This article was originally written by the San Antonio Express-News.
Growth and new development in San Antonio during the 21st century, especially near rivers, creeks and other areas once traversed by humans, has fueled an explosion in archaeology, revealing secrets and details of the past that were long buried.
As a career archaeologist at the university level and now in the private sector, Steve Tomka has been the principal investigator in more than 80 archaeological digs in and around the city, guiding some of the most important discoveries about San Antonio, from prehistoric hunter-gatherers to the site of one of the oldest Black churches in Texas.
“It comes with a bittersweet part that we’re digging up and impacting some sites. But at the same time, we’re discovering some amazing things related to the story of San Antonio,” he said. “There’s a lot to be learned because we’re just scratching the surface on some of these things in terms of mission and prehistoric archaeology.”
Along with spear points dating thousands of years found at the Brackenridge Park Golf Course and Natural Bridge Caverns, Tomka has been involved in other key finds: remnants of a burned jacal, or hut, dating thousands of years near the San Antonio River at Mission County Park; an excavation of the Alamo Long Barrack that revealed more than 20 layers of history; and remnants of the 1700s Acequia Madre, including a ¾-mile section in Hemisfair and a 90-foot-wide dam on the eastern edge of Brackenridge Park.
Much of that work was done while Tomka was director of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Center for Archaeological Research from 1996 to 2013. He since has been senior archaeologist and cultural resources program director at Raba Kistner, a professional consulting firm that has done work recently at the Alamo and the San Pedro Creek improvement project.
As principal investigator, Tomka, 63, has been responsible for negotiating contracts; responding to inquiries and calls for bids; assigning projects to staff; overseeing a budget, permit applications and fieldwork; dealing with clients; and managing report documentation and artifact curation.
“It’s a big responsibility,” said Kay Hindes, retired former city archaeologist.
In rare cases, a principal investigator can be placed in a difficult situation when a significant discovery is made. Under state antiquities laws enforced by the Texas Historical Commission and the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, a project may have to expand its permit scope and its budget to finish the work.
“At the end, this always happens, you find the really good stuff,” Hindes said. “If you’re the ‘PI’ on a project, you’re sometimes having to deal with those issues. That may put you on the hot seat a little bit.”
Tomka leads a team of about a dozen professionals with degrees at the master’s level and above, but is still an avowed “dirt archaeologist.” He’d rather be at a job site than in the office, filling out paperwork and responding to calls and emails. Lately, he’s been writing technical reports for the 2019-2020 Alamo work and the February 2020 discovery of the 1870s St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church — one of the oldest Black church sites in Texas.
“As much as I’m put in that role of being an administrator, I’m still a dirt guy,” he said. “And so when the Alamo project came on, I tried to spend as much time out in the field because I enjoy the discovery part of the fieldwork.”
The unprecedented deep dig at the Long Barrack to study the architecture of the building’s west wall, the oldest remaining structure at the Alamo, revealed many levels of history buried up to five feet below the floor — from the 1720s, when the Mission San Antonio de Valero moved there, to the 1836 battle era and late 1800s use of the building as a grocery and liquor store.
“We identified no less than about 22 different layers associated with different occupations,” including traces of river snail populations that died after the mission relocated in 1724 from La Villita, along with building materials from about 1727, Tomka said.
Kristi Miller Nichols, who worked under Tomka at UTSA and now is director of archaeology and collections at the Alamo, said the report Raba Kistner will release later this year should include exciting new data about the Alamo Church and Long Barrack.
“There’s going to be so much new information,” Nichols said. “As we’re delving into more research that we’re uncovering, sometimes the stories change as to how we interpret these sites.”
The discovery of the AME Church site on San Pedro Creek, as part of a patchwork of 1800s foundations of a soap factory, ice plant, brewery and other industrial uses, was one of the most significant archaeological finds in recent years in San Antonio. Though not as old as prehistoric spear tips or mission-era ceramics, it’s a rare, intact remnant of an African American site found at a time when much of the nation is re-examining the portrayal of people of color in its history.
Tomka said he’s learned from members of the St. James congregation who still worship today in San Antonio how much the historic site means to them. It originally was to be part of an entertainment plaza. But since the discovery, through a federally required public involvement process that guided a redesign, the historic church site will be preserved and publicly accessible after a second section of the Bexar County-funded San Pedro Creek Culture Park project is completed late this year.
“It tells a story of a people that are still here. They were trying to find a place and meaning after coming out of slavery. That is such a powerful story,” Tomka said.
It was a “slow-motion” discovery after crews removed asphalt and began hitting alignments of limestone blocks while grading down a slope on the creek’s east bank by Houston Street, he said. It took a coordinated effort with the San Antonio River Authority, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, prime contractor Sundt-Davila and city and state authorities to slowly remove three feet of debris, revealing the rectangular site and a cornerstone bearing the rough inscription, “AME Church 1875.”
“There haven’t been a lot of sites excavated that tell the African American story. And so I think it’s a really significant site,” Hindes said.
Once a technical report is completed, Tomka’s team will focus on nominating the church and circa-1840s Klemcke/Menger Soapworks site to the National Register of Historic Places and as a state landmark. Tomka is working to have those ready for the historical commission to consider in September.
His greatest hope for future discovery, adding to the 2015 listing of the San Antonio missions as the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas, is a better understanding of the Indigenous people who camped here and how they were impacted by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s. The second temporary sites of Mission San José and Mission de Valero have never been found.
“Each of these probably had Indigenous settlements or camps near them. We don’t know much about those Indigenous camps outside of the missions. Nor do we know much about the archaeology of the missions themselves,” Tomka said.
“There are many things that relate to culture change, identity and an understanding of the imprint of Spanish education and religious upbringing on the Indigenous identity,” he said. “Those anthropological questions are highly relevant to our modern-day society, as we continue to become more multicultural.”
“There’s a lot more archaeology to be done.”