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Discovering and Uncovering the Harrell Site

excavation area 3
Workers at the Harrell site, during investigation in Excavation area 3. Photo from TARL archives.

In this Section:

unknown investigator points to a lens of burned rocks
An unknown investigator points to a lens of telltale burned rocks that alerted archeologists to a buried midden, or camp refuse area. The stones were uncovered as part of Excavation 1. Photo from TARL archives.
Contour map of Harrell site
Contour map of the Harrell site, showing locations of the three excavation areas. Excavation area 3 was on top of the third terrace, some 40 feet above low water level. Map from Krieger, 1946.
Tools of the excavators
Tools of the excavators. Shovels and picks hang cleaned and ready for the next day's work. Photo from TARL archives.
gasoline bill
Gasoline was cheap by today's standards, a mere $.11 per gallon, but likely was not considered so in the depressed economic conditions of the 1930s. Document from TARL Archives.

The WPA was both boon and bane to American archeology.

Manos and metates
Manos and metates, implements used for grinding corn, seeds, or nuts, were found among the midden refuse deposits. Photo from TARL archives.

The systematic approach that A.T. Jackson laid out was an important step forward for Texas archeology.

workers and bosses
Workers and bosses wearing many hats struggle for position as prehistoric occupation areas are exposed at the Harrell site. Barns and outbuilding of the farm and garden area on which Excavation 3 investigations were located are in the background. Photo from TARL archives.
hand-colored field profile
Layer upon layer of silts and flood deposits—creating the so-called "layer-cake" stratigraphy—has been captured in this hand-colored field profile of the bluff. Archeologists found only sparse artifacts throughout, although they extended to a depth of more than 20 feet. Profile by Raymond Bland; TARL Archives.
A WPA worker keeps a watchful eye on a pan heating
A WPA worker keeps a watchful eye on a pan heating over a twentieth-century "cooking hearth." Photo from TARL Archives.
A typical hearth
A typical hearth, formed of a single layer of burned limestone fragments and measuring about three or four feet across. Photo from TARL archives.

In hindsight, the WPA archeologists simply lacked enough knowledge of geology and sedimentation to appreciate what they had found in the second river terrace.

baking pit
Prehistoric cooks constructed this baking pit by digging a shallow basin and laying small slabs against the sides. The pit may have seen service for the cooking of roots or bulbs. Photo from TARL archives.
Map of hearths and burials
Map of hearths and burials (to the west, or left, side) in Excavation 3. Burials have been highlighted in red. Map adapted from Ray Bland drawing, TARL Archives. (Click to enlarge image.)
drawing of a single interment
One of the single interments in the cemetery at the Harrell site. (See the Prehistoric Cemetery section for more detail.) Drawing from TARL Archives.
Stratigraphic profiles of Exacavation 3
Stratigraphic profiles of Excavation 3, showing the layer of dark midden earth (II) and underlying reddish sandy clay (I). Note scattered burned rock features. The unevenness of Stratum I may be due to the digging in of pits for roasting ovens. Stratum III was a sterile, windblown sand which sloped to the Brazos side. These sands were blown up from the riverbed. Profile from Krieger, 1946.

In the Fall of 1937, archeologist A.T. Jackson of the University of Texas at Austin spotted a suspicious line of broken limestone rocks eroding out of a cutbank on the south side of the Brazos River just below where its Salt and Clear Forks came together in southern Young County. Jackson was searching for Indian campsites in the area that would be inundated by Possum Kingdom Reservoir, then under construction. Jackson rightly suspected that the stones marked an area were prehistoric peoples had built cooking hearths.

He was intrigued because the fire-cracked (or "burned") rocks were buried by 7 feet of mud and sand left by countless floods along the sometimes mighty Brazos River. Here, Jackson realized, was a perfect place for an archeological excavation that might shed light on the unwritten history of the region. The property where Jackson found the deeply buried hearth rocks was part of the M.D. Harrell farm. He soon obtained the landowner's permission to conduct a major dig there the following year to search for deeply buried evidence of prehistoric life.

