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13,000 Years at Your Fingertips: Virtual museum showcases the rich cultural heritage of Texas

Excavations in progress at Baker Cave, 1984.
Excavations in progress at Baker Cave, 1984. Many of the dry rockshelter sites in southwest Texas contain deeply stratified deposits full of perishable remains left behind by prehistoric groups camping in the shelters. These materials— rarely preserved in other sites— provide a wealth of information about prehistoric lifeways.
Pull up a chair and read tales of prehistoric hunters stampeding buffalo herds over a West Texas cliff. Find out why French explorers' ships foundered in Matagorda Bay. Discover a little-known East Texas Civil War training and prisoner of war camp and a 1,000-year-old "rancheria" site in the heart of the state. See stone tools used more than 10,000 years ago and find out how buffalo brains were used by Native Americans.

All of this, and you don't even need to leave the comfort of your computer.

Texas Beyond History is a virtual museum started by the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL), a research unit in the College of Liberal Arts. Partnering with the Texas Archeological Society (TAS), the innovative Web site showcases information and images about Texas' rich cultural heritage—more than 13,000 years of human history—from hunter-gatherers to cotton farmers.

Dr. Darrell Creel, director of TARL, said the Web site was designed to appeal to students at all levels, teachers, university researchers and the public alike.

"We have received countless requests for tours from schools, civic organizations and the public," he said. "TARL is not a museum and we don't have any exhibits, but we recognized a need for the public to have access to information we have available." 

Within the lab's warehouse-like building at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus are the collections from more than 80 years of archeological research across the state—an estimated 50 million artifacts, and the records, photographs and maps documenting close to 100,000 archeologcial sites across the state.

An early Caddo burial scene, as envisioned by mural artist Nola Davis.
An early Caddo burial scene, as envisioned by mural artist Nola Davis of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. An upcoming theme exhibit on Texas Beyond History will look at the remarkable East Texas Caddo culture from its earliest beginnings to the contemporary Caddo Nation.
Through Texas Beyond History, the public—especially school children and teachers—now has access to the most important of TARL's scientific holdings, through online virtual museum "exhibits" and a variety of creative resources, including map tools, children's activities, an illustrated glossary and lesson plans. In addition to human interest stories and results of scientific research, the site is vividly illustrated with more than 1,500 images, including original art commissioned for the site and archival photos from TARL's collections and other archives. This is the first Web site of its kind anywhere in the country.

There are 20 locations featured on the site, including Guy Town, Austin's 19th century red-light district, and Gault, one of the most important early man sites in North America, currently under analysis at TARL. There are also accounts of the Red River War of 1874, Ceremonial Cave in the Hueco Mountains and the Brownsville-Barril area of the Gulf Coast where the history of the people of the Rio Grande Delta has been uncovered. Texas Beyond History has been able to weave archeological finds with written records to tell compelling stories of Native Americans, Confederate soldiers and Early American settlements.

"The plan is to expand the site to include nearly 200 additional locations of historical interest in the next three years," Creel said. "We will have not only broad geographical coverage, but theme or contextual exhibits as well."

Some of the theme topics will be "Texas Frontier Forts" and  "Tejas: The Story of the Caddo Indians." In the coming weeks, exhibits will be added on the Harrell site, excavated by the Works Progress Administration and university archeologists in the late 1930s. Skeletal remains uncovered in the small prehistoric cemetery at the site attest to an era of violence and aggression which swept the southern plains some 700 to 1,100 years ago.

Although there are thousands of stories to tell based on sites within the state, the Web site staff has a larger vision.

"When the funding is available, we want to expand our coverage into other states and part of Mexico," Creel said. "After all, in archeological terms, current political boundaries really have no meaning."

A wisecracking armadillo archeologist known as Dr. Dirt.
A wisecracking armadillo archeologist known as Dr. Dirt answers questions about archeology in the Kid's Section of the Web site.
Drawing: Charles Shaw
In addition to site exhibits, Texas Beyond History offers a section for teachers, including lesson plans based on TEKS, TAAS and TAKS objectives. There is also a section for children featuring an armadillo archeologist in "Ask Dr. Dirt," "What to do with a buffalo" and activity pages. The upcoming "Imagine It!" section for children will illustrate different aspects of prehistoric life, ranging from "What's for Dinner?" to "Prehistoric Houses: From Mobile Homes to Villages."

Creel said the Web site has been a cooperative effort among state agencies, the National Park Service and other universities. Much of the content and visual imagery featured on the site has been contributed by archeologists, educators and artists from across the state who support the idea of online public outreach as a means of sharing what has been learned about the state's cultural heritage.

Funding has come through the Houston Endowment (through the TAS), the Lende Foundation, the Temple-Inland Foundation, the Texas Historical Foundation, the Potts and Sibley Foundation, the Friends of TARL, the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin, the Amistad National Recreation Area (National Park Service) and the Texas Alliance for Public Archeology. Matching grants from the Texas Council for the Humanities and the Texas Preservation Trust Fund have also been awarded, and Creel is working on the needed matching funds.

"There are so many additions we would like to make to the site, including expanding the elementary school section," Creel said. "It already makes Texas history more accessible, for example, to 5th graders in Brownsville who can now see artifacts from their area and read the story of their local cultural heritage on the computer instead of having to take a field trip."

Images courtesy Texas Beyond History

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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