Canyon Reservoir Sites

With its sparkling clear waters and abundant wildlife, it is no wonder that the Guadalupe River valley in Comal County was a prime settlement area for native peoples for over 12,000 years. Open campsites, burned rock middens and rockshelters containing archeological remains are all present in the area and date to every cultural period of Texas prehistory.

In 1949 archeologist Robert Stephenson undertook a brief reconnaissance of the section of the Guadalupe River valley that was scheduled to be inundated by the lake known today as Canyon Reservoir. Stephenson worked for the Austin office of the River Basin Surveys, a program of the Smithsonian Institution. At the time there were no laws protecting important historical and archeological resources, yet it was recognized that federally-funded dams would soon inundate hundreds of prime river basins across the nation. The Smithsonian’s program was the first modest attempt to salvage some of the information that would soon be lost. Stephenson was a given a few weeks to search the area and he documented over 35 sites in the reservoir’s flood pool area, a fraction of those that must have been present.

In 1959, a small amount of federal funding became available for salvage excavations at Canyon Reservoir. Archeologists from the Texas Archeological Salvage Project at UT Austin carried out small scale excavations at three of the sites found by Stephenson. These sites were chosen because they had evidence of repeated occupations and intact stratigraphy (layering).

The 1959-1960 Excavations at Oblate Rockshelter (41CM1), Footbridge (41CM2), and Wunderlich (41CM3), yielded nearly 2,400 stone tools from stratified deposits. Due to the poor preservation conditions at these sites, stone tools were about the only artifacts present. While this hindered the broader reconstruction of life at the sites, the large number of projectile points allowed investigators to reconstruct the chronological sequence of projectile points covering 6,000 years of central Texas prehistory. In 1960 archeologists had not yet worked out the basic chronology for the region, or sequence of changing point styles through time.

Using data from Oblate Rockshelter and the Wunderlich site, archeologists LeRoy Johnson and Dee Ann Suhm created four groupings of dart points spanning the then-known extent of Archaic era, each representing a separate major time period. Although these groupings have been refined by later work in the region, the basic sequence of changing styles through time has held up.

The Canyon Reservoir chronology and site excavation details were reported in a 1962 report that represents a milestone in Texas archeology. In the absence of material suitable for radiocarbon dating, projectile point chronologies provide a reliable means for estimating the age of occupations at archeological sites.

In 1963, Dr. E. Mott Davis of the University of Texas led a group of 70 volunteers back to the Oblate site for one week of additional excavation prior to the filling of the reservoir. This event was the second field school of the Texas Archeological Society, an annual training program that has been held every year since.

References

Johnson, LeRoy Jr., Dee Ann Suhm, and Curtis D. Tunnell
Salvage Archeology of Canyon Reservoir: The Wunderlich, Footbridge, and Oblate Sites . Texas Memorial Museum, Bulletin No. 5, Austin.

photo of Guadalupe River
This photo of the Guadalupe River was taken during the 1959 excavations at the Footbridge site. The spring-fed Guadalupe River continues to beckon Texans today. Throughout prehistory, the area covered today by Canyon Reservoir was occupied by native peoples drawn by the abundant natural resources found in the wooded river valley. TARL archives.
profile drawing
This profile drawing of Oblate Rockshelter (41CM1) shows the natural strata that allowed archeologists to formulate a projectile point chronology for the Archaic period in central Texas. From Johnson et al. 1962.
photo of Sovieg
The deep deposits at the Oblate site were formed by the repeated floods of the Guadalupe River. In this 1959 photo, burned cooking rocks and other debris can be seen in the gray sediments. The black and white scale in the corner is marked in one-foot intervals, giving an idea of how deep the hand excavations went. Based on what we now know, there were probably much deeper and older artifact-bearing deposits the archeologists never reached. TARL archives.
chronology chart
The projectile point chronology based on information gleaned from the Canyon Reservoir sites. This was the first such chronology worked out in central Texas. From Johnson et al. 1962.
photo of excavations
Excavations underway at Oblate Rockshelter in 1963 as part of the second annual field school of the Texas Archeological Society. TARL archives.
cover of report
Cover of the 1962 report on the Canyon Reservoir work published by the Texas Memorial Museum. The report represents a milestone in Texas archeology because of the projectile point chronology for the Archaic cultures of central Texas, the first such chronology published for the region.