Jackson's survey was a continuation of a state-wide archeological survey program begun in the mid-1920s by Professor James E. Pearce at the University of Texas. Pearce, sometimes called the "father of Texas archeology," was a visionary who worked tirelessly to establish an anthropology department at the university and get the state-wide survey underway. "Survey" to Pearce meant locating and digging important archeological sites in different areas of Texas. Unfortunately, his approach to archeological excavation was not methodical and his early excavations sometimes were little more than artifact mining operations.

Pearce apparently believed that by amassing large artifact collections he would be able to understand broad cultural patterns. Like many early archeologists, he had a static view of prehistory and failed to understand that many of the artifact collections he studied represented thousands of years of cultural development. Jackson was Pearce's chief assistant and a former newspaper reporter who quickly became adept at archeology. He was naturally curious and skilled at making do with whatever conditions he found himself in as he traveled across Texas in search of places where important archeological sites could be found.

In the 1920s, most of the work was concentrated in the Austin area with brief forays in more distant areas of the state. Pearce struggled to find adequate funding to fulfill his vision of sampling the archeology of the entire state. By the early 1930s the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences had established a Committee on State Archaeological Surveys to dole out small grants to universities in different parts of the country so that information could be salvaged from the areas scheduled to be flooded by reservoirs. At the time, reservoirs were being planned and built all across the country to prevent floods, improve water supplies, and generate hydroelectricity. While such projects were good for the country, they were also destroying many cultural resources such as Indian campsites as well as early historic settlements. To help lessen these losses, the federal government instigated what would become a three-decade-long program of "salvage archeology" that was formalized after World War II.

WPA Archeology

In the 1930s the country was mired in the Great Depression following the collapse of the stock market in 1929. Money and jobs were scarce and unemployment ballooned. The federal government stepped in with what became known as the New Deal, a set of relief programs designed to get the country back on its economic feet. One of the most successful was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program that put thousands of Americans back to work between 1935-1941. The WPA guidelines called for "useful" projects that would benefit the public and that could be executed immediately with a high proportion of the total costs being labor. The projects also had to be near areas where most of the unemployed lived, rural Texas being a prime example.

The WPA was both boon and bane to American archeology. Archeology, as it turned out, was a perfect fit for the WPA. One or two trained archeologists could oversee the labor of dozens of unskilled workers. Under the WPA program massive excavations of unprecedented scale were carried out at hundreds of archeological sites across the country between 1935-1941, especially in the south and southeast where the unemployed were concentrated.

In Texas, many of the projects were administered through the University of Texas at Austin under Dr. J. Gilbert McAllister, who took over from Pearce. Pearce died in 1938 soon after he was appointed as the first director of the Texas Memorial Museum, the creation of which had consumed his latter years. McAllister was a cultural anthropologist, not an archeologist, but he proved to be a much better administrator than Pearce. McAllister continued to rely on A.T. Jackson, but he also began bringing in academically trained archeologists like Alex D. Krieger and J. Charles Kelley. The WPA mandate allowed the UT archeologists to carry out large-scale excavations in many locales ranging from northeast Texas to central Texas. In the case of the Harrell site and a series of terrace sites along the Colorado River upstream from Austin, the make-work goals were integrated with the fledgling reservoir salvage efforts funded by the federal government.

A.T. Jackson served as Archeologist in Charge of the WPA work at the planned Possum Kingdom Reservoir. He assigned George R. Fox to supervise the WPA excavations there beginning in the fall of 1938. Not much is known about Fox, aside from the fact that he returned home to Michigan soon after the WPA work ended at Possum Kingdom Reservoir was completed. Fox does not appear to have been trained formally as an archeologist. Regardless, his notes reveal an organized man who followed Jackson's guidelines methodically. Jackson, in obvious reaction to Pearce's lack of methodological rigor, produced a Manual of Archaeological Field Work in 1937. Carbon copies of this manuscript were used by the WPA archeologists under Jackson as a basic guide to field methods. The systematic approach that Jackson laid out was an important step forward for Texas archeology.

