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Corral Site: A Rare Protohistoric Camp

Overview of Corrall site, so named for the modern wood-fenced corral alongside West Amarillo creek. Dated to roughly 200-300 years B.P., this campsite represents the Protohistoric period and is very rare in this region.


Excavations at the Corral site (41PT186) targeted a deeply buried campsite in a low, narrow stream terrace along West Amarillo Creek.  Resting about a meter below the surface, the occupational layer lay atop a well-formed buried soil (A horizon).  This campsite was radiocarbon dated through two wood charcoal fragments and one bison bone sample to ca. 200 to 300 B.P., part of the Protohistoric period. During this time the region was still dominated by Native American peoples, although there was increasing interaction and trade with European explorers.

Cultural materials in this section of the Corral site were in a thin, well-defined zone that represents a single camping event. Multiple flood events over the last 200 years or so brought in light colored sands and sediment which buried, sealed, and protected this campsite.  Once buried, however, rodents displaced some objects upward and downward in the deposits.  Fortunately, because only the one Native American occupation was identified, mixing of cultural materials had only minimal impact.  Subsequent floods brought in a few animal bones and modern historic artifacts, including small chunks of glass and metal fragments that were not related to the campsite.

Five cultural features (Features 1, 5, 6, 7, and 8), two concentrations of lithic (stone) materials (#1 and #2), and one cluster of bison bone were uncovered in this block.  These represented areas where campers cooked, knapped stone tools, and deposited garbage, including butchered bison bone. They also buried a small cache of tools, perhaps in anticipation of a future visit to the campsite.

Feature 1 was a large, white ash lens first detected in the initial backhoe trench placed into this low terrace.  In the trench wall, the white ash was about 120 cm long, by about 2 to 3 cm thick and tapered to a fine line on each end.  A few chunks of scattered charcoal were at each end.  One charcoal chunk was radiocarbon dated through the accelerated mass spectrometer (AMS technique).  This tiny sample yielded a corrected age of 230 ± 40 before present.  Test Unit 2 (TU 2), a 1 by 1 m unit, then targeted this ash lens and was excavated from the surface down through this feature.  No cultural materials were recovered from about the ash lens.  Only a few tiny chert flakes were recovered from the margin of the ash lens.  Within TU 2, the ash extended 90 cm east west by 60 cm north south and was 4 to 5 cm thick.  The bottom of the ash was at 99 cm below the surface. 

To have created such an abundance of ash with little or no charcoal, a wood fueled fire would have had to burn long and hot enough for complete combustion of the fuel.  The lack of any observed oxidation (orangish color) of the sandy loam immediately below the ash indicates the ash did not burn in place.  This ash had to have been dumped here on the surface of the buried A soil horizon from some other fire event.   The bottom of the ash was nearly flat with its top slightly smoothed or truncated during subsequent floods.  Thus, this is a secondary discard of unwanted ash from a separate fire.

Feature 5 was a small, irregular and poorly defined patch of dark-stained sediment, with charcoal flecks and chunks.  A decayed root in the adjacent unit may partially account for this dark-stain.  No burned rocks, ash, or other cultural materials were found. This dark matrix may have been stain from decaying natural organic matter.

Feature 6 was a cache of eight stone artifacts that included four complete end and side scrapers, two edge-modified flakes, and two unmodified flakes.  This tight cluster of artifacts was exposed during the backhoe stripping of the overburden to reach the targeted buried A horizon.  The cache was shallower than expected, but in the targeted buried A horizon.  The eight artifacts were tightly concentrated in a roughly oval area that measured 18 by 14 cm, and between 64 and 69 centimeters below surface (cmbs), along the western edge (front) of the block.  The pieces appeared to be in a very shallow, 3 cm deep basin.  It was a few centimeters into the dark brown buried A horizon and definitely within the targeted cultural zone.  Seven of the eight pieces were lying flat and were nearly touching one another, with five pieces across the top and three, 1 to 2 cm directly below the overlying five pieces.  Some pieces rested with the dorsal side up and others with the dorsal side down.  A soft rodent hole with tiny hair rootlets was directly under the stacked tools.  This may have caused some slight downward movement of the items.  The excavation units around this cache exhibited similar rodent runs, but very limited cultural materials. 

High-powered use-wear analysis was conducted on all eight items from Feature 6 by Bruce Hardy. He observed needle-shaped crystals in a plant cell, typically of calcium oxalate (called raphides) on 7 of 8 pieces, with hair on 3 scrapers, possible starch grains on 4 items, and hard, high silica polish on one scraper.  The interpretation is these scrapers were used to scrape hide, wood, starchy plants, with both edge-modified pieces used to scrape and cut plants, and the two flakes were used to cut plants and hide.  Feature 6 is interpreted as a tool kit used by the Native inhabitants, and then cached for future retrieval.  Such caching behavior represents the occupants’ intention to return to this specific locality in the near future to retrieve those cached items.

