning. 

Around the same time, archaeologist Tom Alex moved to the park to be closer to his future wife, Betty, who worked as a biologist. Alex initially took any job he could get — at first, pumping gas at Panther Junction. 

He didn’t pump gas for long. For the rest of his working life, he would lead investigations into the area’s cultural resources and serve as a liaison between the park and its associated Indigenous tribes. 

Alex and Mallouf picked up where earlier Big Bend projects had left off. Mallouf worked personally with J. Charles Kelley, considered by many the grandfather of Big Bend archaeology; Alex started digging into the work of T.N. Campbell, who had conducted an archaeological survey in the 1960s. 

Campbell left behind aerial imagery to help guide researchers — but the images weren’t sufficient to identify the locations of every site. The Alexes hiked over 10,000 miles together to recover the locations of sites from these early projects and to scout for new ones.

Mallouf resigned his post in Austin in 1995 and moved to Alpine to oversee the Center for Big Bend Studies, recruiting future Center leader Andy Cloud to come out west with him. The funding and enthusiasm Mallouf was able to generate manifested a dream he and his colleagues had been talking about for over a decade.

The project would eventually run in two phases, one from 1995 to 1998, and another session led by David Keller from 2005 to 2008. Keller would eventually be lead author, but over the two sessions, numerous archaeologists would hop on board, lending their skills and perspectives to the landmark study. 

BBNP project coordinators discussing landforms. From left: Robert Mallouf, Andy Cloud, Rolfe Mandel (geomorphologist), and Tom Alex. March, 1998. Photo by Frank Garcia, a crewmember on the 1995-1998 leg of the project.

TOM ALEX: In 1983 I met Bob [Mallouf] and started to have this discussion about an archaeological study in the park. Over the next few years, we talked about it, we wrangled it over copious quantities of beverages. And we knew pretty much what we wanted to do and how we wanted to approach it. 

Big Bend is 1,252 square miles and there’s absolutely no way you’re going to be able to survey every square foot of this park. No park has ever been able to meet that standard, except for maybe the really small parks. 

We had to come up with a way of sampling areas — in other words, we had to classify the landscape of the park into categories. We could see that there were significant differences in the types of sites that occur within variations of the landscape. And it’s a complex landscape. 

ROBERT MALLOUF: We started for real in 1996. Earl [Elam, founder of the Center for Big Bend Studies], decided to retire. He contacted me and knew how much I loved this country out here. And I said, “You know what? I’m too damn close to the Capitol building.” 

I brought the project with me to Sul Ross. Both the National Park Service and the Texas Historical Commission agreed that the project should be based in an appropriate regional university.  It was a million dollar project — a major project, especially back then. 

Professional photographer Reagan Bradshaw (bending over canoe) loading up at La Linda put-in, 1976. The “canoe surveys” documented by Mallouf and his colleagues were actually what archaeologists call “reconnaissance.” Mallouf explained that a reconnaissance — while still serious research — is a different process than a survey. “You go in and you hit spots that you think are going to be good and get a feel for an area,” he explained. “A survey is where you go back and record everything.” Photo by Virginia Wulfkuhle.

ANDREA OHL: When the park project started up, I started begging for a position. At the time they really didn’t hire women. I kept asking Bob [Mallouf], and he invited me to come out; I was trying to prove myself. 

I was going to meet him [at the site]; he told me how to get there. I had a little two-wheel-drive pickup. I was about halfway there when I got hung up in an arroyo. I was just mortified.

So I hiked about two-and-a-half miles to camp, and I left a note on the Jeep saying, ‘Help!’ Then I walked two-and-a-half miles back to my vehicle and waited. Two young guys who were on the crew came, and they dug me out. 

By the time Bob was there, I was already at the site like nothing had ever happened. I went around hiking with them and had a great time. 

It turned out we had an April blizzard. I didn’t want to quit. Me and another guy were the last ones to quit after we couldn’t see the ground anymore. 

When we got back to camp Bob asked my crew chief if he thought I could do the job, and my crew chief said, absolutely, hire her. Then he asked me when I could start. 

That was thrilling. I love the park — I’ve always loved the park and being paid to hike around it was my wildest dream. 

RM: After we had run for about five years, the National Park Service told us they were out of funding, and they shelved us for another five years. 