Jackson's organizational plan for the work at Harrell and other sites specified that each crew would "consist of approximately forty-five laborers, three cooks, two clerks, one draftsman, and an assistant archeologist" under a "crew archeologist." Fox served as the project superintendent or "crew archeologist." His assistant was the timekeeper who kept track of the hours worked by the unskilled laborers. The clerks typed the daily field notes and many forms, while the draftsman was in charge of drawing maps and field sketches. The men in skilled positions were paid at a higher rate and were chosen because of their qualifications. All of the unskilled laborers were selected from the "relief rolls" of unemployed men from north Texas communities.

For a six-month period from the fall of 1938 through the spring of 1939, the M. D. Harrell farm became a work camp. Barns and outbuildings were joined by a small village of temporary shelters, clusters of canvas tents for workers, and makeshift laboratory areas for artifact processing. Crews wielding shovels and picks methodically excavated 5-x-5' squares laid out in neat grid patterns in three areas on two of the river terraces. The center of most of the attention was to be the family garden plot, high above the other areas.

At the time, the archeologists recognized three river terraces along the Brazos. The first and lowest was the modern floodplain which was not present in the immediate site area. Through time, the Brazos River was slowly carving its channel southward and eroding the second terrace and creating the cutbank that Jackson had first examined. The top of the second terrace was about 22-25' above the normal level of the river. Major floods could still reach the top of the second terrace. Further back from the river was the third terrace, which lay about 36-40' above river level and beyond the reach of even the worst floods. Modern geological work has shown that the upper Brazos and its tributaries has a complex set of terraces that formed at different periods of times and that have been reshaped by periods of erosion. The "third" terrace in WPA terms, probably formed at least five to six thousand years ago.

The "Great Midden"

plan map of the Great Midden
Plan map of the Great Midden, showing circular pits and hearths. Field drawing drafted by Raymond Bland; TARL Archives.

Work began on the river edge of the second terrace atop the bluff where Jackson had spotted the line of hearth stones 7 feet below the surface. This terrace was being steadily undercut by the two rivers, a process that exposed the hearth stones and would have eventually destroyed all the buried evidence. Excavation 1 uncovered what was termed the "Great Midden," a rather grand title for what proved to be a burned rock midden—a sizable accumulation of heat-fractured rocks nearly 28 feet in diameter, but less than a foot thick. Within the expanse of burned limestone and sandstone fragments were three circular depressions—the remains of baking or roasting pits-filled with ashes and charcoal and little more.

Today archeologists would take a great deal of interest in the burned rock midden at the Harrell site. Unlike the burned rock middens characteristic of the Edwards Plateau in central Texas, the "great midden" accumulated on a terrace surface that was soon sealed by flood deposits. Central Texas middens typically formed on stable surfaces and sometimes grew to 6 feet or more in thickness and several acres in extent. Often the traces of the baking pits responsible for the burned rock accumulation are obliterated by the mass of rock. In contrast, the burned rock midden at the Harrell site is preserved in an "incipient" stage early in its formation.

It is obvious that the "great midden" at Harrell formed as the result of the use and reuse of the three baking pits, which can be seen in the photographs and drawings. Based on ethnographic accounts from many different areas of North America and on modern experimental work, archeologists now have a good understanding of the process known as earth oven cooking. At the Harrell site, like countless other sites in Texas, plant foods such as roots and bulbs (no animal bones were found in the midden), were baked in layered arrangements of heated rocks, green plants, food, and earth known as earth ovens. The heated rocks held and slowly released stored energy (heat), which caused the green plants (such as fresh-cut grass) to give off steam, thus slowly baking the roots in moist low heat. The green layers also kept the roots from burning and separated the food from the earth layer. Additional layers of heated rocks are sometimes added above the food layer. Capping it all was a thick layer of earth that served as an insulation layer to hold in the steamy heat.

