The third annual Currents in Texas Archaeology Symposium, part of Texas Archaeology Month, at the Witte Museum Friday night had the City’s top archaeologists presenting a summary of the work they’ve been doing for the past few years to unearth structures that have been lost to time.
The findings provide a better understanding of the layout of San Antonio around the time of its founding in 1718 to the 19th Century.
Assistant City Archaeologist Matthew Elverson announced that the City has found remnants of a powder house, a building used for storing gunpowder, where City Cemetery 2 is located at 1400 E. Commerce St. The building is thought to have been constructed between 1807 and 1810. Located a few miles Southeast of the Alamo, the powder house would also have served as a lookout tower from an elevated position that had an all encompassing view of downtown San Antonio.
Elverson read from several historic diaries that referenced the powder house.
“In 1828, French anthropologist Jean-Louis Berlandier wrote, ‘On a hill situated to the East of Alamo de Bexar, there’s an abandoned powder magazine called La Garrita,’” Elverson read.
The diaries that he read from suggest that the powder house was occupied subsequently by the Spanish, Mexican, Texan, American, and Confederate armies. The structure was demolished in 1884 when City Cemetary 1 was deemed too big and the land around the powder house was designated as a second cemetery. Although, Elverson noted, there is some ambiguity as to whether there was a second powder house constructed in the same area during the Civil War.
The City then used ground penetrating radar to search for any remains of the powder house. After finding some outlines in the images and doing some light digging at non-grave areas of the cemetery, archaeologists found remnants of walls that match historic maps. After some further excavation work, the team found several artifacts such as pottery and gunflints.
“The discovery of this site expands our understanding of the Battle of the Alamo,” Elverson said. “Not just to focus on the compound and the wealth of research activities in the downtown area, but to focus on some of those peripheral sites. Studying Mexican archival documents leads me to believe that this site is where (Mexican) General Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma rested his troops before attacking the Alamo.”
City Archaeologist Kay Hindes discussed the two-year process of investigating whether or not the first site of the Mission San Antonio de Valero had been found outside of the Christopher Columbus Italian Society building on the Western edge of downtown. She said that artifacts that have been found in the lot outside of the building have led her and her team to believe that this is the probable first site of the mission.
“And on May 1, 1718, Father Olivares founded that mission on the San Pedro Creek,” Hindes said. She went on to read a letter from one of the missionaries with Olivares that identifies a site that the Spanish governor occupied that was 1.97 miles down the creek. Hindes said that the description in subsequent letters matches the location of the Italian Society, but more research is needed.
Presenting a summary of her team’s Alamo Plaza archaeological dig this past summer, Pape-Dawson Engineers Senior Archaeologist Nesta Anderson recounted what she called the project of a lifetime.
“It was a really unique and wonderful opportunity for me to do a project with some of my colleagues,” she said. “It’s rare that we get to participate on the same project.”
The dig was a collaborative effort between Pape-Dawson, Raba Kistner, and UTSA’s Center for Archaeological Research. Archaeologists uncovered walls to what were potentially Native American quarters, as well as pottery, ceramics, and the occasional military artifact such as the tip of a non-commissioned Mexican officer’s sword. To read more about the summer’s Alamo Plaza dig, click here.