Features 7 and 8 were two small basin-shaped hearths filled with white ash and mottled sediments with the occasional piece of charcoal and tiny pieces of lithic debitage.  Feature 7 was an ash-filled basin/pit with ash smearing near the top.  This feature was slightly disturbed during backhoe stripping, which may have removed the upper few centimeters of the northeastern section.  An irregular ashy matrix extended over an area 65 to 70 cm east to west by some 40 cm north to south.  Three lobes of ashy matrix extended southward beyond the central concentration.  The top of what eventually turned out to be a basin, measured roughly 45 cm across, and the middle of the basin was 7 cm deep.  The detected ashy matrix revealed a nearly circular basin.  The basin was filled with mostly a whitish, ashy mixture underlined by a very dark grayish brown stained matrix with small (less than 1 cm in diameter) specks of yellowish red spots and tiny charcoal flecks and chunks.  The ash-filled basin appeared partially outlined by a dark grayish to a very dark gray to black lens 1 to 3 cm thick.  A brown sandy loam that contained flecks of charcoal was above and below the ash.  The three lobes of ashy matrix at the top of the basin were very thin and difficult to discern.  These lobes may have resulted from cleaning out the ash and charcoal laden matrix from the basin during the occupation.  Feature 7 was about 2 m southwest of ash dump Feature 1.

Nearly 19 liters of sediment collected from Feature 7 were floated in a water tank in the laboratory.  The resulting heavier items recovered included three tiny pieces of lithic debitage, 73 tiny pieces of charcoal, two tiny unburned bone fragments, two burned seeds, and one unburned hackberry seed.  The material that floated to the surface included many tiny rootlets, and insect parts along with some tiny charcoal flecks.  The charcoal included more than 25 pieces of mesquite and 16 flecks of indeterminate plant species.  

Feature 7 is interpreted as an in situ basin-shaped heating element that was allowed to burn completely out.  This created the mostly ashy fill with a thin charcoal-laden matrix lining the basin.  If the thin lobes of ashy matrix to the southwestern side of the basin reflect cleanouts, then this basin appears to have been cleaned out more than once during the occupation. Tiny lithic debitage pieces were found in the very top part of Feature 7.  These flakes may have originated from an identified flint knapping area immediately adjacent the actual basin on the eastern side.  The presence of the flakes may indicate that an individual was flint knapping, while sitting next to this heating element.  The ash dump Feature 1 also yielded tiny microdebitage in the ashy matrix.  It is likely that the ash in Feature 1 was cleaned out of this heating element.



What Is the Protohistoric?

The Protohistoric, or contact, period is a relatively short, ca. 200-year, period of considerable change marked by the encroachment of European (Spanish and French) explorers into the region. Read more

Profile map from the Corral site, showing Protohistoric occupational surface in relation to other depositional units and radiocarbon-dated samples. Enlarge to view full graphic.
View of trench 5 wall, showing light-colored ash lens (Feature 1), overlain and slightly truncated by layers of river gravel, sand, and other flood deposits. Flood events effectively sealed and protected cultural remains in the Protohistoric campsite. Note dark-colored bured A-horizon soil inderneath. Enlarge to view full exposure.
Looking down on a section of Feature 1 after further excavation. The ash apparently was dumped from a separate campfire area during camp maintenance about 200 years ago, based on radiocarbon assay.
Cache of chipped-stone tools and flakes (Feature 6) carefully buried by campers at the site. Among the eight items in this probable tool kit were scrapers and unmodified flakes.
Feature 7, an intact, ash-filled basin within a larger area of ashy soil, likely was a heating element. Meat may have been cooked here as well as in the pit represented by Feature 8, just to the south.
Excavators dug large blocks by hand to discern the layout of the camp.
Feature 8, an ash and charcoal-filled basin, where a hot fire burned. Small stone chipping flakes found among the ash suggest a knapper sat close by the fire making tools or perhaps dumped debris into the fire.
Feature 8 graphic in plan (top) and profile (bottom, highlighted).
Feature 8 in profile, after sectioning. Note basin shape and reddish discoloration of sediments due to oxidation. In addition to tiny chipped-stone waste flakes, wood charcoal and tiny bone fragments were recovered from the fill.

