More digs sought to reveal Alamo secrets

San Antonio Express-News - By Scott Huddleston

Archeologists display the tip of a Mexican army sword during a press conference at Alamo Plaza, Thursday, August 9, 2016. Archeologists think that it could date back to the fall of the Alamo. It was found last Friday in the ongoing excavation around Alamo Plaza. Photo: Jerry Lara, Staff / San Antonio Express-News / © 2016 San Antonio Express-News

A recent monthlong excavation at the Alamo could be the first of many carefully planned archaeological projects to come — radar scans and digs aimed at revealing buried secrets of the sacred mission and battle site.

James “Jake” Ivey, a veteran archaeologist considered one of the most knowledgeable experts still living on underground deposits in the Alamo area, said he would like to see a series of investigative digs planned for the future and made accessible to the public as part of the visitor experience. Seeing archaeological work in progress would be more meaningful than a video or lecture, he said.

“Nothing makes the Alamo more personal than watching the dirt come out of the ground and sometimes offer up a bullet or sword tip,” said Ivey, who is providing consulting services at the state-owned Alamo complex and for the archaeological project in the city-owned Alamo Plaza.

But he cautioned that any future digs proposed in a long-range Alamo-area master plan should have clear objectives, so that buried archaeological treasures remain intact until needed to answer specific questions.

“Every time you dig a hole, you destroy stuff,” he said. “The whole relationship to the earth, buildings and people is no longer there in a direct observable sense. It’s better to leave it until we have questions that really need answering.”

The July 18-Aug. 18 excavation in the plaza could give direction for a long-range Alamo master plan that might result in a multimillion-dollar upgrade to the area by the city, Texas General Land Office and nonprofit Alamo Endowment. Possible outcomes include beautification, public art, interpretive signs or displays, a modern visitor center and replication of historic structures in a more reverent, pedestrian-friendly setting than what exists today.

A recent monthlong excavation at the Alamo could be the first of many carefully planned archaeological projects to come — radar scans and digs aimed at revealing buried secrets of the sacred mission and battle site.

James “Jake” Ivey, a veteran archaeologist considered one of the most knowledgeable experts still living on underground deposits in the Alamo area, said he would like to see a series of investigative digs planned for the future and made accessible to the public as part of the visitor experience. Seeing archaeological work in progress would be more meaningful than a video or lecture, he said.

“Nothing makes the Alamo more personal than watching the dirt come out of the ground and sometimes offer up a bullet or sword tip,” said Ivey, who is providing consulting services at the state-owned Alamo complex and for the archaeological project in the city-owned Alamo Plaza.

But he cautioned that any future digs proposed in a long-range Alamo-area master plan should have clear objectives, so that buried archaeological treasures remain intact until needed to answer specific questions.

“Every time you dig a hole, you destroy stuff,” he said. “The whole relationship to the earth, buildings and people is no longer there in a direct observable sense. It’s better to leave it until we have questions that really need answering.”

The July 18-Aug. 18 excavation in the plaza could give direction for a long-range Alamo master plan that might result in a multimillion-dollar upgrade to the area by the city, Texas General Land Office and nonprofit Alamo Endowment. Possible outcomes include beautification, public art, interpretive signs or displays, a modern visitor center and replication of historic structures in a more reverent, pedestrian-friendly setting than what exists today.

Among the many questions that remain underground at the Alamo, the most popular historic site in Texas, with 1.6 million visitors annually, is the exact location of structures from the Mission San Antonio de Valero, which occupied the site from 1724 until it was secularized in 1793, and the camposanto, or cemetery, where friars, craftsmen and indigenous people were buried.

The Alamo, used as a military fortress by Spanish, Mexican and Texian troops in the 1800s, is best known today for a 13-day siege and battle in 1836, when Texas won independence from Mexico and became a republic, before being annexed as a U.S. state in 1845. But according to mission burial records, 954 people were interred in connection with three churches that stood during the 1700s.

In a 1994 report on Alamo Plaza, the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio said later burials of church parishioners and Spanish soldiers were not transferred to the town cemetery, in the area of today’s Milam Park, until 1807, suggesting the remains of 1,000 or more people could be buried below the asphalt, concrete and flagstone that now cover Alamo Plaza.

