Contributed photo .George West residents, Mary Anna Miller-Brockman (left) and Betty Miller-Rhodes (right) assisted alternately in site excavation and in the field laboratory for the duration of the dig.
Contributed photo .Following retirement, Frank Weir returned to his earlier passion for painting art. He uses his knowledge of and fascination with past cultures to paint detailed scenes depicting prehistoric life in Texas. His depiction of a Loma Sandia prehistoric burial may be seen on the Texas Beyond History website.
Mildred House photo.Archeologists looking for graves and other artifacts carefully work through several layers of soil
By Richard and Janis Hudson
THREE RIVERS – Loma Sandia, or “The Dig”, drew a range of individuals from highly educated professionals to the skilled and unskilled laborers. Whatever their level of education or skill, they all possessed a kindred spirit – love for the past and the hunt for the unknown that explained the past. Three such people were Dr. Frank Weir and two Live Oak County sisters, Betty (Miller) Rhodes and Mary Anna (Miller) Brockman.
For them, Loma Sandia was like a scavenger hunt. It possessed all the exciting elements that drew them to search for signs of a people who buried their dead thousands of years ago on a small sandy hill overlooking Hackberry Creek in northern Live Oak County. And, like a scavenger hunt, Weir, the sisters and those engaged in the search with them had only 14 months to accomplish this task before the last section of U.S. Highway 37 was built through the burial site.
Frank Weir and the Miller sisters were born and raised in Texas – Weir in McAllen and the sisters in Kendall County – but moved with their family down by the river in George West. They all grew up hunting Indian artifacts. During his high school years Weir looked for signs of Indian campsites along the banks of the arroyos in South Texas. The Miller sisters found them in the plowed fields and along the creeks and rivers in Live Oak County.
Though Weir and the Miller sister’s paths did not cross until “The Dig,” Weir often hunted Indian artifacts in their territory when he visited his relative’s ranch in Live Oak County. Weir said the rich experience influenced his decision to become a professional anthropologist/archeologist.
In time he completed a doctorate and hired on with the state highway department as principal investigator in charge of their archeology department. Until Loma Sandia, the department consisted of Weir, a secretary, and a surveyor named Dan Crawford. Weir said Crawford discovered the site in 1973 when he found Indian artifacts while conducting a right-of-way survey. After the Loma Sandia find, Weir’s department grew to 30 people, most of which were archeologists and anthropologists.
As principal investigator, Weir traveled the state assigning field site supervisors to more than 300 archeological excavations due to highway construction.
“The Loma Sandia site,” Weir said, “was among the top five most important excavations he administered in the state.” So he assigned one of his top project archeologists, Charles “Chuck” Johnson, to supervise the fieldwork for the entirety of the Loma Sandia excavation.
Betty’s sister, Mary Anna, called to say she had hired on to help at the archeology dig just north of town. This intrigued Betty, so she applied too and was soon on the job with her sister. Betty said, “Dig employees met each morning Monday through Friday at the local State Highway Department south of George West on Highway 281. We got in vans and were driven to the site.”
At the site they were given buckets, a trowel, and a screen through which they would sift dirt looking for artifacts regardless of how small. As artifacts were discovered, they were delivered to overseers who were professional archeologists.
“The most fascinating artifacts I found,” Betty said, “were believed to have belonged to a medicine man.”
The work was tedious, hot most days and cold in the winter. But Betty said she and her sister were so intrigued by what they were finding that the day passed too quickly.
“If we were tired,” said Betty said, “we didn’t really feel it because it was so interesting.”
According to Weir, there was no way to tell exactly how many times the Loma Sandia site, or sand hill, was occupied.
“We know from carbon dating the artifacts and other evidence from the site,” he said, “that it was occupied off and on over several thousand years by a lot of different groups of people.” Weir calls these people “hunter and gatherers” and believes that they buried their dead in single graves while camped on the sand hill. “But that changed,” he said, “for a short period of 100 years between 850 and 600 B.C. when one or two tribes turned the site into a cemetery by consistently burying their dead there.”
“The reason we think that,” Weir said, “is because the burial shafts, the grave pits, originated pretty much on the same elevation and none of the graves intruded into earlier graves. They knew someone else was buried previously, which suggested that they were marking the graves like we do in modern cemeteries.”
“For some reason,” Weir emphasized, “the area became not only a camping ground, but a desirable place to bury the deceased. We don’t know why. Single graves are common in hunting and gathering societies. Cemeteries are rare. Why this location was selected to be a common burial site is really a mystery. We simply can’t explain why.”
Betty said she and Mary Anna didn’t worry too much about interpreting the findings. They left that up to the archeologists. The sisters did such a thorough job of finding artifacts that they were transferred to the field laboratory by their boss, Ann Irwin, when it was set up at the County Highway Maintenance Department in mid-February 1978. The sisters washed rocks and artifacts, drew their likeness on paper and logged everything before it was shipped to the Texas Archeological Research Laboratories in Austin.
“The interstate took out most of the site,” Weir said. “There’s still some burial pits outside the right-of-way. We found some single graves at the very edge of the right-of-way owned by the highway department, but beyond that was private property where we could not excavate. We strongly suspect that there are still graves in that area.”
When asked where the artifacts from the dig are today, Weir said that they are now safely stored in a climate-controlled environment at the Archeological Research Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
During the marker dedication Sunday, April 19, Dr. Frank Weir will share his knowledge and experience about the Loma Sandia discovery. He is a retired Director of Archeological Services in the Highway Design Division of the Texas Department of Transportation. Since retirement, Weir returned to his earlier life’s passion – painting. He has created more than a dozen reconstructed scenes of ancient Indian life for Texas Beyond History, http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net.
Betty (Miller) Rhodes says she plans to be at the marker dedication also. Mary Anna expressed a desire to come but lives too far away in Washington State. “For me and speaking for my sister Mary Anna, it was a wonderful experience. We learned so much about the ancient people who once traveled through Live Oak County,” Betty said, “and continue to this day to wonder what drew them here.”