Rush Site

The Rush site (41TG346) in western Tom Green County was the scene of a very successful communal bison hunt by a large group of Toyah hunters in the late 16th century. Here at least 100 people—probably representing several bands—killed, butchered, and processed an estimated 50 buffalo over a several week period in fall at this locality on the floodplain of the North Concho River about 10 miles northwest of San Angelo. The archeological evidence of this event was extraordinarily well preserved and thoughtfully investigated yielding many insights into the lives of Toyah peoples during the waning decades of prehistoric life.

The Rush site was investigated in 1993 by an archeological consulting firm, Mariah Associates, Inc., in advance of the construction of a large water pipeline. Although archeological excavations were confined to a narrow strip (the pipeline route) across the site, the researchers led by J. Michael Quigg made the most of the opportunity. Excavations encountered a thin occupation layer, estimated to date to about A.D. 1575, that had been gently buried by layers of mud and sand deposited during floods of the nearby river.

Within the occupation layer were hearths, ash piles, ash lenses, lots of butchered and highly fragmented bison bones, and a variety of artifacts including arrow points, knives, hide scrapers, bone tools, and earthenware pottery. This well-preserved evidence allowed researchers Quigg and Jay Peck to piece together a remarkably complete story of what had taken place.

After a successful kill event at or very near the site, the Toyah hunters and their families spent several weeks fully processing the harvest. They butchered the animals and almost certainly cut up much of the meat into thin strips that were dried for later use (no direct evidence of the drying was found). They scraped and probably tanned the hides. They also smashed the leg bones and rendered the valuable bone grease (fat) by boiling down the bone marrow and butcher’s scraps in the earthenware pottery. In short, the Toyah peoples encamped at the Rush site took full advantage of their harvest. The bison yielded a surplus of meat, fat, hides, and other products (such as sinew, horns and tool-making bones) that must have been hauled to winter encampments elsewhere in the region.

By averaging the results of multiple radiocarbon assays, the researchers believe the Toyah episode occurred in the late 16th century, probably about A.D. 1575, or a little over 400 years ago. While we can never know the precise year, given the nature of radiocarbon dating, we do know the bison kill took place in the fall season. The seasonality of the kill event was determined from a pair of complete bison mandibles (jaws) recovered from the site. The mandibles, which represent a single individual, provided an estimate of 2.5 to 2.6 years of age. As contemporary and historic accounts of bison indicate that most are born in April, this age estimate indicated a window between early October and the end of November for the time of death of this animal.

All in all, the story of the Rush site is quite remarkable and it shows what can be learned through proper archeological investigation. The archeological collection and records are curated at TARL and will be available for future researchers to study in the future. In fact, an ongoing research project has already made use of pottery samples from the Rush site. Darrell Creel at TARL and several colleagues are attempting to trace the sources of Toyah pottery and the relationships among and between pottery samples from many sites in the region. The full research potential of the Rush site will probably not be realized for many, many decades.

Reference:

Quigg, J. Michael and Jay Peck
1995 The Rush Site (41TG346), A Stratified Late Prehistoric Locale in Tom Green County, Texas. Mariah Associates, Inc. Technical Report No. 816C, Austin.

photo of Rush site
Overview of the 1993 excavations at the Rush site. Here archeologists from a consulting firm, Mariah Associates, Inc., work in the main excavation block. The investigations were done just in advance of the construction of a large water supply pipeline—the waiting concrete pipe sections can be seen on the right. TARL archives.
photo of excavations
Close-up of a concentration of earthenware pottery fragments (light gray) and sharp flint flakes framed by several bison rib bones. This is just a small part of the dense layer of butchering and camping debris. TARL archives.
photo of hearth
This slab-lined cooking hearth was first recognized as a dark stain. In this photo the hearth (Feature 1) has been partially excavated, but the fire-reddened soil and carbon-staining is quite apparent. The cotton strings and wooden stakes mark the boundaries of 1-x-1-meter excavation squares and the orange flag marks the feature location. TARL archives.
plan map showing location of cooking features
Plan map showing the location of cooking features within the main occupation layer at the Rush site as well as the find locations of identified plant remains (Prosopis, for instance, is the latin name for mesquite.) Adapted from Quigg and Peck 1995, Figure 5.15.
plan map of refuse at Rush site
Plan map showing the density of refuse left behind by the Toyah bison hunting and processing encampment in the late 16th century. The backhole trenches (gray areas) were dug during the initial site discovery and evaluation. This testing phase led to the 1993 excavations. Adapted from Quigg and Peck 1995, Figure 7.1.
photo of excavations
Feature 14, a small ash-filled cooking hearth, comes to light. Around it are bison rib bones, hammerstones and other debris. TARL archives.
profile drawings
Profile drawings showing the layers documented at the Rush site. The bison camp is Occupation 4, which is represented by Feature 5. The radiocarbon assays shown here (such as 360 +/- 84, a radiocarbon-year age estimate) include several that seem too old to make sense; during analysis researchers look at the overall patterns and reject the aberrant assays. (There are many reasons that affect the accuracy of radiocarbon age estimates, which is why multiple assays are needed to evaluate the age of a site deposit.) Adapted from Quigg and Peck 1995, Figure 5.4.