Heritage, Volume 10, Number 3, Summer 1992 Page: 18
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The Case of the Misplaced Brick Slag:
The Historical ystery of the Quyfer Plantation
Seemingly worthless clues help solve 168-year old puzzle.
By David G. Robinson and Dan K. Utley
H istorians and archaeologists are
detectives of the past. They are continually
called upon to scrutinize bits and pieces of
our cultural environment to assure wise
planning, responsible development, and
preservation of our heritage in the face of
the inevitable progress characteristic of our
world. In this they often attempt to solve
problems and piece together events and
stories from scant, seemingly worthless clues
- broken crockery and scraps of written
records, among other things much in
the way of the crime-fighting detectives of
literature or the best real-life law enforcement
investigators of today.
A cogent example of this involvement
comes from recent investigations as part of
an archaeological contract with a pipeline
construction company. The company entered
a contract to deal with its historical
and archaeological responsibilities in Texas
with Texas Archeological Research Laboratory
(TARL), a research unit of the University
of Texas at Austin.
The fieldwork and research investigations
on the route of the pipeline took
months and literally spanned the breadth
of the state, from far West Texas to
Galveston Bay. Given the diversity of the
state, the unusual was frequently commonplace.
And so it attracted little notice
at first when a field crew working in Austin
County in southeast Texas brought to the
lab a few lumps of material that looked like
lava or slag from a foundry. The artifacts
were fully recorded and catalogued, but
they were brought in with specimen lots
from other sites and locales.
The staff archaeologist assigned to oversee
that segment of the pipeline route was
David G. Robinson, and he listened to the
descriptions related by the field crew, Joseph
M. Sanchez and Alfred Hobbs. They
had found the black, porous, and overfiredlooking
chunks of stone in a pasture far
from any standing buildings, but they lay
on and around a low earth mound near
where Aliens Creek flows into the Brazos
River. The mound was roughly circular, 70
feet in diameter, and not more than two
feet high. The slaglike material was unlike
any of the local gravels the Brazos has been
rolling downstream since the Ice Age. A
few ordinary brick fragments and rusted
bits of nails and wire also lay nearby, but
not enough even to make a good junkpile.
A preliminary search of records showed
no previously standing buildings on the
site. So what was the slag material, what
was the mound, and what did the two have
to do with each other? And how did all this
stuff get into an open pasture? One possibility
was cinders used as fill to build railroad
grades, but the nearest railroad ran
through Wallis, miles away. Some of the
specimens looked like bricks fused together,
but this only deepened the mystery; they
proved the material was fired much higher
than was possible for backlot brickyards
common in the 19th century. Therefore,
the locale could not merely be that of an
Since these observations failed to answer
the questions that seemed to grow in
number and magnitude by the moment,
more astute and closer observations were
required. For this reason the material and
site descriptions were taken to the project
geologist, S. Christopher Caran. A scientist
with experience in the analysis of burned
materials, Caran was capable of interpretations
beyond those of other staff mem
bers, and his analysis fulfilled expectations.
Two sample lots from the site were examined
by him. Lot 1 included highly vitrified,
or glasslike slag or annealed brick fragments.
Lot 2 consisted of brick fragments and
irregularly shaped vitrified slag.
Caran's analysis showed that the heat
vitrification process had indeed progressed
through a full spectrum from unaltered
brick to slag. The unaltered bricks were
low-fired and orange in color. One fragment
from the site was observed to have been
glazed. The more intensely fired slag was
black and highly vesicular, or full of small
holes. All the vitrified materials appeared
to have originally been bricks or brick
fragments. Some samples consisted of aggregates
of discrete masses with partly annealed
boundaries; however, even these
masses retained vestiges of their initial,
rectilinear shapes. In addition, the composition
of the slag was extremely uniform,
both within and among samples. This
uniformity was indicative of a deliberately
prepared clay mixture (i.e., the paste for
brick manufacture), rather than a naturally
occurring substance, such as rock or soil, or
an accidental combination of artificial substances.
The clay paste was then fired normally
to produce bricks, some of which
were later exposed to much greater heat.
The vitrified materials appeared homogenized,
lacking the coarse internal
structure of bricks. Some of these masses
contained glassy regions, particularly at
their margins and on the interior surfaces
of vesicles. The holes were originally gas
bubbles formed at high temperatures by the
chemical process of calcination of calcium
carbonate within the brick paste, producing
carbon dioxide. There were also thin
18 HERITAGE * SUMMER 1992
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 10, Number 3, Summer 1992, periodical, Summer 1992; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45419/m1/18/: accessed December 18, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.