Findings from archaeological investigations at the Alamo have inspired a new exhibit at the Shrine of Texas Liberty, and it opened along with a third preview of British rock musician Phil Collins’ donated collection of Alamo artifacts.
Alamo Archaeology is free and does not require a timed-entry ticket. Admission to Phil Collins Collection Preview: Supplies for War, which runs through April 24, is $5–$9.
In 2019, archaeologists excavated the foundation of the Alamo church and Long Barrack, or convento, which housed Spanish missionaries, to gain a better understanding of their construction.
A slumping in the walls of the convento prompted architects to investigate to ensure its stability. Repairs were made and the wall is now stable, said Kristi Miller Nichols, the Alamo’s director of archaeology, collections and historical research.
Preservationists used ground-penetrating radar on the walls of the Long Barrack and drilled into the mortar, giving officials a better idea of what needs to be fixed and to allow historic preservationists and the on-site conservator to develop a plan to ensure that the Alamo buildings are healthy and continue standing.
“The archaeology was not done just because we wanted to do archaeology. It was done because there was this need to better understand how the buildings are today, how they were constructed, what needs to be done to help repair them in the future and make them continue to stand for another 300 years and beyond,” Nichols said.
The Long Barrack was closed in 2019 for the investigations and reopened in late October last year.
As a result of what Nichols calls the “most concerted efforts” to create a preservation plan for the Alamo’s historic structures, archaeologists discovered 22 layers during the excavation, revealing history from the Alamo’s mission era; the fortress period, from 1803 to the 1830s; and the period when the facility served as a U.S. Army quartermaster’s depot for three decades starting in the 1840s.
Archaeologists identified five flooring levels: three caliche floors; one flagstone floor, most likely put in during the fortress period; and cobblestones, probably from the depot time period. A thin pocket of burnt soil found just below the cobblestone floor represents the time of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.
Intact white, black, yellow and red plaster and mortar on the walls also were discovered, suggesting the Long Barrack was decorated during the mission period.
“The Alamo still has a lot of information to tell us. … Additional archaeology would be great to see, but as we move forward with this excavation, it’s going to be really exciting to see these bits of information come out,” Nichols said.
“From an archaeological perspective, this is great,” she said. “It’s the very first time we’ve been able to peek into what’s underground in the Long Barrack. It revealed a lot of information about how it was used during the mission period, how it was used in the fortress period and what they were using for their flooring,” she said.
Among the more unexpected finds during the investigation were burned corn cobs. “Usually we have animal bones, pottery pieces and stone tools, but to have that burned corn cob is interesting to tell us about what people were eating here at the mission at the time,” Nichols said.
Nichols said the idea to turn the work into the Alamo Archaeology exhibit came from wanting to give visitors a peek at the features found inside and information on what was discovered.
“What’s really interesting is that this has been like a time capsule. What I would hope the visitors would get to see is that each of these layers are showing us how people were using the building,” she said.
Collins’ 2014 donation of over 400 artifacts will go into the Alamo’s new Exhibition Hall & Collections Building, expected to open in December. Items displayed during the Phil Collins Collection Preview: Supplies for War exhibit include cavalry swords, receipts from William B. Travis and requests for supplies and men signed by Stephen F. Austin.
After the future drummer and singer fell in love with Walt Disney’s “Davy Crockett” television episodes as a child, an excitement about the Alamo and what happened there was born in Collins. A gift of a paper document that came from one of the Alamo defenders began Collins’ collection.
The Alamo’s entire collection of about 3,000 items is growing, Nichols said. It has prompted the expansion of the Alamo Plan to add and repurpose buildings to provide an immersive, in-depth experience for visitors.