University of Texas at Austin wordmarkUniversity of Texas at AustinCollege of Liberal Arts wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home
South Texas Plains Main
Prehistoric Texas Main

Gates-Rowell Site (41LK31/32)

Located just a short distance northeast of Possum Hollow was another major terrace camping area, known as the Gates-Rowell site (41 LK 31/32). (See map of area.) Whereas Possum Hollow was situated along a slough, the Gates-Rowell site was along the main, active channel of the Frio River. As a consequence, the deposits were deeper (8- to 10 feet), with the earliest dated evidence of human activity going back at least 5300 years. Robert F. Scott analyzed and reported the Gates-Rowell site.

Layered in the sediments of the site were both cooking hearths and rock-lined roasting ovens. Among some of the earliest human remains left on the site were hearth areas where mussels and land snails were cooked, along with freshwater drum (gaspergou) and other fish from the river. A few bones of deer and rabbit recovered in the excavations offer scant evidence of additional animals hunted or caught for food by the people living in the camp. Certainly there were many other elements to the diet of the people who camped here, especially plant foods, but the evidence has not survived.

photo of the west wall
The stratified natural layers at the Gates-Rowell site preserved evidence of temporary hunter-gatherer camps dating back to at least 5300 years ago. Enlarge image
Initial excavations underway at the Gates-Rowell site, while the Frio River floods in the background. This deeply stratified site had been exposed by a "test" barrow pit that had been excavated to search for good dam construction material (dense clay). This site was destroyed by full-scale borrowing as the dam was built. Enlarge image
Archeologists found Middle and Early Archaic features in several excavation blocks at the Gates-Rowell site. Enlarge image
Cultural features such as dense concentrations of mussel shells were found in the upper deposits at Gates-Rowell. But most of the upper deposits were removed mechanically so that excavation efforts could be focused on deeper deposits. This was the only site where Early Archaic deposits were reached. Enlarge image

The Gates-Rowell site offered archeologists an exceptional opportunity for studying the activities of prehistoric people because of the past frequency with which the Frio River flooded and covered ancient camp site debris with sediment. These layers of sediment laid down between camping episodes served to " freeze" evidence of past human activity in place, so to speak. An excellent example of such preservation is shown in this feature, consisting of some chert cobbles and flakes that had been left behind by a prehistoric flintknapper in the process of making some stone tools. Right next to the chert tool-making debris was a cluster of mussel shells. This feature was covered by flood sediment shortly after the flintknapper sat making tools and dining on a meal of mussels.

At many open prehistoric camp sites, such debris would have been disturbed and scattered before being buried, and thus would not provide as clear a "snapshot" of ancient life as was provided at Gates-Rowell.

Open camp fires, dating back to the Middle Archaic period (as much as 5,000 years ago) were places where people cooked some of the foods that sustained them. One such example from the Gates-Rowell site was marked by fired clay and small amounts of charcoal in the midst of numerous mussel shells and the shells of big land snails (referred to by archeologists using the scientific name Rabdotus). The mussels were probably gathered from shallow water in the channel of the Frio River. The gastropod land snails, common over all of the South Texas Plains, can be easily collected on land. Both the mussels and snails, being easy to gather, would be good food resources for children to go out and collect as their contribution to family meals back in camp. To prepare mussels and snails for eating, it was necessary only to build a small ground fire and place the mussels and snails, still in their shells, on the coals and embers for just a few minutes. Once cooked, the snail or mussel was easily removed from the shell.

These hearths usually consisted of a shallow pit dug into the ground. A wood fire was built in the pit and then a layer of river cobbles was placed on top of the fire to absorb the heat. Food products, such as fish, rabbits, or venison could then be cooked on top of the rocks, using them like a griddle. Charcoal (carbonized wood) found in such features was very useful for two reasons. First, the carbon could be submitted for radiocarbon dates, allowing a determination of how long ago people created the feature and were living on the site. Secondly, in the hands of an expert, the species of wood burned to form the charcoal can sometimes be determined. Carbon samples from hearths at the Gates-Rowell site were identified as being oak and ash by Dr. Phil Dering of Texas A&M University. Thus, archeologists knew not only when the hearths were built, but what woods were used as fuel.

Artifacts recovered during excavations at the site are typical of Archaic sites in the region. Chipped stone dart points, gouges, and bifacial chipped stone knife blades are included in the assemblage. Also recovered were flakes and chips of chert, much of them simply being waste products from the manufacture of stone tools, known in flintknapping jargon as "debitage." Some of these flakes and chips, however, were used very effectively in a variety of cutting and scraping chores that occurred every day in the camps.

Other debris commonly recovered in excavations includes burned- and fire-fractured rock, mussel shells, and snail shells. Though small numbers of animal bones were recovered, the preservation of bone was generally very poor. One type of fish bone, known as an "otolith," did survive at the Gates-Rowell site, probably because such bones, being particularly thick and shaped like lima beans, were more durable than the thin bones typical of many animals. It is probable that the archeological deposits preserved only a fraction of the bones of animals that were brought to the site to eat. No direct evidence of the plant foods the people used was recovered, but such food must have been a big contributor to the diet of the prehistoric people at Gates-Rowell.

photo of the excavation
Archeologists Curtis Dusek and Dan Potter excavating a cross-section through this nice pit-hearth feature at the Gates-Rowell site. Enlarge image
photo of middle archaic diagnostic points
Relatively few "diagnostic" or time-marker artifacts such as these dart points, knives, and gouges, were recovered from the Gates-Rowell site. These artifacts are Early and Middle Archaic in age, time periods very poorly known in the region. Enlarge image
photo of the excavation
Clusters of mussel shells and burned rocks at the Gates-Rowell site are evidence of places where what we might call "quick dinners" were prepared. Enlarge image
photo of  the excavation
Archeologists document a peculiar feature, a shallow basin where stream cobbles made of chert were heated, presumably as the heating element of an earth oven. This is peculiar, because chert cobbles are very poorly suited for safe cooking--they tend to explode when placed in a hot fire, sending hot pieces of glass-like chert shooting out. We know this because of inadvertent "experiments" done by naive archeologists. Enlarge image