Technology helps uncover Fort Brown's history
The Brownsville Herald, Texas
BROWNSVILLE, Texas — On a field littered with golf balls, it’s a penny that causes Rolando L. Garza to stop and give the spot a second glance.
“I’m sorry, I see something on the ground, which made me curious,” Garza said before bending over to pick it up.
The penny is dirty and missing a chunk, something that Garza points out as odd.
“That’s the archaeologist in me that’s always keeping my eye on the ground,” Garza said.
Garza, an archaeologist with the National Park Service, has been involved in projects to try to determine what’s beneath the Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course’s surface.
Based on historical documents, diaries and military reports, Garza said they know where to look for the area’s historic fortifications.
“It’s like we have a construction map for this and it’s very nice, but in reality, did it get constructed like that?” Garza said.
But with geophysical remote sensing equipment, a clearer picture of what was on the Fort Brown land years ago can begin to emerge.
With the technology, Garza said, they were able to find the fort’s footprint.
The fortification is located on lands controlled by the International Boundary Water Commission.
That area was mapped in 2011, but now Roland Silva, a graduate student at the University of Texas—Pan American, is hoping to help map out more of the region’s fortifications.
On Aug. 21, the 28-year-old was on the site in Brownsville to try to discover the remnants of the Fort Brown Forward Gun Battery. The battery, according to Russell Skowronek, was on maps dating to the Mexican-American War. Skowronek, a UTPA anthropology professor, is one of the professors overseeing Silva through his thesis.
As an interdisciplinary student, Silva’s thesis involves geology, anthropology and archaeology.
“My professors have been assembled across disciples,” Silva said.
“We don’t really have a program for what we are doing on campus. It’s just been sort of a puzzle,” he added.
Because Silva enjoyed anthropology and geology, he said he wanted to find a way to incorporate the two in his project.
“I was trying to find a way to use both of those in conjunction,” Silva said.
One day, on campus, he saw the geology department’s ground-penetrating radar equipment and decided this was a way of bringing both disciplines together.
In addition to using the equipment in Brownsville, he’s also trying to determine unmarked graves at an Edinburg cemetery where African-American military veterans were buried. The cemetery hails back to when Jim Crow laws and segregation were ripe in South Texas.
Though Silva said he enjoys excavating sites and working in the field, sometimes it’s unnecessary work that can damage the artifacts in the area.
“Digging is so much fun,” Silva said. “I love to be out in the field, but it could bring problems. It isn’t always the best option. This (ground-penetrating radar) is non-invasive — it’s non destructive, but it’s very powerful.”
In cases like the Edinburg graveyard, Silva said, it would be inappropriate to disturb burial sites.
Skowronek said for the purpose of this project, Silva’s work will help determine where the gun battery was located.
“It’s just a question of where it is located,” Skowronek said. “It doesn’t destroy anything. It means future archaeologists can come back and dig in using new techniques.”
Because landscapes are altered greatly during their lifetime, Skowronek said it’s important to keep a historical record of what used to be there.
“If we forget where we came from,” he said, “we lose part of our humanity, part of our culture.”
The Mexican-American War, Skowronek said, was a watershed event for both countries.
“Half of Mexico was lost to the U.S.,” he said. “The United States almost doubled in size. The result has changed geopolitics, and I think this is one of the places where we know is the flash point. This is where the war started.”
As an anthropologist, Skowronek said he sees himself as someone who tries to dig for the truth because history is often written by the winner. He called the Mexican-American War a “sore point” in history.
“It’s a sore point because there are many millions of people in the United States that were living in what was Mexico and the war went over them,” Skowronek said. “They didn’t cross the border.”
This kind of information, he said, should be kept in mind during today’s discussion about immigration.
“The story is not a simple story of saying Texas has always looked this way,” Skowronek said. “It hasn’t, and I think we have to tell that story accurately.”