The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, November 24, 2000, Columns

The Nightengale Archaeological Center west of Marble Falls opens a time capsule of thousands of years for the public to see. Artifacts spanning from the Ice Age to pioneer times have been found at the site on Lake LBJ. Not only do visitors journey through time, but they also get to see how modern archaeologists sift through layers of soil to find clues to the mysteries of ancient cultures.

The site was discovered in 1987, when neighbors noticed boats pulling up to the property and people getting out with shovels, says Dan Prikryl, staff archaeologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority. Park rangers caught a couple of treasure hunters on the public land and prosecuted them. LCRA archaeologists soon followed, and between 1988 and 1990 the site was a working gold mine of arrowheads, bones, and debris left behind by tribes that have since vanished.

After two years of excavating the 10-acre site, the field work stopped and the real work began. More than 100,000 artifacts found at the site had to be catalogued and a final report written. Most of the items found at the dig have gone to various state-accredited museums.

After the excavation was completed, the LCRA entered into a unique partnership with the Llano Uplift Archeological Society (LUAS). Organized by professional archaeologists and hobbyists who prefer genuine scientific research to vandalizing public lands, the group of volunteers operates the center as an educational center.

More than 1,300 schoolchildren pass through the gates every year to go down the path of discovery of ancient artifacts a few inches under their feet. Prikryl says that the lesson plans work best with fourth- and seventh-graders, but all education levels can find something to learn at the site. Most of the students come from Austin and schools surrounding Burnet County, but buses coming from as far away as Columbus and Lockhart have made the journey to this extraordinary classroom.

The visitor center at the Archaeological Center is the size of a one-room schoolhouse with a large, shaded porch in the back. The main room of the center is lined with display cases of flint tools, spear points, and arrowheads found in Central Texas. On the porch are large boxes where guides show how the digs are measured and mapped so that every bit of evidence can be precisely catalogued.

The porch overlooks an expansive lawn that is great for playing games or having a picnic. It is here that the students get to experiment with the tools and weapons that the nomadic Indians used to hunt their food. To one side is a stack of hay bales to try their skill using the atlatl to throw a spear at the mastodon painted on the side of the bales.

A walk down the crushed red granite path into the thick riparian forest takes the students into the world that native occupants might have known. The hunter-gatherers camped here along the banks of the river over a span of 10,000 years. A grass and stick hut shows how the people lived. A faded red surveyor's ribbon tied to the branch of a tree shows the height of a mastodon.

Closer to the shore of the lake, half a dozen pits in the dark soil with wooden covers that swing open like cellar doors reveal the work done by archaeologists. Bones, mussel shells, and seed hulls show what the people ate. Even the debris discarded to the side of the campsite tells a story.

The native tribes of Central Texas never got past being nomadic, Prikryl says. The thin, rocky soil and the primitive wood-and-rock tools were not conducive to farming. As any modern farmer will tell you, the rainfall can be capricious, making harvests unreliable in a place where there was an abundant natural supply of food.

While the Nightengale site has been a rich find with artifacts from 10 of 13 known prehistoric cultural phases as well as evidence of occupation since European settlers arrived, it was not remarkable in scientific terms. Its greatest contribution has been as a unique educational facility. The Llano Uplift Archaeological Society, led by Chuck Hixson, who also volunteers at the Nightengale Center, is currently working on another site up river from Kingsland that promises to provide researchers with new information about the native tribes.

"Two messages we try to get across to visitors to the Nightengale Center," says Prikryl. "We want to tell the story of these ancient peoples and how different it was from how we live today.

"The second thing we want to impress on visitors is the need to preserve the sites that are left. Archaeological sites like this one are a finite resource that needs to be protected and preserved. Once a site is disturbed, it's gone forever."

Volunteers from LUAS open the Nightengale Archaeological Center to the public on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, 2-5pm. The site is about an hour and a half northwest of Austin. To get there, take FM 1431 west of Marble Falls to County Road 126, which is 9.3 miles west of the junction with U.S. 281. There is a small sign on the south side of the highway at the entrance to a small subdivision and mobile home park; follow the signs around to the visitor center. For more information, call 830/598-5261.

Coming up this weekend ...

Regional Christmas Lighting Tour includes the Hill Country towns of Fredericksburg, Llano, Dripping Springs, Burnet, Marble Falls, Round Mountain, Bulverde, Blanco, Canyon Lake, Mason, and Johnson City, all lit with holiday decorations, Nov. 24-Jan. 1. 830/997-8515.

Holiday Wine Trail offers special ornaments to decorate a vine wreath from 16 Hill Country wineries that will be decked out for the season and filled with gift ideas, parties, and special events, Nov. 25-26 and Dec. 2-3. 830/868-2321 or

Christmas Arts & Crafts Show offers a holiday party in downtown Luling with treats, music, and shopping, Nov. 25. 830/875-3214.

Coming up ...

Bald Eagle Tour every Saturday, December-February. View our national symbol in their winter habitat at Fairfield Lake State Park. Reservations required. 903/389-4514.

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