For the next few weeks, teams of archaeologists will be spending their days under the summer sun sifting through decades, and soon centuries, of dirt in Alamo Plaza searching for remnants of the original compound walls of the mission.
With brows heavy with sweat long before noon, their “once-in-a-lifetime” work began early Wednesday morning. It was the first official dig day after weeks of site preparation at two sites and one of the first steps towards formulating a multi-million dollar master plan for Alamo Plaza which aims to elevate the site’s historical context.
As of 10:30 a.m., said project lead Nesta Anderson, they’ve hand-removed about one foot of “overburden,” basically soil and rock, from underneath the heavy limestone paving stones. Archaeologists will continue to break up the soil and shake it through screens to reveal archaeological deposits – which could include anything from Native American artifacts to remnants of the RadioShack that was demolished in 1979 to kitchen utensils used in the 1800s when the Losoya family lived in the house at the western compound wall. Those artifacts will be bagged, labeled, and sent to a laboratory for testing and identification.
“As part of the master plan, they are asking what we know about the Alamo,” Anderson told at least a dozen people, mostly reporters, gathered outside the fenced-off dig site.”The answer with archaeology is: not as much as we think.”
Briefings on the teams’ progress will be provided every day for the dig that is expected to take three to four weeks. A comprehensive website about the master plan processes and a concerted social media awareness campaign to “Reimagine the Alamo” has also been launched to keep the public in the loop.
The master plan is the result of a three-way partnership between the City of San Antonio, Texas General Land Office, and the Alamo Endowment. A committee made up of representatives from each selected Preservation Design Partnership to develop the master plan and carry out any research and work necessary to inform the design to the highest level.
The goal is to find the western and southern wall to provide a base for the master plan to be built off of. While historians are confident in their estimates of where the adobe walls were located, these digs should confirm them with certainty. Work began in several square test pits at the so-called “RadioShack” site Wednesday after paving stones were removed. The second site, closer to the Alamo, is undergoing the same treatment, and construction crews have closed off one lane of traffic on Alamo Street. Two other potential sites have been identified for future digs in case work is inconclusive in the first two.
Once – or if – they find the original walls, they’ll “back away and protect what we’ve got,” Anderson said, and work on the master plan, which aims to more accurately represent the long misinterpreted site, can continue. The Alamo compound as it exists today, largely behind the iconic cathedral, is based on an inaccurate 1950s recreation.
If human remains are found, digging will stop immediately, said Anderson, who is a senior archaeologist at Pape Dawson Engineers, a local partner on the master plan. The teams of archaeologists from Pape Dawson, University of Texas at San Antonio, and Raba Kistner have made “every effort” to avoid known and possible burial grounds, she added.
Before the press and curious passers-by arrived on Wednesday, Ramon Vasquez stood patiently in the small, shaded courtyard just outside the fence to watch over the dig.
Long before the Texas Revolution and the battle in 1836, the Alamo was Mission San Antonio de Valero, a Spanish colonial mission where catholics sought to assimilate the native people. A symbol of “progress” and triumph for some, the Alamo represents a much darker history for indigenous people.
Vasquez, executive director of the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, said his organization will send a representative to monitor the process of the dig and provide any assistance on a daily basis.
“This is such a high profile experience for everybody,” he said of the archaeological dig and master plan. “We don’t know where this is going to take us.”
He led a traditional blessing alongside a catholic priest at Alamo Plaza several weeks ago before the sites were prepared for digging. Part of that ceremony was focused on asking for forgiveness should the teams stumble upon human remains, Vasquez said, and for any other unintended disruptions.
The blessing was also an attempt to close old wounds between native and colonial cultures, he said. “We’re also embarking on possibly exposing new wounds. So, whatever happens, we wanted to at least start in a good way.”
Annette Garcia attended the archaeological briefing with her camera to document a piece of her family’s history. She is a descendant of Alamo defender José Toribio Losoya and the Losoya family that lived in the home at the compound’s western wall, she said.
The family’s two-room stone house, an old Indian dwelling that had been deeded to them, was situated on Plaza de Valero near the southwest corner of the mission’s compound, according to the Texas State Historical Association. “The Losoya family was displaced from their home for many months as the Texans used it and other structures surrounding the Alamo to defend their position.”
The artifact collection at UTSA from the 1970s “RadioShack” archaeological dig has pieces of Garcia’s family and the city’s history and culture. She hopes they find even more this summer.
Seeing the archaeology dig feels “like a beginning, but not just for my family – for the city of San Antonio,” Garcia said. “This is going to be tremendous in starting up the (master plan) project. … I can’t wait.”
Top image: Archaeologists shovel large piles of rock and ground soil from the site. Photo by Scott Ball.