Feature 8 was an ash and charcoal filled basin/pit along the very western edge (front) of the excavation block.  It was about 250 cm northwest of the ash filled basin/pit Feature 7 and some 450 cm west of ash dump Feature 1.  The ashy matrix was observed during the initial backhoe stripping.  The stripping encountered ash at 63 cmbs along the southern end of this feature with the northern end stripped to roughly 73 cmbs.  The excavated basin appeared to have been about 50 cm in diameter, some 12 cm deep, with a general bowl-shaped outline.  No burned rocks were present.  Most of the outer basin margins exhibited a dark yellowish brown oxidized and hardened loam.  This basin was filled with a patchy mixture of gray and pale brown ash with charcoal flecks and chunks, and strong brown sandy loam below the ashy fill. 

The heavy fraction from the floated matrix from Feature 8 yielded 126 tiny pieces of lithic debitage, 107 tiny pieces of charcoal, 26 tiny burned or oxidized clay particles, and three tiny bone fragments.  The light fraction yielded many tiny rootlets, insect parts, and wood charcoal.  The woods present include 24 pieces of cottonwood/willow, 27 pieces of sand plum/mountain mahogany-type, and 22 roots.  No burned seeds, nuts, or other plant parts were present.

Feature 8 is interpreted as an in situ, basin-shaped heating element that was allowed to burn almost completely out, allowing the fill to be dominated by ashy, partially oxidized matrix with tiny pieces of charcoal.  The fire was sufficiently intense to create patches of oxidized soil observed near the margins of the basin.  The high frequency of lithic debitage in the matrix indicates that flint knapping took place immediately next to this feature, with the tiny flakes falling into this heating element.  Alternatively, the flakes may have been intentionally discarded into the fire as a means of disposal, though this seems less likely as there should have been a wider range of flake sizes represented if disposal of knapping waste is represented.

Unassigned a feature number, a cluster of complete and nearly complete bison bones was uncovered in TU 3 on the northern edge of backhoe trench 5.  The bones were not articulated and included seven identifiable elements including a complete navicular cuboid, a complete third phalanx, a butchered left proximal tibia of a female, a right distal metatarsal of a female, one upper molar, and an immature radius shaft.  These identified bison bones represented at least two animals.  No burned rocks, lithic debitage or other cultural items were recovered immediately around these bones.  Tiny flecks of charcoal were observed in the soil matrix, but extensive rodent burrows were also observed throughout this and other excavated levels, making contexts and associations unclear.   

This bone cluster is interpreted to represent a dump of butchered bison bones following defleshing and marrow extraction.  Marrow extraction is inferred on the basis of the broken condition of the long bones.  Bone grease was not likely targeted as the bones would have been smashed into much smaller pieces.  A fresh proximal tibia would contain a high percentage of fatty acid, considerable fat content, and the highest marrow content.  Therefore, the tibia present would have been extensively fragmented and likely crushed beyond recognition if bone grease extraction was carried out.

Tool Making

Two areas with quantities of clustered flakes and a few broken end scrapers were identified as lithic tool manufacturing areas. Lithic Concentration #1 extended over a six-unit area near the center of the northern end of the excavation block.  The larger of the two, it contained 130 pieces of debitage recovered from screening through ¼-inch mesh.  Three of the six units were subjected to finer screening through 1/8-in mesh, and this yielded 115 pieces of microdebitage.  More than 98 per cent of the material was Alibates with the other 1.5 percent local opalite  The presence of two different material types indicates at least two different tools were modified at Lithic Concentration #1.  One broken end scraper was also in this concentration.

Lithic Concentration #2 encompassed an area roughly 4 m2 between Features 1 and 7 in the southern part of the block.  Four units contained 44 pieces of debitage.  This area was not subjected to fine screening.  Complete and proximal flakes account for nearly 57 percent of the debitage.  Nearly 98 percent of the material used was Alibates.  Two pieces of Tecovas jasper and one silicified limestone probably represent the opportunistic use of locally available materials to supplement Alibates material use.  Overall, the material types indicate the creation of a minimum of three tools.  One broken end scraper was found on the northern edge of this concentration.

Overall, the artifacts recovered from this 144 m2- block excavation were limited in number and type relative to the area covered.  A total of 863 items were recovered.  This included; 395 pieces of bone,  212 pieces of lithic debitage, 53 pieces of charcoal, 12 burned rocks, 6 formal chipped stone scrapers, five informal edge-modified flakes, a single core and a tested cobble, and a metal tinkler cone. Trace element analysis of the metal tinkler indicated it was produced from a copper/zinc alloy. Tinkler cones were common trade items brought by Europeans. Native peoples used them as decorations in hair or on clothing. A few recent historic items (clear glass fragments, metal strips and a tobacco tag) were recovered, but these were interpreted to be intrusive to the Protohistoric campsite. 

