by Don Rathbun, November 2002
|Steve Ashley is an artist,
a naturalist, and an avocational archeologist. He also the found the Walnut
Creek Biface and it's pre-historic resting place. A new archeological
site. It could be 4,000 years old, and might go back 10,000 years.
The site is on public lands. City of Austin property. Soon to be part of a new City park - a hike and bike trail will pass nearby.
By the letter of the law, when on State or City property, no one is allowed to pick up even a flake of stone, and if they do, it belongs to the State. In the spirit of the law, the intent is to prevent looters from pillaging the pre-history of Texas.
The City of Austin has had Steve speak to their employees on archeology, prehistory, and the importance of recognizing and preserving the traces left by people thousands of years ago.
The Walnut Creek drainage has attracted the attention of generations of avocational archeologists, collectors, looters, developers, and wastewater engineers.
Steve has spent countless hours enjoying natures’ bounty on Walnut Creek. A migratory bird. A family of red-tailed hawks. An unusual fossil. A really, really big bone. An occasional tumbled stone tool or dart point.
A nice flake here, a smooth stone there, and suddenly some very well preserved stone tools. Tools that have not tumbled for hundreds of years in the sands of the creek bed.
Backtracking upstream, recent floods had torn away walls of soil. Cubic yards of dirt hanging on by tree roots, ready for the next rain to flush away from above, and water cutting underneath.
Those huge clods of dirt hold buffalo bones with stone tool cuts exposed to the sun for the first time in a thousand years. Hearths being eroded out from underneath. Firepits suspended in the soil held only by roots. Firerocks, hammerstones, manos, charcoal, and burned soil tumble together down the slope and into the water of the creek.
On one steep slope, wet with rain, slippery with clay, Steve was carefully making his way examining the many artifacts that had fallen out of the erosional cut, and suddenly, he slipped.
Boots failing to brake his slide, hands useless, sliding as everyone does as a child, and not so often as adults.
Finally stopping. Feet dangling just inches above flowing creek water. Hands reaching back to get balance - a sharp edge - a garden hoe?
It was sticking up out of the mud vertically. Almost half of it's 7+ inches pointed to the sky. One of the finest works of art a flintknapper has ever produced. Another day of rain, and it would have dropped into the water to be tumbled down stream.
Steve gently pulled it out of the dirt with both hands, and turned, holding it up to the rays of the setting sun. The glow. A sharp breath. A racing heart. Everyone who has ever found an arrowhead, or recognized the ancient handywork of our ancestors knows the feeling. He fell on his butt again, this time from being overwhelmed by the experience. He had saved this beautful piece of art/flint from natures wrath. He is proud of his find, and loves to talk about it to anyone interested.
The large biface blade is now known as the Walnut Creek Biface. Sharp retouched edges, flaking pattern of incredible skill. Amazing ripples, about as thin a cross section as is possible.
Right next to it was a mano. Side by side for thousands of years, buried as a pairing, and still together, touching. Each one shares a light spattering of the same grayish patina.
The Walnut Creek Biface is a little over 7.25 inches long, and about 4.5 inches wide. It is made of a wonderful honey red brown flint. Held to the light, it is translucent across the entire face, with the exception of a few inclusions.
A visual - think of a huge maple leaf pressed in wax paper. Those are the colors. Amber. An inner glow like Baltic amber. Ashley thinks there are fossils inside the flint.
Looking at the flake scars, they are wide and perfect, feathering out as all knappers hope they will. The work of a flint master, working on a very high quality heat treated flint.
Towards the center, one flake made a dive, but jumped back up to the surface before it popped back up, a rare and skillful knapping technique. Or maybe just luck. Some research will be done on that.
The edge flakes are regular and sharpen the blade to an even line. Edge wear is obvious, this large blade was used over a period of time, being resharpened prior to being interred.
Holding the biface on edge, the large flakes on each side leave only a thin web. It's average thickness is only a few millimeters. The thin spots may be less than a millimeter.
An artist made that blade. A very skilled artisan. He or she probably left behind others, and those might someday be studied if the site can be protected. Was it part of a ceremonial cache? Was it an offering?
Was the maker throwing down the gauntlet to future knappers? I like that theory. At a recent knapin some very talented knappers got a chance to see the biface. I heard one say "He made this just to piss us off!". A challenge to future flintknappers. The battle of skills we see in every craft, sport, and human endeavor. Why should people 4000 years ago be any different?
The site needs to be protected by erosional barriers, a sterile cap of soil, warning signs, and barriers on access roads. The site also needs to be studied, and the sooner the better, as erosion continues to be a threat to the talus-like slope at the creeks edge.
