Heritage, Volume 10, Number 2, Spring 1992 Page: 11
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Urban Archaeology As Historic Preservation:
The Capitol Square Archaeology Project
By Randall W. Moir
Photographs courtesy of Archaeology Research Program,
Southern Methodist University
F ew think of urban archaeologists
troweling through 1860s refuse when the
term historic preservation is used. Deposits
under parking lots, dissected by buried
utilities and foundations are often regarded
as destroyed by individuals unfamiliar with
them. Until recently, urban deposits contained
as many intact features as areas
destroyed. The building booms since the
1960s have changed this situation. The
scale of construction today often obliterates
entire blocks removing all soil down to
bedrock. With each new boom, Texans
lose more of their urban archaeological
heritage than local preservationists have
been able to save through historic districts
and/or similar designations.
In some cases, however, not all is lost.
The Capitol Extension project in Austin is
a prime example of urban historic archaeological
preservation. Significant remains
that cannot be preserved can be uncovered
and documented. Through excavation, a
site is preserved and its artifacts recovered
for the benefit of generations.
Capitol Extension Project
In 1989, archaeologists tested an area
just north of the Texas State Capitol building
in Austin to see if significant remains
were present. The testing covered a 500 by
500 feet area centered on the back of the
Capitol and extending across 14th Street.
Construction would soon remove all trees,
soil, and bedrock to a depth of more than
50 feet to build an underground extension
for the Capitol. Trees and walkways would
then be replaced and the profile of the
century old granite Capitol left unaffected.
In the process, however, any significant
archaeological remains would be permanently
removed. Archaeological testing
consisted of placing 17 backhoe trenches
The city streets of downtown
Austin near the State
Capitol offer up archaeological
treasures and information
about the town's
on historic lots using archival research.
The program was designed to identify significant
deposits. Fieldwork was completed
in one week. Deposits related to approximately
30 structures were identified, and
400 artifacts were recovered. Results indicated
several dozen significant features from
the 1850s to the 1880s. More recent foundations
were also identified but were considered
The archaeological research was conducted
under an Antiquities Permit (Permit
833) issued by the Texas Antiquities
Committee (TAC ), which reviews state
projects. The Permit required a written
document outlining the objectives of the
archaeological excavation. Fourteen pages
of text and a variety of maps, tables, and
appendices were compiled identifying the
significant features and important research
topics. It emphasized integrating the physical
evidence from various mid-to-late 19th
century lots with written records and
Austin's urban social history. The significant
features identified contained physical
remains of a timespan when Austin had
from 150 up to 2,200 houses. Finally, the
development of the Capitol Square area
was considered worthy of studying in greater
detail because of its unique historical associations.
The results were presented to the
TAC and approvals were issued for more
extensive excavations. Major excavations
started in February 1990 and were completed
by May of that year.
Austin's Settlement and the Capitol
Austin was a frontier city laid out in
1839 by Edwin Waller. It was given a
simple design of two components: a commercial
district centered along its river
frontage and a governmental component
heading away from the river and toward
the Capitol, set on a prominent hill looking
down Congress Avenue, the widest
street leading back to the river. Four whole
blocks and parts of 12 others were reserved
for the.Capitol grounds.
Waller's 1839 design consisted of nearly
200 city blocks and some unusual features.
Blocks were designated for a hospital,
churches, University, Academy, and Armory.
North-south streets were named after
rivers of the Republic and east-west
were named after native Texas trees, later
in 1887 renamed by substituting numbers.
Though Austin was laiclout as the Capitol
of a Republic and moved to several other
locations by Sam Houston, the city became
the capital of the 28th State after U.S. annexation
in 1845. Austin was officially
adopted as the permanent capital for Texas
by public vote in 1850. The development
of the greater Capitol Square area occurred
during this period of tremendous change.
Interdisciplinary Research Methods
The Capitol investigations involved
techniques from several disciplines: history,
archaeology, geology, and architecture.
A record of the historical develop
HERITAGE * SPRING 1992 11
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 10, Number 2, Spring 1992, periodical, Spring 1992; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45420/m1/11/: accessed January 17, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.