Parts of the Alamo have been closed off to visitors as archaeologists working on the early phases of the site’s redesign have begun digging into the oldest part of the grounds.  

A $450 million Alamo redesign plan involves preservation work to help protect the Long Barrack, the site of the Alamo defender’s last stand against the Mexican army. On Tuesday, Alamo archaeologist Kristi Miller Nichols offered a tour of the work inside the Long Barrack, where exhibits have been removed to give archaeologists space to dig a series of rectangular holes 5 to 6 feet deep. 

They’re probing to reach the bottom of a wall, which dates back to the 1700s when the construction was called Mission San Antonio de Valero.

The dig is the first-ever archaeological investigation inside the structure, Nichols said, and the main focus is to provide architects with the information they need to properly restore it.

“They want to know, how deep is the footer?” Nichols said. “What is it constructed of? Are there any voids in there?”

Archaeological excavations also will begin this year at the Alamo church. Currently, staff of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Center for Archaeological Research are excavating sections of Alamo Plaza where safety bollards soon will be installed to block vehicle traffic. 

Inside the Long Barrack, Raba Kistner archaeologists are using a laser scanner to take 3-D images of the layers of stone, dirt, and other material inside the rectangular pits to more thoroughly document the layers.

Ground layers over the years consist of varied materials such as red brick and stone.

During Nichols’ tour, archaeologist Rhiana Ward was spraying the inside of the pit with water, preparing to take a laser scan.

“Once you kind of moisten the soil up, it really allows the stratigraphy and some of the features to pop,” she said. 

One of the most interesting features they’ve found so far could date to when the U.S. military abandoned its occupation of the Alamo in the 1870s and the former mission was converted into a mercantile store. 

“It was supposed to be one of the most impressive ones here in town,” Nichols said. 

Nichols showed a picture of the store, which bears little resemblance to the Alamo today. The building had a wrap-around porch, supported by wooden posts, which could explain what appears to be a post hole found in one of the excavation units beneath what is now the floor of Long Barrack. 

Inside the building, containers were loaded to chest height with white bags of soil, each labeled based on the precise location from which it was excavated. Putting the soil back to as close to the original location as possible will help architects in their work, Nichols said. 

“All of the dirt has to go back in the way it came out,” she said, calling such rigor “very unique to any archaeology project.”

Before it gets bagged, the soil must first be screened for artifacts. Across the street in the basement of the Alamo Trust’s offices, archaeologists were sifting through the soil for artifacts and organizing them by type.

Among the tons of bone fragments, metal pieces, and shards of ceramics were two musket balls, one flattened from impact. Archaeologists also found most of a handblown glass bottle, a bone button, and a rusted metal skeleton key. 

They have not recovered any human remains, Nichols said. The issue is sensitive to local groups who claim ancestry to the indigenous people who lived at the mission, as well as descendants of the Texas revolutionaries who died at the hands of Mexican forces. A tribal monitor chosen by the Mescalero Apache tribe is on-site throughout the dig to help ensure the proper treatment of any remains found, Nichols said. 

Avatar photo

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.