Steve approached the Texas Historic Commission and made them an offer, he would show them a group of artifacts he had surface collected, and inform them of a site that he thought was probably on City of Austin property.
He asked for assurance that he would not be punished for the minor violation of the law and that he would retain ownership of the artifacts that he had in his possession. The nod of heads implied a tacit agreement to terms. “No way that would ever happen”… he was assured.
He showed the collection to them, and led State and City representatives to the site on Walnut Creek.
Ashley assisted in every way possible, including:
In return, he was told he could quietly keep the “out of archeological context, erosionally disturbed material” that he had found. Note that a professionally rendered map costs thousands of dollars. Steve did it for free (he is an artist - remember?).
All was well until the biface and the site kept coming up as a hot topic of discussion among professional archeologists who protested the agreement, and bombarded the Texas Historic Commission with accusations and character assassinations directed towards Ashley.
It's reported that there is an unspoken nodding of heads that allows avocational archeologists, collectors, and anyone else who discovers a significant site on public lands to report it, and retain what they discovered as long as it was within what can reasonably considered a surface find. I'm sure there are other stipulations, but the spirit of the law is to encourage the public to report special places, even more so if they are about to be destroyed.
The State is now taking the position that these artifacts belong to the State and must be turned over. Why? Ashley's theory is that because he went public by talking to a newspaper reporter and letting the paper print photos of the artifacts and discuss the site (not it's exact location).
Channel-8 TV folks showed up unexpectedly and produced a short documentary with nice pictures and interviews of Steve and others. Archeology does not make news very often. This is news.
Ashley now lectures around town on the subject of Walnut archeology to City staff, Boy Scout groups, Brownies, Native American studies groups, friends, family and bored neighbors, this continues to make the archeologists nervous.
If he had not reported the biface, the site would probably not get protection when the dozers come in to develop the park. Most people would have kept the secret, and sold the biface. Ashley thought the site worthy of protection, the state has named it after him: The Ashley Site.
If Steve is prosecuted under the law for being a stand up guy or forced to turn over the big biface, no one in their right mind is going to report a significant site on public lands. This will only serve to further drive a wedge between the professionals and the avocationalists.
The mantra of the professional archeologists has been "If it's out of context, it has no value to us." It's time to include that in the laws of Texas. This biface was found out of context. Eroded by the forces of nature, fallen a dozen or more feet toward the creek’s edge. Rain had removed the dirt surrounding the biface revealing it for the first time in several thousand years. Welcome back, what message have you brought us?
The Walnut Creek Biface is the lightning rod needed to modify the laws of Texas, to make legal the nodding agreements that have allowed people to report significant prehistoric sites (and even historic ones) to the State so they can be protected and researched.
The public should be able to report sites without fear of having their collections seized.
It's reported that the office of the State of Texas Archeologist has described the Ashley Site on Walnut Creek as possibly the largest remaining unlooted site in Travis County. This a great discovery, and some great science could come from it.
Steve should be allowed to keep the biface: Pass it to his kids, loan it to a museum: He is a better conservator of the artifact than the State. No scientist could come up with any conceivable use for the artifact for study of any kind. Remember, it was found out of context!
Steve has provided an important service to the State of Texas and it's citizens, and this issue should serve to move archeology forward. To make more people aware of the prehistory beneath their feet. To give people the confidence to step forward and report new discoveries.
Steve has reached tens of thousands of people - in the newspaper, TV, and in presentations. The Walnut Creek Biface is getting more attention than any artifact has in a very long time. More importantly, Steve is devoted to the value of archaeology, and could get hundreds of people involved in the hunt for undocumented sites, and to record and report them. He wants to create a school curriculum about Walnut Creek--- he wants the artifact to inspire others, not to profit by!
Protect the site. Protect every avocationalists good intentions. Protect the worker with a shovel who finds a rare point, but knows if he reports it, he will have to fight to keep it. Protect the State employees who would like to follow the spirit of the law. Professionals are not our enemies.... it is the bureaucracy mired in a past before the rapid pace of progress began to really destroy archaeological resources. It is a bureaucracy stuck with the old stereotype of "looter." Professionals are collectors, too. They can't come forward for fear of their careers.
Help us move this issue forward. Contact your Texas State Legislator, and express your support. There are thousands of you out there! If you keep silent, you fail to effect change! Links at the bottom of the page.
Here's some pics of the site and artifacts
both found on the Ashley site, and others Steve has found in the Walnut
Creek area. Click thumbnails to see enlargement, then use your browser's
back button to return to this page. Enjoy.
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