Joel Shiner: Bringing Spring Lake Archaeology into the Light

By Jacob Hooge

Shiner on break
Shiner on break

As Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS) works through the curation of artifacts from the Shiner collection, dozens of volunteers and student workers are experiencing first-hand the horrors of poorly kept notes and documentation of an unfinished yet exceptionally important archaeological excavation. The few publications Joel Shiner produced concerning the San Marcos Springs were not well-received within much of the archaeological community; however, his work in San Marcos placed a spotlight on the archaeological resources present. Shiner’s efforts resulted in the often cited San Marcos claim to be the longest continuously inhabited site in North America and were the catalyst for the important work which continues today.

Shiner’s interest in archaeology at Spring Lake began in the summer of 1978 after a local scuba instructor informed him the San Marcos River contained an abundance of projectile points. Although an Egyptologist by training, Shiner was looking for research closer to Southern Methodist University and his home in Dallas. In a letter to the Center for Field Research dated September 14, 1978, Shiner proposed two research projects he was considering:

The first idea is an underwater investigation of Indian campsites at the giant Aquarena Springs, San Marcos, Texas.  Thousands of flint artifacts have been found in the outflow stream, but the area around the spring has not been examined.  An early dam first below the spring raised the water level several feet and apparently inundated many prehistoric sites.  Before any substantial work could be done, I would have to make a brief feasibility survey.  Four to six volunteers could be used.

The second project that I am considering is a continuation of my archaeological survey of Tamaulipas State in Mexico.  This would entail a considerable amount of camping out in relatively wild, sparsely settled country.  There are no classic ruins there, only hunting and gathering camps in mountains and desert.

San Marcos would be motel living and easy comfort for someone with a scuba certification.  The water is 72° all year round.

Tamaulipas would be challenging, subject to local food, but in no way dangerous–two small trucks and a local guide.  It would have to be done in spring or fall.

(Hooge, et al. 2013)

           In late September, Shiner went for an exploratory dive just below the

Divers at the Terrace Locality
Divers at the Terrace Locality

Spring Lake Dam and collected a small sample of artifacts. Soon afterwards, Shiner obtained permission from the Aquarena Springs management to seek the source of the artifacts within Spring Lake, requesting a permit from the Texas Antiquities Committee to study cultural materials in the lake and river bottom. By mid-November of 1978, Shiner was searching the north bank by removing lacustrine sediment cover from an area 300 ft west of the shore nearest the “Deep Hole” spring. Between the spring of 1979 and the summer of 1984, Shiner carried out test excavations on weekends with the help of students of his underwater archaeology diver training courses. (Hooge, et al. 2013)

Shiner attempted to report his findings in what he termed as a “humanistic” approach with a goal of discovering what sort of spiritual resources prehistoric people derived from the river (Harrigan 1981). Displaying his characteristically wry sense of humor and outlining rather lofty objectives, Shiner was quoted (Harrigan 1981) as saying:

Everybody thinks Indians are the ideal citizens. They protect the environment and all that crap. So we thought we’d test this hypothesis. Where would the stones be if the Indians were worshiping the springs? Where would the garbage be? If our hypothesis was true the bottom of the springs would be full of exotic rocks and the bones of virgins, but the garbage would be up on the banks, thrown back from the springs so it wouldn’t pollute the water.

Shiner’s first publication on his Spring Lake excavations reported the identification of an Archaic assemblage similar to sites at Canyon Lake and Stillhouse Hollow Reservoir in addition to numerous “exotic stones”, alligator gar scales, and chert from 50 to 75 miles away (Shiner 1981).  Shiner (1981) also laid out plans to study the immediate vicinity of each spring to test his model for “aboriginal veneration of the springs” which “includes exotic or eccentric offerings and an absence of offensive garbage.”  Later, Shiner (1983) proposed a need for alteration of existing Paleoindian behavioral models to accommodate his Spring Lake evidence in addition to that of several privately owned projectile point collections from other Central Texas spring localities.  Shiner (1983) argued that the abundance of lanceolate points and presence of mammoth and mastodon tooth fragments sans long bones at Spring Lake showed the sites served as Paleoindian base camps supporting an almost sedentary hunting and gathering existence; as often happens, his paradigm shifting attempt was met with harsh criticism. (Hooge, et al. 2013)