Some earth ovens likely continued cooking for as long as 24 hours or more, although the pits at the Harrell site are relatively small and probably represent shorter cooking episodes. Once the food was done, the earthen cap, upper rock layer, and top layer of green plants were peeled back so the food can be removed. Notice in the photographs how the rocks are arrayed around the pits. Most of the scattered rocks represent fire-cracked rocks from earlier ovens that must have been cleaned out of the pits when fresh, intact rocks were added at the start of each cooking episode.

While Fox and Jackson had a rudimentary understanding of how the "great midden" formed, they were sorely disappointed by the lack of artifacts and soon decided to abandon excavations in this area of the site. First, however, the crew cleaned back the bluff face and recorded 25 feet of multi-colored alternating layers of sands, silts, and clays, each reflecting a different period of deposition. They also dug a trench beneath the burned rock midden in search of more deeply buried artifacts. They were again disappointed by the lack of what was then considered to be a worthwhile find-a projectile point or formal stone tool. They did note the presence of scattered flint chips, showing that prehistoric peoples were in the area while many of the layers formed.

In hindsight, the WPA archeologists simply lacked enough knowledge of geology and sedimentation to appreciate what they had found in the second river terrace. Today the terrace exposures they created would be carefully studied by specialists trained in reading the depositional layers, like those found along the Brazos. Instead of being disappointed by the sparseness of the artifacts, a good modern archeologist would realize that here was the opportunity to study brief moments in prehistory that were sealed and protected from mixing by the flood deposits. By obtaining radiocarbon samples from different layers, a geologically minded archeologist (or geoarcheologist) would be able to reconstruct the depositional history of the river terrace and tie this to the archeological finds. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

Also on the second terrace, the WPA crews opened up Excavation 2 around a gully area downstream from the first excavation area, where large limestone slabs were eroding out. Several hearths were uncovered, but the area was found to be badly disturbed by the gully and was soon abandoned.

The remainder of the work was centered on Excavation 3, the high third terrace where the Harrell family's farmhouse and barnyard had been. The house had burned a few years earlier and the family had moved to Graham, but still maintained the farm. Beneath the Harrell family's vegetable garden, the WPA archeologists encountered a prehistoric cemetery along with a quantity of burned rock cooking hearths and ovens.

Hearths and Burials: Exacavation 3

In Excavation 3, investigators uncovered an enormous hearth field with well over a hundred cooking hearths and a small prehistoric cemetery with some 32 human interments. Crews dug to a depth of 5 feet over an area roughly 135 feet long by 85 feet wide. They then dug down an additional 5 feet in the western half, excavating, in all, almost 90,000 cubic feet of soil. The terrace deposits had two main strata: the top layer, a dark, organic-rich midden (refuse) deposit, contained the great majority of the cultural material; underneath this, roughly 5 feet below the surface, was a stratum of red, sandy clay.

The midden varied from 2 ½ to nearly 6 feet in thickness and was made up of loose dark soil full of ashes, charcoal, shell, and bone. The contact with the lower, red clay layer, was described as highly irregular and pockmarked by small depressions (areas of darker soil) which Fox thought might be refuse pits. None, however, had a definite pit shape or was found to contain concentrated debris. The unevenness of the contact between the two layers added to the difficulty in plotting the artifacts.

Unlike the so-called "great midden" at the site, the midden in Excavation 3 was rich with cultural debris and artifacts—chipped stone tools, projectile points, pottery sherds, shell, animal bones, and other items discarded by various peoples living at the site over time. Archeologists call such deposits refuse or kitchen middens. Within the midden layer, workers found many rock-lined pits and circular arrangements of burned rocks of the sort commonly known as hearths, although many probably functioned much like the baking pits found within the "great midden." These cooking hearths and ovens—more than 135 of them—were scattered rather evenly throughout the upper deposit. Most were constructed of limestone slabs likely gathered from the hills along the valley margins less than a mile away. Some hearths had been constructed within pits, depressions filled with dark midden soil that extended into a red clay layer below.

