Latest state park project challenges old beliefs about archaeology along the Rio Grande

Smith shows off an arrow point discovered at the site smaller than a dime. The crew speculates that the artifact wasn’t functional and instead was a display of skill. Staff photo by Sam Karas.

BIG BEND RANCH STATE PARK — Last week, archaeologists from Texas Parks and Wildlife spent long days out in the field uncovering hundreds of years of human history along a popular stretch of FM 170 near the Hoodoos Trail in Big Bend Ranch State Park. As the crew sifted through dust and photographed artifacts, park guests stopped to snap pictures and ask questions.

Until very recently, most Big Bend experts believed that there were few traces left of pre-Hispanic settlements along the Rio Grande, thanks to the big river’s mighty floods and scorching droughts. A reconnaissance of alluvial terraces — sandy surfaces where the river deposits silt and clay — led researchers to cut into the layer cake of sediment, where they found a higher number of better-preserved sites than they previously thought possible. 

Micah Smith, an archaeologist at Texas Parks and Wildlife, sifts through silt and sand for artifacts at last weekend’s dig in Big Bend Ranch State Park. Staff photo by Sam Karas.

The two sites at the center of this year’s investigation were first formally noted by archaeologist Barbara Baskin in 1974, but weren’t investigated further for almost 50 years. Making matters worse, the sites were open to development and tourism with little protection from the state — mostly because very few people knew they were there. 

Last weekend, the team conducted a dig near a place popularly known as Crow Town, which was a shooting location for the 1995 TV adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Streets of Laredo. The fictional Crow Town was a hideout for outlaws. The film crew had its own wild streak, leaving the fictional village — and a large amount of non-fictional garbage — behind. 

The site was annexed by the state park system years later — in some retellings of the story, park officials initially weren’t sure whether the ruins of the movie set were historical ruins. Crow Town was then cleaned up and stabilized and its protected status on public land was used to prevent further littering and vandalism.

Beyond the Hollywood magic, Indigenous populations occupied the site for centuries. Big Bend Ranch State Park archaeologist Tim Gibbs outlined a few projects in the shadows of the distinctive hoodoo rock formations that charmed the Streets of Laredo team. 

In one corner, team members worked to uncover a “thermal appliance” where food may have once been prepared. The “thermal appliance” is marked only by a scattering of rocks — a sign that most park visitors and even seasoned archaeologists would walk right past. “If you’re not familiar with the surface geology out here, you would just think that this is natural,” Gibbs said. 

Dig a little deeper, and it’s clear that people had been using that particular spot to prepare food for a long time. Gibbs prefers the term “appliance” rather than “thermal feature” or the more general “hearth” because it helps modern-day desert dwellers understand the significance and functionality of what might otherwise appear to be a pile of rocks. “It helps us to better conceptualize how the landscape is being used,” he explained. 

In another corner of the dig, others were sifting through debris and taking shifts in a body-shaped hole about six feet deep, allowing for a cross section of a longer geological period. There, they found a turquoise bead — evidence of far-reaching trade networks — and a microscopic arrow point, the likes of which none of them had ever seen before. 

A casual observer might have thought the point looked about the right size for hunting mice, but the experts didn’t think that was its intended purpose. “I think someone was just showing off,” Gibbs said. 

The team focused this year’s round of research along the river corridor in part to dig into exciting ideas introduced by last year’s investigations — and for more unglamorous, practical reasons.  

Gibbs said that sites on the eastern edge of the park will likely continue to gather dust, simply because there isn’t anywhere for visiting researchers to hang their hats. “Because of the way that the Terlingua-Lajitas area is right now — with the rapacious development of the short-term rental industry there — there literally is no place to stay,” he said. “The only place we could find housing was in Presidio.”

Gibbs said that most visitors don’t know what to expect when they start learning about the archaeology of the region, which was by-and-large inhabited by humble hunter-gatherer groups over a long period of time. “People who come to visit Big Bend Ranch typically are thinking, ‘Where are the cliff shelters? Where are the pueblos? Where are the big durable things that I’m used to seeing?’” he said. “And that’s just not really part of the pattern.” 

He insists to visitors that the lack of these big, showy features doesn’t imply that the early residents of the Big Bend weren’t sophisticated — quite the opposite. Tiny objects like beads and pottery shards reveal how the region’s Indigenous residents were able to make connections with a diverse array of cultures across what is now Texas and the greater American Southwest.

This age — and overlap — of these sites display how intimately early Big Benders knew the harsh landscape. Despite the tough conditions, many of these folks decided to stick around, leaving descendents who still live in the area today. “I think that sharing the information with the public, and especially with our descendent community, is going to be a more productive means of preserving the sites,” he said. “What we need are good stewards.”