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Curator at Blinn’s Star of the Republic Museum uncovers hidden history with ceramics study

Shawn B. Carlson analyzed nearly 800 historic artifacts from the Spanish Borderlands

August 27, 2015

Dr. Shawn CarlsonThe curator of exhibits at Blinn College’s Star of the Republic Museum has uncovered a missing piece from the vast puzzle of Texas’ Spanish colonial frontier.

After an eight-year probe of nearly 800 ceramic artifacts collected from Texas’ Spanish missions and presidios from 1718-1831, Dr. Shawn B. Carlson has pinpointed where the pottery came from and who was making it.

Carlson worked alongside Dr. Ronald L. Bishop, senior archeologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and Dr. M. James Blackman, retired chemist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The trio analyzed hundreds of sherds, or fragments of pottery, by drilling small holes into the pottery. The samples were analyzed at the Smithsonian using Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis (INAA), a technique that measures the elements contained in a sample. Samples are then compared with existing samples at the Smithsonian to identify origin.

Carlson and her team concluded that Native Americans were making coiled pots and finishing them with a lead glaze, a European technology. This indicates a transition in technology that Native Americans likely picked up from Spaniards. Next year, the trio will have an article about their findings published in Historical Archeology.

“The most interesting thing is getting this broader picture of what was going on,” Carlson said. “It’s like detective work. You’re finding all the different pieces of the puzzle and putting it together to make sense out of it. That’s what archeology is—you’re recreating the past from the bits and pieces you find in the ground.”

Carlson gained permission from the Texas Historical Commission, Texas Archeological Research Lab at the University of Texas, Texas Tech University, Northwest Louisiana State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio to use pieces of their ceramics collection for the study. The analysis doesn’t destroy the sherd, but it does damage it.

“I’m grateful to those who contributed, and I think they are too,” Carlson said. “They get to take back the results of the study for their use.”

The pottery Carlson borrowed originated in several manufacturing locales, including in the vicinity of Natchitoches, La., the San Antonio area and Espiritu Santo along the coast.

“In most cases, there wasn’t any written record of ceramic technology at that time,” Carlson said. “It’s interesting that we can find the answers to our past.”

Star of the Republic Museum was created by the Texas Legislature and is administered by Blinn College as a cultural and educational institution. Its purpose is to collect and preserve the material culture of the Texas Republic from 1836-1846 and to interpret the history, cultures, diversity and values of early Texans.

The museum is located off Highway 105 between Brenham and Navasota on FM 1155 at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site. Daily Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.starmuseum.org or call 936-878-2461, ext. 237.

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AUDIO – Dr. Shawn Carlson, curator of exhibits at Star of the Republic Museum