History of TARL

The Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL) of The University of Texas at Austin is a nationally recognized archeological research facility and the largest archeological repository in the state. Its mission is to collect, preserve, and curate archeological specimens and records, train students, conduct archeological research, and disseminate information.

The Texas Archeological Research Laboratory came into existence in 1963 due to the foresight of individuals at the University who saw an ever growing accumulation of records and collections documenting the unique prehistory of Texas and recognized the critical need to preserve this collection for research, teaching, and public interest. These individuals include Dee Ann Story (below center), Edward Jelks, E. Mott Davis, T. N. Campbell (below left), W. W. Newcomb (below right), and J. Neils Thompson. Their efforts, ingenuity, and perseverance resulted in the creation of a permanent research repository for Texas archeology.

Dee Ann Story
Newcomb, 1949.  

Acquisition of the collections now housed at TARL actually began with the establishment of archeological research in Texas by J. E. Pearce (1868-1938), first Chairman of the Department of Anthropology. Beginning in 1918, Pearce actively sought funding to pursue his interest in Texas archeology. He corresponded with individuals from the Smithsonian Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation, convincing them of the importance of the prehistoric sites in Texas and the need to save the archeology from vandals. The Smithsonian Institution had begun its own nation-wide inventory of archeological sites and was already collecting materials from various states by sponsoring individuals within these regions to do fieldwork. By funding the fieldwork, the Smithsonian would acquire a portion of the collection and information on the archeology of that area, thus, mutually benefiting both.


In addition to field work, Pearce (shown in image at right) also acquired collections through donations, loans, purchase, or exchanges with other individuals and institutions. Pearce contacted high school teachers throughout Texas and inspired them to look in their areas for important archeological sites. With funding from the Smithsonian Institution, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, University of Texas, and private individuals, Pearce undertook a state-wide archeological survey and collections program between 1919 and 1938, in the process generating an unparalleled collection of material relating to the history and prehistory of Texas. Pearce Hall

Pearce’s desire for a state natural history museum that would house the collections and continue archeological research in Texas had begun to be realized when the Department’s Anthropology Museum was established in 1932. In 1938 Pearce resigned as Chairman of the Department of Anthropology to accept a half-time position as Director of the Texas Memorial Museum, created that year as an independent agency. Its establishment allowed for many of the archeological collections to be relocated from the Anthropology Museum in Pearce Hall and put on display at the new museum. Pearce died soon after becoming director of the Texas Memorial Museum, and the position was then filled by E. H. Sellards. By the time construction of the museum was completed, however, the collections had become so numerous that the building, lacking the two wings that were to hold collections not on exhibit, was too small to house all of them. Other university departments, including a laboratory in what was known as Little Campus, continued to house many of the collections.

During the period of 1936 to 1941, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) appropriated funding in Texas to conduct archeological excavations and laboratories to process the materials recovered. The WPA brought in professional archeologists from outside Texas to plan and direct extensive excavations at important archeological sites. Most of the work was done by the University of Texas and yielded important, large collections from the central, coastal, and eastern portions of the state. In the image below, archeologists work at a WPA processing lab in San Antonio.

WPA Processing labs in San Antonio, TX

WPA funding ended with the advent of World War II and archeology in Texas almost came to a complete halt. After the war ended in 1945, the Federal government embarked on a massive program to construct dams and reservoirs across the country. In 1947, through a program known as the River Basins Survey (RBS), the National Park Service, assisted by the Smithsonian Institution, established four offices across the country to conduct archeological reconnaissance of sites that would be impacted by the construction of the dams and reservoirs.

One of these offices was established at the University to pursue the archeological salvage program in the Texas region. From 1947 to 1958, the RBS conducted substantial archeological reconnaissance of twenty-seven reservoirs. Collections from these and other research efforts were housed in various locations at the University until 1963 when the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory was formally established at the University’s Balcones Research Center (shown in image below) and most of the collections consolidated there. Later transfers of collections from other parts of the University occurred over the years including materials from the Texas Memorial Museum as it increasingly focused on natural history. In addition, much of the archeological research conducted in Texas since the 1950s has been in conjunction with construction projects like highways and reservoirs, and many of the collections from these projects are curated at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory.

TASP Lab, Balcones Research Center

The core strengths of the collections lie in their breadth and depth for the state of Texas, though there are also significant TARL collections from other states and countries, especially Louisiana, New Mexico, and Belize. The collections include artifacts as well as the supporting archives from thousands of archeological sites. An important part of the archives is the extensive photographic collection which includes the largest set of rock art photographs in the state. Most of the collections generated by the Department of Anthropology summer field school are curated at TARL as are many of the Texas Archeological Society’s field schools. While the exact number of items is not known, the number of artifactual items is estimated at 50 million. Approximately one-third of the collections are owned by federal agencies, most by the National Park Service, US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation. Another third is owned by state agencies, primarily the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and various river authorities. A modest portion is under the jurisdiction of Native American tribes.

Notable portions of the collection include the collections from the Caddo area of northeast Texas, particularly the large holding of whole pottery vessels. These are used as models in the revival of traditional pottery production by modern Caddo ceramicists. The collection is also notably strong in perishable artifacts from the Lower Pecos and Trans-Pecos regions. Additional strengths include Paleoindian (earliest inhabitants, ca 12000-9000 before present) artifacts from major sites in Texas and New Mexico, the unique shell industry from the lower Texas coast, and all time periods in the central part of the state.

Individually and collectively, these collections are nationally and internationally recognized as important and are frequently used for research by students, faculty, and staff at the University of Texas at Austin as well as by researchers from many other universities. They are consistently used for thesis and dissertation research projects not only by graduate students at the University but also by students from other universities in Texas and other states. In addition, TARL collections, both artifactual and archival, are frequently used by researchers employed by government agencies and private consulting firms as part of legally required archeological efforts. With new research questions and analytical techniques, researchers continue to tap the information latent in these archeological collections.

In addition to research use, the collections are frequently lent to museums in Texas and occasionally elsewhere for exhibits. At present, there are no exhibits at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory; but in an effort to compensate for the lack of exhibits, many items are shown on the virtual museum website, Texas Beyond History.