Excavations at La Villita Earthworks, 1985 Oct 24, 2007 22:50:23 GMT -5
Post by bmoses on Oct 24, 2007 22:50:23 GMT -5
In mid-February, 1985, during archaeological monitoring of foundation excavations for the relocation of the Fairmont Hotel in La Villita, remains of what appeared to be a military entrenchment were uncovered. This project, located just southwest of the intersections of South Alamo and East Nueva Streets, proved to be the first archaeological evidence of the Mexican side of the battle of the Alamo.
The endeavor began as an archaeological monitoring project by personnel from the Center for Archaeological Research, UTSA, as bulldozers bladed the new Fairmont Hotel property in preparation for the hotel’s basement.
Location of La Villita Earthworks in relation to the Alamo.
Initial dozing and archaeological monitoring underway at the site of the new Fairmont Hotel.
The dark ashy stain of the trench is initially inspected by UTSA archaeologists.
Plan of excavations. Hatched line shows approximate limits of the fortification ditch at the surface left after bulldozing.
Mexican Earthworks Revealed
During the course of the work, a rather large dark stain was uncovered along with nineteenth century artifacts. Unfortunately, bulldozing had removed some of the fill before the trench was noticed and the elevation of the upper surface of the feature could not be determined.
After a cursory investigation of the L-shaped stain, a series of shovel tests were placed in and around the feature to better determine the depth and vertical distribution of the deposits. Archaeologists then allowed dozing to continue in areas away from and surrounding the feature. As the rest of the soils were scraped away and hauled off out of the project area, archaeologists began to prepare the “island” (a nickname given to the remaining feature deposits because they stuck up almost 1.5 meters above other excavated portions of the site) for more thorough investigations.
Full excavations began on February 20 and lasted a little more than a week. Fieldwork was supervised by Joe Labadie, Kenneth Brown and Dr. Thomas Hester, among others, and was greatly aided by the volunteer efforts of UTSA students as well as avocational archaeologists from the Southern Texas Archaeological Association.
Suspicions were soon realized as it became clear to archaeologists that the L-shaped feature was, in fact, a hand-dug military entrenchment. The earth work was about 9.25 meters long east to west, with an eastern leg 1.3 to 2.75 meters wide. A shorter leg jutted out at the northwest end. However, the feature did not conform to expected nineteenth century European military design. The classic Continental design for an exposed battery position would typically resemble the point of an arrow with the tip facing the Alamo.
Zones of Fill in the Trench
Sediment fill inside the trench were of two general categories. The lowest zones consisted primarily of whitish-gray marl and mottled marl and caliche and had clearly settled back into the trench from the excavated materials and trench walls soon after the battle. The upper zone, referred to by archaeologists as “La Villita Fill”, consisted of thick ashy midden deposits which were dumped into the ditch in the months and years following the 1836 battle. This “La Villita Fill”, containing abundant animal bones, ash and midden debris, will not be discussed further in this summary.
This lowest zone bore numerous nineteenth century artifacts including Spanish colonial ceramics, English ceramics, pressed glass, a glass crucifix, fasteners, horse gear (bits, stirrup, horseshoes), prehistoric artifacts and animal bones. There were also numerous artifacts clearly related to the time of the battle included two bayonets, one from a Brown Bess musket and another from either a French model 1777 or Baker rifle and modified into a pike. Other fragmentary or damaged weaponry included firearm accoutrements (gunflint pad blanks, gunflints, and balls), musket balls, a Baker rifle barrel, a Brown Bess trigger plate, frizzen, frizzen spring, and gunlock part, a Brown Bess (India pattern) musket buttplate, trigger-guard fragments from the Brown Bess musket and Baker rifle, a sword hilt, a lock plate and a hammer fragment for a pistol or small rifle, a pistol butt cap, and two Brown Bess ramrod pipes, grapeshot, canister shot, a solid iron shot for a nine-pounder field piece, and an unexploded 8 inch bronze howitzer shell fragment.
However, possibly the most interesting feature recorded in the lower portions of this trench was a hearth located in a small alcove near the north face of the trench. The hearth consisted of three large limestone rocks arranged in a triangle with an ashy charcoal matrix. Embedded within the ashy soil was a badly rusted iron pot. Nearby, an iron knife blade was recovered and a large smooth flagstone was also observed. One other amazing find in these lowest sediments were paper fragments with writing executed in black ink with a quill pen.
View looking south as crews begin setting up excavations on the "Island". The dark stain is the ashy Villita Fill of the trench.
Profile of part of the north face of the Island, looking south.
Excavations underway on the Island.
Archaeologists observe exposed portions of the earthworks while dozing continues in the background.
Profile of the Island wall looking west.
To the archaeological community, La Villita Earthworks affords the single best look at a site created and occupied during the Siege of the Alamo. However, the military function of the Villita Earthworks and its role in the battle is unclear since historical sources do not identify the earthworks.
This feature is thought to have been excavated by soldiers of the Mexican Army in February, 1836, and the trench would have had a commanding view of both the Concepción and Goliad roads. Arguments that the fortifications were constructed during the earlier siege of Bexar fall short. There is no mention in historic accounts of entrenchments anywhere near the vicinity of La Villita during the first siege, only descriptions of breastworks in the vicinity of Main Plaza and west of the Alamo near Houston Street.
Another curiosity is the fact that the trench does not conform to contemporary plans for infantry or artillery placements. This could be possibly be explained if the trench had been excavated near a home or other structure, or if the an assault on the position was not expected.
It has been calculated that some sixty-five cubic meters of alluvial terrace fill had to be removed to form the ditch. From the remaining portion of the site’s surface, the trench was about 1.9 meters deep. In many ways the trench compares in width and depth to the ditches along the lunette and palisade on the south Alamo wall.
Of the numerous projectiles recovered during the project including expended and unexpended Mexican ammunition, it is also possible that some of the rounds may in fact have been fired by the Alamo defenders. While howitzer shells can clearly be attributed to the Mexican army (they have been matched with shell fragments found at the Alamo), grapeshot, solid shot, and canister were used by both sides.
Local PBS channel KLRN-9 records a story on the archaeology at La Villita.
Cleaning the face of the Island in preparation for profile drawings.
An archaeologist working in Unit D uncovers an unexploded 7-inch howitzer shell.
Brushing dirt away from the cannonball.
Howitzer shell resting above bovine bones.
Cleaning the shell.
Iron solid shot cannonball for a nine pound cannon recovered from Unit D near the howitzer shell.
Overview of the excavations looking southwest.
Overview of the excavations looking toward the east-southeast.
Gunflints recovered from La Villita Earthworks, site 41BX677.
A badly oxidized tringular blade pike head (top), a badly oxidized tringular blade bayonet manufactured for a Brown Bess (center, missing the tip), and a badly oxidized tringular blade and shank portion from abayonet manufactured for a Brown Bess.
Brown Bess bayonet after stabilization proceedures.
Fragment and unfired bronze 7-inch howitzer shells.