Because Native American inhabitants of the mission are believed to have been interred in shrouds, without coffins, the report said, it would be unlikely that ground-penetrating radar could locate the burials.

Reports of skeletal remains in the iconic mission church that stands today date to occupation from 1848 to the 1870s by the U.S. Army, which used the building as a warehouse. Newspaper reports chronicled discovery of human remains just south of the church in 1920, in front of the church in 1934 and at the north end of the plaza in 1935, when the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building was under construction. In 1937, four graves were found below the church floor, near the altar area, where a bronze marker remains today.

The team developing the Alamo master plan, with a draft due in November, focused its excavation on areas along the compound’s west and south walls, avoiding locations where human remains were likely to be found. It invited the Archdiocese of San Antonio and Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation to participate in a blessing prior to the dig.

Ramón Vásquez, executive director of the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, said he would like to see boundaries of the cemetery identified with radar or another noninvasive means if technology allows. He does not want the remains disturbed.

A 1967 excavation at Mission San Juan that unearthed human remains of at least 92 people angered Native American mission descendants. Those remains were reburied in 1999. In 2012, 15 more burials were unearthed in a renovation project near the door of the church at San Juan and were later reburied.

Vásquez said the 2012 repatriation resulted from an inadvertent discovery of remains and was “handled in a much better fashion” because of a greater awareness of cultural sensitivities. Identifying the location of burials in the Alamo area would help recognize those historic cemeteries as sacred, he said.

“We do know there are close to around 1,000 documented burials associated with the Mission de Valero,” Vásquez said. “We are in support of identifying burial sites and protecting them.”

City Archaeologist Kay Hindes said it may be difficult to do that, especially if there are multiple burial sites in the plaza. She said more could be learned from future excavations about early Alamo structures, including locations of the early churches, an 1836 fortification inside the main gate and walls at the compound’s south end.

Though there have been more than a dozen major archaeological projects in the Alamo area in the past 50 years, little has occurred in the plaza since 1995, when a dig to try to find a well in front of the church — and a legendary stash of silver Jim Bowie was rumored to have left at the bottom — proved unsuccessful.

Most of the other excavations were conducted under UTSA’s archaeological center and produced a wealth of information, including artifacts and architectural features dating to the mission era, Hindes said. Anne Fox, who led at least three major digs in the area in the 1970s and died in 2013, was one of several “giants of Texas archaeology” who established an evidence-based record at the state shrine, Hindes added.

Nesta Anderson, lead investigator in the recent dig, agreed that Fox, Ivey and others who led previous excavations did “very important work that really laid the foundation for what we’ve done and hope to continue doing.”

Thomas Hester, a retired archaeologist who now lives in Marble Falls, credits Fox with finding the main gate of the Alamo in 1975. Another remarkable discovery, in 1979, was part of the compound’s west wall complex, found lying amid cigarette butts and rat carcasses below the floor of a building razed for construction of the Paseo del Alamo, leading to the River Walk, Hester said.

Hester, who participated as a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin in the first major archaeological dig at the Alamo, in 1966, believes there are many more hidden clues of the mission era on the state-owned grounds. But there likely are other projects worth pursuing to gather more data on the 1836 battle, he said.

“No one excavation is going to show the whole trajectory of the Alamo,” Hester said.

Ivey said he would like to see more digs in the Alamo’s two courtyards to trace the foundation and footings of the mission-era convento — the friars’ residence to the south and craftsmen shops to the north. He also would like to retrace work done in 1977, to get better photos and field drawings of footings of the 1836 stockade, or palisade — a fortified row of vertical timbers between the church and south wall. He also has hopes of finding the base of the outer west wall with a dig on Houston Street, just west of Alamo Street, that would likely require lane closures, snarling traffic.

More than anything, Hester said, he would like data for all past excavations put together in a “comprehensive synthesis.” Hindes said the three primary groups involved in the recent project — Pape-Dawson Engineers, consultant Raba Kistner and UTSA — have begun doing that.

“This is the first time we’ve had these different groups working together,” she said. “We’re taking a holistic view, to see how all these dots connect, including former and recent projects, to give direction about future work to be done.”

Source: San Antonio Express-News