In the summer of 1984, Shiner conducted his first extended field season, excavating a 5 x 5 meter pit in the area he referred to as the “Terrace Locality”. Shiner’s primary mode of excavation was the use of an air lift to “vacuum” up fine sediments; the excavator would then map out the artifacts visible before removing them and proceeding deeper. Between 1984 and his death in 1988, Shiner concentrated on the Terrace Locality, excavating at least 46 m2 to a maximum depth of between 1 and 2 meters. This pit was never backfilled and is still just visible today during a regular stop of the glass-bottom boat tours.

Unspecified Terrace profile
Unspecified Terrace profile (from Hooge, et al. 2013)

The stratigraphy of the Terrace Locality was relatively complex as can be seen in the profile sketch. The existing notes which describe stratigraphy are scant, but what seems abundantly clear from a geoarchaeological standpoint is the Terrace Locality was not a habitation area. Given a mix of clay matrix supported poorly sorted gravels, cobbles, and boulders, the materials Shiner collected were almost certainly in secondary alluvial (stream transported) and/or colluvial (fallen from the cliff above) context. In other words the environment of deposition was unsuitable for a campsite, and the artifacts Shiner removed were in a highly disturbed and mixed state as they were collected.

The materials collected during the Terrace Locality excavation are what make up the bulk of the collection currently being curated at CAS. While many boxes are still paired with sketch maps of artifacts within units, only a few are marked with decipherable unit numbers and no notation relating the sketches to depths has been discovered. Although the poor contextual state of the Terrace Locality appears to have been lost on Shiner, it was most certainly a blessing. Shiner was able to establish the presence of stone tool styles spanning from Paleoindian through Protohistoric (hence the claim of “the longest continuously inhabited site in North America”) without destroying the highly valuable contextual information that would have been present at an actual campsite through poor methods and documentation. In this way, it is still possible to appreciate Shiner and his work at Spring Lake for shining a spotlight on San Marcos archaeology even if we find ourselves grumbling as we struggle to curate the collection he left us.



Harrigan, Stephen

1981    The Perfect River. Texas Monthly, August 1981. Emmis Communications.

Hooge, Jacob, Carole Leezer, Fritz Hanselmann, and Jon C. Lohse.

2013    Chapter 2: Underwater Excavations at 41HY147. In Underwater Archaeology at                 41HY147, the Terrace Locality at Spring Lake, Jon C. Lohse, ed. Archaeological                Studies Report No. 28. Center for Archaeological Studies: San Marcos.

Shiner, Joel L.

1981    History, Economy, and Magic at a Freshwater Spring. In The Realms of Gold,                     Proceedings of the 10th Conference on Underwater Archaeology. pp 202-203.

1983    Large Springs and Early American Indians. Plains Anthropologist. Vol. 28, No. 99



Jacob Hooge is a project archaeologist at the Center for Archaeological Studies. Jacob has conducted an underwater core sampling survey of sediments on the bottom of Spring Lake in San Marcos, Texas, and on the Lost Ships of Henry Morgan Project in Panamá. 

3 thoughts on “Joel Shiner: Bringing Spring Lake Archaeology into the Light”

  1. You need to cite Jon C. Lohse (2013) edited report “Underwater Archaeology at 41HY147, the Terrace Locality at Spring Lake,” the report that provides a description of all of Shiner’s artifacts.

  2. Jacob, Thank you for your well-written explanation that pays due homage to Dr. Shiners’ well-intentioned efforts, while at the same time pulls-no-punches in exposing the silliness of his most ridiculous ideas, and how serious the loss to Texas archaeology COULD HAVE BEEN, if those artifacts he spent so much effort recovering had been in primary context. And, thank you for your tireless efforts in trying to bring sanity to the situation after all these years and curate them in some rational manner for future researchers.

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