University of Texas at Austin wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts wordmark
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home
Tejas Main

WPA Excavations

Workers from the University of Texas-WPA project uncovering structural remains on mound platform at the Hatchel site. Photo from TARL archives.
Workers from the University of Texas-WPA project uncovering structural remains on mound platform at the Hatchel site. The concentric arcs are alignments of postholes; the large hole at left, center, of photo may have been a hearth.
Temple mound, as shown in the Teran expedition map of Upper Nasoni village.
Temple mound, as shown in the Teran expedition map of Upper Nasoni village.
Schematic cross-section (north-south) through mound.
Schematic cross-section (north-south) through mound.
WPA crew excavating through mound.
WPA crew excavating through mound.
Structural remains of large buildings on east end of first mound platform.
Structural remains of large buildings on east end of first mound platform.
WPA plan of buildings and other features in first mound platform.
WPA plan of buildings and other features on first mound platform.
Structural remains on mound platform.
Structural remains on mound platform. Concentric arcs of postholes represent northern portions of three large buildings on mound platform.
Reconstruction of pre-mound buildings, as visualized by artist Charles Shaw.
Reconstruction of pre-mound buildings, as visualized by artist Charles Shaw.
East-west cross-section through middle of mound showing flat top of original mound and later addition.
East-west cross-section through middle of mound showing flat top of original mound and later addition.
North-south cross-section through middle of mound showing flat top of original mound.
North-south cross-section through middle of mound showing flat top of original mound.
Village excavations by WPA.
Village excavations by WPA. Work during this phase was directed by A. M. Woolsey.
Large village excavation by WPA.
Large village excavation by WPA.
Village area excavation.
Small cemetery in village residential area, with three graves shown following excavation.
Pottery from early interments. Photo by Darrell Creel.
Pottery from early interments.
Pottery from early interments. Photo by Darrell Creel.
Pottery from early interments.
Bald eagle burial in earlier levels.
Bald eagle burial uncovered on first mound platform.
Ceramic duck head from effigy vessel.
Ceramic duck head from effigy vessel.
Early style ceramic pipe, Red River type. Photo by Milton Bell.
Early style ceramic pipe, Red River type.

In 1938, archeologists from the University of Texas-Works Progress Administration (WPA) project began excavation on a massive mound on the East Texas farm of Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Hatchel. The couple were accustomed to living in the looming shadow of the mound, but they were curious about its derivation—it was clearly a man-made structure, its age and purpose unknown.

Several years previously, pioneer Texas archeologist A.T. Jackson of UT had visited the site and conducted test excavations on the Hatchel mound. He also investigated graves that had been disturbed during levee construction on the nearby Mitchell site; during the course of his work, he uncovered four more graves in the yard area of the Mitchell farm. In the next year, 21 more graves were excavated by other individuals. Other Caddo sites, such as Foster, contained mounds with numerous graves, and these locales were thought to be special cemeteries. While there had been no indications of interments in the Hatchel mound, it was nonetheless becoming clear that the Hatchel-Mitchell area held the potential to be one of the largest and most significant Caddoan archeological sites in Texas.

For the WPA investigators, the task was daunting, but the crews were willing and numerous at a time when jobs were scarce. Leading the fieldwork were William C. Beatty, Jr., Glenn Martin, Arthur M. Woolsey, and Alden Hayes. Initial focus was on the mound area although, during the yearlong venture, the crews excavated broad areas adjacent to the site as well.

As workers painstakingly excavated through the center of the mound, its complex anatomy became more apparent. At least eight superimposed occupational surfaces—each showing signs of structures, other features, and occupational debris—were visible as discrete layers in the deep trench profiles. As excavators continued digging, they found four graves and a pit where two bald eagles had been interred. Finally, at the base of the mound—on what was termed the "pre-mound" surface—investigators found the outline of a large circular structure. In the months-long process, they had combed through layer after layer of history, documenting what proved to be an astonishing chronicle of the mound's creation.

Sometime around A.D. 1200, the inhabitants of a village at the Great Bend of the Red River built a least one large thatch-covered structure. How the structure was used is unknown, but we know it was built at what was then ground level (by "pre-mound peoples"). At some later point in time, that structure and other remains were covered over by the erection of the first mound platform. The classic Caddo mound-building tradition—with attendant pageantry and customs—was in full sway. In the centuries to come, other mound-building episodes were to follow—fully eight in all, based on the layers in the mound fill observed by investigators.

Given the size of the mound—about 200 feet long by 145 feet wide and eventually reaching as high as 25 feet—the labor involved in each construction episode must have been staggering. Basketload after basketload of dirt was carried in by the villagers until, finally, a sufficient height was reached. For the initial mound platform, this may have been from eight to ten feet. Once completed, the mound was leveled off in preparation for the next step: the erection of one or more large circular, bee-hive-shaped structures at the very top of the mound. With low vertical sides, the buildings appeared to have a separate pitched roof, unlike those at other mound sites such as the Davis site.