DAVID KELLER: When the money came back [in 2005], Bob and Andy were completely wrapped up in other projects. Bob just asked me, “Do you want to run this project?” It was a no-brainer. 

I didn’t know what I was getting into at all. I didn’t know the magnitude of it. I did not realize that I was about to go survey 30,000 acres intensively — multiple crews, sometimes hiking 7 or 8 kilometers in to even start the survey, then hiking back out. 

It really was the highlight of my life. 

David Keller and Andrea Ohl examining an artifact. Photo courtesy of Andrea Ohl.

Shovel bums 

Recording, cataloging and describing each site was a game of speed and endurance. Data was generated for the survey over the course of 490 days in the field, yielding 1,462 previously-unknown sites, 2,365 artifacts and 17,000 photographs. 

Over the course of the survey, the researchers honed a system to narrow down locations for field work. That system was initially designed to cover the park’s many ecosystems and eventually became more granular, focusing instead on the surface of the ground the researchers would be scanning. 

As a result, archaeologists in the field had to be ready for anything: windswept cliffs, sun-baked badlands, buggy afternoons by the side of the river. 

Living in the field for such long spurts of time tested even the toughest crewmembers acquainted with the outdoors. “Enduring extremes of triple-digit heat, blinding sunlight, dust storms, flash floods, rattlesnakes, scorpions, Africanized honeybees, cone-nosed beetles, and a vast array of wicked vegetation, crews were often pressed to the limits of endurance,” Keller wrote in the survey’s introduction. “Sometimes a little beyond.”

These experiences taught the researchers a lot about each other — and the lives of the ancient people they were studying. 

Betty Alex takes notes as the team investigates a site. In her capacity as the Big Bend National Park geographic information systems specialist, Alex helped the team devise a system based on soil data and ecological site descriptions to map sites they had found and predict where others might be. She explained that the word “soil” means something much different in the Big Bend than in wetter parts of the state — dirt, rock, alluvium and other cast-offs from erosion are also soils, and they all have a story to tell. “That’s how the soils fit in — it shows how [early people] were using the land,” she said. Photo by Robert Mallouf.

BETTY ALEX: There’s [prehistoric] campsites everywhere that to people today wouldn’t seem very comfortable. But the people who lived here knew how to live here. They knew how to make it work.

When people go out to buy a piece of property, there’s always something they want — a great view, maybe they want to be secluded. Everybody has their idea of where they want to live. These folks’ reasons were very practical. 

DAVID KELLER: I felt like I was gone from home as much as I was home. There were ten days and four days off — ten is about the max you can do without going crazy. On the four days off I had time to book it back to Alpine, download the data, finish up any last minute notes, organize the artifacts, go shopping, load the truck and drive back down to the park. 

ANDY CLOUD: Occasionally, we did get support from the park. They’d have their mules bring water to us. That did help, but we did mostly have to go out and get our own water. 

There was one time we were backpacking into the Deadhorse [Mountains]. They don’t get that name for no reason. The first two days I had to have the crew out there not supervised by me. They were going through the water. So we had to go out and haul these five gallon containers — I said, “No more of that!”

RICHARD WALTER: You’d learn the meaning of wet wipes, man. 

ANDREA OHL: When I first went out I was wearing sneakers, because I didn’t know I was going to be hired. And of course my shoes wore out and my soles came off. 

We were fairly close to camp, so I asked Andy if I could go back and change. He said no — he was tough on me. So I took tape and taped my soles on, and of course the tape wore out. 

AC: If we’d hiked in everyday, we wouldn’t have gotten to experience so much of the daily stuff out there. You can put yourself in the shoes [of the people who lived there]. You try to get in their heads: what were they thinking? Why did they do that? 

It’s something I try to promote in my crews as much as possible because I’m old school. Let’s go camping. 

AO: It’s kind of a social experiment. You’re just throwing random people together and living and working intensively together. You really become like a family. At first, they have certain habits that irritate you. And you think, “Oh, how am I going to stand them?” But you love them because they’re your family.

AC: One day my friend Mark Yuhas hiked in with a backpack of cold beer. Still cold! My crew thought he was a god. 

Field crew surveying a dense sheet midden on hands and knees — one of a few tactics the researchers used to survey the ground. From left: Brian Dailey, Lisa Weingarten, Chris Smith, John Moretti, Warren Kinney. Photo by David Keller.

