Archaeology is defined as the study of the remains of the past culture of a people. Archaeologists recover such things as samples of soil, pollen, charcoal, feces, chipped rock debris, and artifacts and then analyze these samples for evidence of food gathering and hunting technology, food processing, diet, and many other facets of subsistence activity. They use technical methods which include controlled excavation, extensive site recording through written field notes, drawings, maps, and photographs. These methods are designed to gain a maximum amount of information with a minimum amount of site destruction. Through careful scientific study, archeologists try to recover the pieces of the past that help us better understand how mankind has learned, developed, and succeeded or failed. As citizens of this country and this world, we can appreciate the story of mankind's past. Perhaps the lessons we learn from the past will help us be better stewards of our fragile planet, now and in the future. By protecting the material cultural remains here in Big Bend National Park, we help to preserve this heritage for future generations to enjoy.
Archaeological Study at Big Bend National Park
There still is much to learn about the prehistory of Big Bend National Park. A complete understanding of man's past is totally dependent upon the scientific study of the sites and artifacts that have survived the ravages of time. Archaeological research in Big Bend National Park is scanty, and an intensive survey of the total park has never been done. Two early archaeological surveys (1936–37 and 1966–67) sampled only a portion of the park. However, the two surveys recorded a total of 628 sites and the latter survey revealed that the park probably contains more than 5,000 archeological sites. In 2002, the National Park Service made a quantitative estimate based upon more recent data which suggests that there are nearly 26,000 sites in the park.
Preservation of Archaeological Resources
Thousands of archaeological sites within the park hold remnants of the material remains of 10,000 years of Native American occupation of the Big Bend. When properly studied, these sites can provide very valuable information about past lifeways.
At Big Bend National Park only two prehistoric archaeological sites are presently considered "public": The Hot Springs pictograph site and the Chimneys. As research is completed on other sites they may also be opened to the public. There are eight National Register historic sites or districts in Big Bend National Park, including the Castolon Historic District, Hot Springs Historic District, the Mariscal Mining District, the Homer Wilson Ranch Site, Rancho Estelle, and Luna's Jacal.
Unfortunately many of the park's archeological and historical sites have been vandalized and valuable information has been destroyed or removed by artifact collectors. Casual artifact collecting by the park visitor has resulted in the loss and destruction of much evidence of the past, information which could otherwise be obtained through scientific investigation. Archaeological sites are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Under this act, people who disturb these cultural resources can be fined up to $10,000 and sentenced to up to six months in prison for their first offense. Information about sites is exempt from the Public Freedom of Information Act. Clearly, citizens and lawmakers view our cultural heritage as valuable, irreplaceable, and worthy of protection and preservation.