Most hearths were little more than circular clusters of broken limestone slabs that appeared to rest on a flat surface. Others were dish-shaped, or concave, rather than flat, and obviously had been built within shallow pits or basins. Another distinct hearth form was a slab-lined pit with its bottom paved by flat stones encircled by upright or angled slabs. Still other hearths were irregular, steeply sloping arrangements of rock that probably represent slab-lined pits that had been partially dismantled. Although some of the hearths contained several layers of rock, most consisted of a single layer of limestone fragments in an irregular circular shape, measuring about 3 to 4 feet across. Amid the stones, workers found the tell-tale remains of prehistoric cooking: ash, bits of charcoal, burned and unburned animal bones, and mussel shell fragments.

Burials were confined largely to the western edge of the excavation area, a locale that must have been specifically designated by prehistoric peoples as a cemetery or burial ground. Only a few of the graves overlapped one another, suggesting that the locations of the burials were marked or known to those who placed the graves. Depths of the graves varied from roughly 3 to 6 feet below the surface. As described more fully in the section on the Cemetery, interments were both in single as well as group graves.

Texas Map
The Harrell site, located not far from Graham, Texas, at the confluence of the Clear Fork and main Brazos rivers, was investigated during a survey of the area threatened by the construction of Possum Kingdom Reservoir. Although the site was not inundated by the lake, it has been eroded over time by natural undercutting of the two rivers. Map courtesy of the University of Texas Map Collection.

Click images to enlarge  

James E. Pearce
James E. Pearce, sometimes called the father of Texas archeology, oversaw many of the early Texas survey operations. Photo from TARL archives.
tents at the Harrell site
A small city of tents housed workers during the six-months of investigations at the Harrell site. Photo from TARL archives.
grocery bill
A 1938 grocery bill shows food purchases for the camp at a time when a dozen eggs went for about $.33 and 20 pounds of hog jowls for $2. Based on Fox's records, the weekly menu showed little variation, with emphasis on root vegetables and cabbage. Document from TARL Archives.
Burned rocks eroding out of a gully bank
Burned rocks eroding out of a gully bank proved to be a hearth and was uncovered further in Excavation 2 operations. The Brazos river is visible in the background. Photo from TARL archives.
Visitors at the Harrell Site
Visitors at the Harrell site. In the background (view to northwest), the juncture of the Clear Fork and Brazos rivers can be seen. Photo from TARL archives.
An unknown man "stands sentry"
An unknown man "stands sentry" as a WPA crew member uncovers another hearth. Photo from TARL Archives.
drawing of hearth
Field recorders drew a number of the features in the field, such as this hearth, shown in cross-section, found roughly 5 feet below surface near the red clay stratum. Drawing from Fox, 1939; TARL Archives.
"north firepit"
The "Great Midden" had at least three circular pits within the mass of fire-cracked rock containing ashes and charcoal bits but few artifacts. Shown is the "north firepit." Photo from TARL archives.
circular hearth
Constructed with stone slabs set upright, this circular hearth had a layer of flat stones at the base. During investigations, the hearth was "pedestalled," or isolated at its original level for further study while the surrounding area was excavated. On the right is one of several deep trenches dug to explore the site. Photo from TARL archives.
This hearth was constructed mainly of fragments of metates, or grinding slabs. Photo from TARL archives.
workers at the bottom of a deep excavation unit
Workers uncover more burned rock features at the bottom of a deep excavation unit. More than 90,000 cubic feet of dirt was removed to explore the Harrell site. Photo from TARL archives.
excavator examining burned rock
Examining burned rock features in Excavation 1. Note the three basin-shaped, stone-lined pits in front of the kneeling figure (an unknown investigator). The masses of small limestone rocks surrounding the pits are evidence of the oven "renewal" process-prehistoric cooks had raked out spent burned stones after they became too small and fragmentary to be useful in earth oven cooking. Photo from TARL archives.