It is interesting that no stone projectile points or chipped-stone bifaces were recovered.  Their absence is interpreted to indicate that metal knives had replaced the chipped bifaces and that guns had replaced the bow and arrows.  The absence of clay pottery is also explained by the presumed presence of metal cooking pots.  One explanation for the continued use and manufacture of stone scrapers may be related to the intensification of the hide trade with the Europeans during this Protohistoric period.  This may also help explain the unusual caching of scrapers in this campsite setting.  Caching is a means of storing items for future use and most often caches are found outside of campsites.

Although only a few stone tools were recovered, these were all manufactured from local Alibates silicified dolomite.  The Alibates came from the well known Alibates quarries at Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument about 35 miles (57 km) to the north of this site.  The waste flakes include some recognized flakes from the manufacture or resharpening of end scrapers.  These flakes were detached primarily by a soft hammer percussion technique. 


Evidence of food resources here was dominated by bison bones representing at least two animals.  One animal was a mature female based on the complete fusion of the articular end with the main long bone shaft.  An immature animal is represented by an unfused radius.  However, a few deer elements were also identified, but only part of one lower leg.  This deer leg may or may not represent a food resource for the occupants.  Mussel shell meat was not a significant part of the food resources here, as only one shell fragment was recovered. 

Plants also played in role in Protohistoric diet. Starch grain analysis on two burned rocks and a scraper from the occupation zone yielded lenticular starch grains identified as Canadian wildrye (Elymus canadensis) grass grains.  In fact, one burned rock yielded both damaged and gelatinized starch gains indicating the grass seeds were ground and cooked with heat and water.  This is one of the few times that plant collecting, processing, and cooking have been documented in an open, temporary campsite.

Camp Layout

Another significant finding was the detection of excellent horizontal patterning of the features and artifacts within this block.  These artifact patterns reflect very specific human behaviors rarely recognized in open campsites, especially those lacking structures.  The excavation strategy of exposing broad horizontal areas, combined with the excellent context of this deeply buried, single occupation, contributed to revealing these patterns.  Five specific and well defined task areas were recognized.   These include a bison bone discard area, two chipped-stone tool manufacturing and maintenance areas, a heating/possible cooking area with two basin shaped hearths (Features 7 and 8) roughly 2 to 3 m apart, the cleaning out and discard of excess ash from the hearths (Feature 1), and the caching of stone artifacts (Feature 6).  Lithic concentration #2 was on the northern side of hearth Feature 7.  During the knapping of stone tools, some waste debris ended up in the hearth sediments.  It is not clear if the flakes were intentionally discarded into the hearth as a means of cleaning or if they arrived inadvertently during the knapping process.  Tiny flakes also showed up in the discarded ash in Feature 1, about two meters northeast of Feature 7.  The tiny flakes in the hearths and the discard feature ties these three features together in time.  Each lithic concentration yielded a broken end scraper and concentration #1 also yielded flakes that came from the manufacture of end scrapers.

Protohistoric camps are rare and not well represented in the current site inventory for the Texas panhandle region.  It is even more rare for a Protohistoric camp to be excavated.  This was a very interesting time period when interactions between multiple Native groups and Europeans occurred.  Unfortunately in a short-term camp such as this, the occupants were not there long enough to have left behind large quantities of garbage.  They left no artifacts that would allow the archeologist to specifically identify a particular cultural group.  The occupants were definitely Native Americans that possessed metal goods. There was no indication that this group traded with other native groups.  The Alibates stone used to make their scrapers and other chipped-stone items was local.  This may indicate this was a local group with knowledge and past use of the local lithic resources.  The metal tinkler cone does indicate this group had some contact, possibly direct, but more likely indirect with the encroaching Europeans.

Horizontal patterning of features, artifacts, and lithic concentrations in this short-term campsite reflect multiple task areas, including cooking, chipped-stone tool manufacturing, camp maintenance and trash deposition, and caching of tools. Enlarge to view full map.
Examples of bison bones discarded in a dump area after butchering. At least two animals were represented in this cluster.
This small ornament, known as a tinkler cone, was the only metal item related to the Protohistoric campsite. Typically brought by Europeans for trade with Indians, these items often were used as adornments in hair, on clothing, or tack.  
Ovate end scraper likely used for scraping hides, based on hair fragments and other use-wear traces observed microscopically. The tool apparently was hafted at its mid point into a wooden handle. This hafting technique, also employed for Late Archaic scrapers, allowed greater pressure to be applied to tasks such as hide scraping.
Evidence of plant use: Damaged starch granules shown under high-powered microscopic magnification. Starch is found in most plants such as seeds and tubers. The condition of the grains, above, indicate they had been ground, or otherwise processed, as preparation for cooking.
Alibates flakes recovered from the site. All of the stone tools and waste materials were sourced to the Alibates quarry (Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument) roughly 35 miles north of the Corral Site.