The cathedral 

Loose cattle, floods and temperamental weather can all impact sites, but the most direct threats to the integrity of sites are visitation by people who do not understand — or disregard — their importance.

The survey team had to weigh the impact of two very different interests: teaching the public and protecting the integrity of fragile sites dating back thousands of years. The publication offers a mix of both, explaining the features and importance of some of the park’s most significant finds without leaving them vulnerable to vandalism and looting.

That debate has become even more heated in the field in the wake of recent incidents at the park. In December 2021, the park put out a call for information that could lead to the arrest of individuals involved in vandalizing a rock art panel at Indian Head — a site estimated to be 3,000 to 5,000 years old. 

The incident was just the latest in a string of over 50 instances of vandalism to archaeological sites since 2015. As visitation to Big Bend balloons, the survey’s architects were torn between wanting to inform the public about the history of their public lands and wanting to preserve these sites for research and study.

Center for Big Bend Studies survey crew documenting a prehistoric knapping station. A knapping station is a place where stone was worked to fashion into tools or points, providing important clues about the age of a site. Photo by Robert Mallouf.

WARREN KINNEY: The only thing left behind by some of these cultures is busted and burnt rock. That’s the only way they can speak to us.

DAVID KELLER: I think some of these people are probably not malicious. They’re probably just being thoughtless. 

Here’s an example: we’re recording a site on a little pediment above the river and some park visitors get out. They’re wearing their graduation robes and they’re taking pictures. 

Then suddenly we look over there and the people are picking up big rocks and lobbing them off the edge [into the water]. And we knew there was a site there because we’d been there already.

TOM ALEX: One of the things I do is park orientation for new employees. For part of that training, I take them out to Indian Head. But before I go, I hand out this little piece of paper that says, “Etiquette.” 

If we could go into a cathedral and take your camera and take photographs of all of the statues and all of the images that are hanging on the wall, would you walk up to the altar and move things around? Would you pocket the candlesticks and take them home with you? Would you stand up on top of the altar and take a selfie? If you do that kind of thing, you don’t belong on this site. 

BA: The archaeologist is the one who’s always getting the questions — have you ever seen a place like this? 

Probably several dozen times, Tom and I would look at each other and say, “Well, we could tell you. We could give you pretty good directions. But then we’d have to kill you.”

WK: Tom and Betty actually told us to say that we were working on a biology study. We were on a site once and some tourists came by and they came up and asked what we were doing, so we said, “Oh, a biology study.” They said, “Well, we were just wondering because you’re on an archaeological site.” 

DK: There are sites I don’t want anyone going to — I don’t even want other archaeologists going there. These sites are so fragile that even human footsteps can accelerate erosion. 

On one of these sites, I got the crew to huddle up. I said, “Look, guys — I want you to tiptoe around the site. I do not want you to move a single rock. If you accidentally move it with your toe, you reach down, pick it up, put it back.”

TA: A site is like a history book. Archaeologists can walk out on a site, look at it and read the story of this rock, this feature, what was going on there. That site tells a story of how people used that part of the landscape. 

Whenever tourists go out there and they take away artifacts, it’s like ripping a page or two out of the book. The story is missing. If they pick up stuff and move it around on the site, it’s like taking pages out of the book and throwing them on the floor.

An array of Cracker Jack prizes recovered from a site. Prehistoric artifacts aren’t the only remnants of human history the researchers were looking for. The popular popcorn treat introduced its “prize in every box” campaign in 1912 — proving a valuable resource for archaeologists. Cracker Jack prizes changed at least once a year, helping provide a rough estimate for how long people occupied the site. “​​They serve as high-resolution temporal diagnostics as well as a general indicator of the presence of children, and thus domestic occupations,” the report reads

“What keeps me digging”

The first people of the Big Bend were nomadic. Whatever survives of their cultures is set in stone: various types of points for hunting and procuring food and places to cook it. 

That’s not to say that everything the survey team found was purely practical. Jewelry and other decorative items adorn the report’s pages; new rock art sites were found and documented. 

Perhaps the survey’s most expectation-defying finds fall in the category of “special use features” — a catch-all term for anything beyond domestic or subsistence-based tasks. Many of these are believed to have spiritual or ritual purposes. 

A number of “special use features” described in the report are categorized as petroforms  — essentially, arrangements of rock. Some form patterns on the ground; others are stacked to take the shape of animals. 