These special structures were used for an unknown period of time—perhaps as the dwelling and ceremonial places of a special religious leader. Then, the evidence tells us, these structures were burned. Some speculate that the firing of the special structures marked the death of the individuals who used them, perhaps chiefs or religious leaders. But once the structures had been burned, the rebuilding process began anew, and the cycle was repeated —at least seven times— as structures were built, fired, mounded over, and then renewed again. Over time, the proportions of the mound reached enormous heights. The mound in the Upper Nasoni village, marked as "Temple" on the Teran expedition map was described by European explorers as dominating the landscape like a small hill.

WPA excavators also investigated remains of the village areas of the Upper Nasoni. Adjacent to the mound, workers uncovered remains of dwellings as well as several interments. At the nearby Mitchell site, workers found 50 graves, along with midden deposits and the possible remnants of a large structure. Although archeologists also found the graves of four individuals within the Hatchel mound fill, it was not believed to be a burial mound, but, rather, a temple mound.

Archeological evidence generated by the WPA excavations showed an almost 800-year occupation at the site. An array of materials provides a glimpse of Caddo lifeways—both on a day-to-to basis as well as in ceremony. Among the artifacts are artfully decorated vessels—the trappings of rituals and burial offerings—as well as more utilitarian pots, such as those that might have been used to cook simple corn and bean stews. Ornate jewelry of bone and shell as well as ceramic pipes were found, along with the more-mundane chipped stone and pottery tools needed for hunting and farming and domestic life: arrowpoints and adzes, the milling stones used by the Caddo women to grind corn and nuts, spindle whorls and pottery smoothing pebbles, each with a simple beauty all its own.

Among the pottery remains, a large number of whole vessels were recovered. In studying and sequencing their shapes and design motifs, researchers were able to develop a chronological pottery style sequence for mid-to late Caddo periods in the local area. However, so enormous is the full collection of artifacts and documents that an analysis and report on the Hatchel-Mitchell-Moores complex has yet to be undertaken.

The photos and maps shown here are from the 1938 WPA investigations; these are housed, along with associated field notes and documents, at TARL. Only a few of the artifacts recovered are displayed here although future plans call for an expanded gallery of these fascinating objects as well as additional sections on the archeology and history of the Upper Nasoni village.

Temple on top of mound (side view) circa 1690, as drawn by artist Charles Shaw.
Temple on top of mound (side view) circa 1690, as drawn by artist Charles Shaw.


Map of 41BW4, Mitchell site, disturbed (red) and undisturbed (blue) graves.
Map of 41BW4, Mitchell site, disturbed (red) and undisturbed (blue) graves.

Late pottery.
Late pottery.

Late pottery.
Late pottery.

Late style ceramic pipes. Photo by Milton Bell.
Late style ceramic pipes.

Mound at beginning of WPA excavations. Structures on top of mound and at right are contemporary barns and outbuildings for animals.
Mound at beginning of WPA excavations. Structures on top of mound and at right are contemporary barns and outbuildings for animals.

Click images to enlarge  

WPA excavation supervisors at work on record keeping.
WPA excavation supervisors hard at work on record keeping.
WPA crew excavating upper portion of mound.
WPA crew excavating upper portion of mound.
Length-wise cross-section showing different mound levels.
Lengthwise cross-section showing different mound levels. Wooden grid stakes are laid out to mark the excavation units.
Burned stubs of posts in entryway of building on mound platform.
Burned stubs of posts in entryway of building on mound platform.
WPA trenches to pre-mound surface.
WPA trenches to pre-mound surface.
Plan of WPA excavations to pre-mound surface.
Plan of WPA excavations to pre-mound surface.
Large intersecting buildings beneath west end of mound.
Remains of very large building, with arc-shaped internal partition, beneath west end of mound.
Reconstrcution of buildings on first mound platform by artist Charles Shaw.
Reconstruction of buildings on first mound platform by artist Charles Shaw. Unlike structures at sites such as Davis, the buildings atop the Hatchel mound had low vertical walls with pitched roofs apparently attached separately.
Restricted access building on first mound platform.
Restricted access building on first mound platform. Circle of postholes on left may be a wall enclosing the entrance to a special structure.
WPA crew at work on village excavations.
WPA crew at work on village excavations.
Structural postholes in village areas being examined by WPA crew.
Structural postholes in residential areas being examined by WPA crew. Postholes probably represent one or more buildings as well as remadas for shelter, and elevated granaries.
Early interments at 41BW4.
Early interments at Mitchell site. The cemetery was in one of the village residential areas occupied over many generations.
Pottery from middle group of interments.
Pottery from middle group of interments.
Pottery from middle group of interments.
Pottery from middle group of interments.
Pottery disks, possibly used as spindle whorls.
Pottery disks, possibly used as spindle whorls.
Pottery smoothing pebbles. Photo by Milton Bell.
Pottery smoothing pebbles.