The study of petroforms in the Big Bend kicked off with the discovery of a feature called the “Spider,” found in the days when the idea of the survey project was starting to be the subject of late-night discussions among the region’s experts.

The site’s name takes after its weblike shape. It’s believed to be a medicine wheel, a type of petroform bearing spiritual significance to northern Plains tribes clustered around the U.S.-Canada border. “To have such features this far south invites many questions, few of which we can answer,” the report reads. 

The Spider taught the survey’s researchers how to see. Expecting the unexpected, they were able to scan the ground in a new way — uncovering an additional aspect of the region’s Indigenous past. 

Many of the questions raised by these discoveries may never be answered. If you ask the survey’s participants, maybe they don’t need to be. 

Archeology students under the supervision of Erik K. Reed during the excavation of a rockshelter in the Deadhorse Mountains in July of 1936. J. Charles Kelley, who would later go on to canonize the history of La Junta de los Ríos near Presidio and Ojinaga, was a student technician on this trip. Photo by J. Charles Kelley.

TOM ALEX: The way we found [the Spider] was through a search and rescue. There were two of us — Ranger Kathy Hambly and I were spotters. The pilot flew back and forth over the area where this girl was missing. 

I didn’t think about it. When we were there, we were looking for a lost person. When we got back to the office, my boss asked, “So, did you find the Spider?” And Kathy said, “Well — I did notice something.”

So we retraced the flight and flew over that spot. I looked down and — holy s—! 

ANDY CLOUD: We were mapping out the site on the solstice and a little whirlwind came and took our papers. Then an intense rainstorm came up and just pounded us — I remember getting in my tent and I remember sitting on my pad and water just flowing in. It felt like the gods. 

DAVID KELLER: There’s a lot of boredom and a lot of tedium, days and whole sessions where we were surveying blocks with these nondescript sites with single features and nothing else. There’s a lot of those moments. 

One day Warren and I were walking around trying to determine the site boundaries and we suddenly started seeing a line of rocks. By the time we got to the top of this thing, we noticed that you connected to another arm that’s snaked off the hill on the other side. 

And we realized — this is a huge f–king petroform! 

Once we did start finding [petroforms], we trained our eyes to see them. We started seeing them a lot and realized that other archaeologists all these years had been walking right over them. 

We found medicine wheels, we found effigies. We found abstract petroforms, which were a surprise. They were unknown to us. 

Sketches of petroform features believed to be medicine wheels. The first documented medicine wheel in the park was identified with assistance from Curly Bear Wagner of the Blackfeet Nation. Involving the input and guidance of Indigenous tribes, especially those associated with the park, is an important part of the process of conducting and interpreting archaeological research within its boundaries. Drawing by David Keller.

ANDREA OHL: We really didn’t have any idea of their spiritual life, and we rarely found anything that would give us any indication.

One of the things that we did notice in looking at their artifacts was that they had artistic talents. You could tell by the way they worked stone to bring out the beauty of the stone, not just to make it a surface piece. You just knew that they took great pride in their work. 

BETTY ALEX: You look at some of the things they left behind and they were very sophisticated. They were us. I mean, it hasn’t been that long — the human race has not evolved that much in the past 20,000 years. They were us. They had the same hopes, the same dreams, the same wishes — they just didn’t grow up in the world we grew up in.

It’s humbling when you find something. You become humbled that whoever made this and whoever shot this and lost it — it’s been here this whole time. A piece of that person is still here. 

DAVID KELLER: When I was out in the field it was almost all I thought about — what their lives were like. It was a constant fantasy. What I would give to be a part of it for just five minutes. 

The artifacts that we’re finding are such a small fragment of their complete material culture. We’re getting a very narrow picture of their lives. Trying to fill in the rest in your imagination is quite a task. 

The one thing that struck us all uniformly is that this was a hardscrabble f — king life. I don’t think any of us envied it. 

THE BIG BEND SENTINEL: Does that ever bother you all — how much we don’t know and how much we’ll never know? 

RICHARD WALTER: No, it excites me. 

WARREN KINNEY: It’s what keeps me digging. 

J. Charles Kelley and his fieldwork rig during the 1948 Rio Grande reconnaissance documenting sites along what’s now the River Road in Big Bend Ranch State Park. Courtesy of Tom Alex.

A link to the full survey can be found at https://pubs.nps.gov/Default.aspx?DocID=1883183