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Prehistoric Texas Main

Skillet Mountain # 4 (41MC222)

At the far west end of Choke Canyon Lake, not far from Tilden, Texas, is a picturesque mesa known as Skillet Mountain. The Frio River runs below the north end of the mesa. This area of the Frio River valley is only flooded at times when Choke Canyon Lake is at maximum flood stage.

While archeologists were working at Choke Canyon, the owner of the ranch encompassing Skillet Mountain decided to clear some brush. This was accomplished using a bulldozer pulling a "drag" made of iron anchor chain and train rails. In the process of clearing the brush, the bulldozer exposed an important Late Prehistoric site which was given the name "Skillet Mountain #4." This site is a classic example of a Late Prehistoric buffalo hunters' encampment. (As the site's full name implies, several other archeological sites were recorded around Skillet Mountain, but #4 was the only one whose name lives on, often in just the shortened form, Skillet Mountain.)

The site was situated on the higher ground inside an oxbow loop of an abandoned channel of the Frio River. Since the hunters were camping at the site comparatively recently (somewhere between A.D. 1250 and 1500), the camping debris was not as deeply buried as at older terrace sites such as Possum Hollow and Gates-Rowell. In fact, the remains were very shallowly buried, which is why they became partially exposed by the bulldozer activity. Yet, due to river flooding, the camp was rather quickly covered by sediment and the camping remains were sealed in place very well. Possibly because of soil conditions, or because the remains were not very old, there was very good bone preservation at Skillet Mountain #4. The remains included very obvious large bones from buffalo as well as the smaller bones of other animals. Excavations at this camp yielded two hallmarks of the Late Prehistoric Period: arrow points and plainware pottery.

Though shallow - only about 40 cm or 15 inches deep - the Skillet Mountain archeological deposits were stratified. The layering of the Late Prehistoric debris in this deposit indicates that there was more than one episode of camping at the site. In between camping episodes, the river overflowed its banks and left sediments that separated the camping trash left by each group who used the site. These various encampments might have occurred over less than 100 years, but certainly over no more than 400 years. By the standards of Choke Canyon prehistory, this was a very short period of time.

Overall, this Skillet Mountain camp was about 48 meters (about 145 feet) in length and 12 meters (about 36 feet) in width. Forty-seven square meters of the site were excavated by archeologists. This excavation revealed fascinating patterns of camping activity by the Late Prehistoric people who used the site. Eight features were defined, which were made up of various combinations of animal bone, sandstone hearthstones, mussel and snail shells, chipped stone and ground stone tools, and chert debitage.

Analysis of the animal bones, ground stone tools, and mussel- and snail shell collected at Skillet Mountain #4 shows that these Late Prehistoric people were living off of many of the same natural foods that had traditionally supported Archaic hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. The good preservation of animal bones gives a much fuller picture of the variety of animals that these people hunted, netted, trapped, and caught. Buffalo was prominent. The big bones of these animals predominated in the Skillet Mountain collection. In addition to buffalo, there were also bones of deer, javelina, coyote or dog, bobcat, alligator, rattlesnake, rabbit, rat, turtle, lizard, frog, catfish, gar, and other fish. Very likely this variety was also typical of Archaic people in the region, too, but the bones of these animals haven't survived as well in older sites. Other parallels with the Archaic include metates and manos, suggesting processing of seeds, beans, and nuts. Late Prehistoric people also relied on river mussels and land snails in the same way as did Archaic people.

photo of brush clearing
Bulldozer at work chaining brush to promote grass growth for cattle, some 5-years before the lake would claim this area. This work exposed bison bones at the Skillet Mountain site and led to excavations. Enlarge image
photo of the excavation
Skillet Mountain site under excavation. Enlarge image
photo of the sunrise
Plan map of the main excavation block at Skillet Mountain showing the density of artifacts and cultural features. From Hall et al. 1986, Figure 62. Enlarge to see details. Enlarge image
Cluster of burned bison bones, flint flakes, and pottery sherds exposed at Skillet Mountain. Enlarge image
The distinctive assemblage found at Skillet Mountain #4 includes bison bones, a large well-made triangular knife, expanding-stem arrow points, and bone-tempered pottery. Enlarge image
Fragmented section of a large earthenware olla (water jar). It is unusual to find such large sections of bone-tempered pottery vessels at Late Prehistoric sites in the region. Photo by Bob Stiba. Enlarge image

For a south Texas site, Skillet Mountain #4 was also remarkable for the quantity and size of pottery fragments it yielded. These Late Prehistoric people were making and using pottery. The incorporation of pottery into the Late Prehistoric technology gave the people new ways to cook and store foods. Clay pots could be placed directly on a fire to cook food.

The arrow points recovered at Skillet Mountain #4 are categorized as belonging to the Scallorn and Edwards types, both of which have expanding stems. These types indicate that the site represents the earlier stages of the Late Prehistoric Period. During the waning years of the Late Prehistoric, a distinctive arrow point with a contracting stem, known as the Perdiz type, came into use. None of this type of arrow point were found at Skillet Mountain.

Another interesting aspect of the findings at Skillet Mountain #4 involves the condition of many of the buffalo bones. Many of these had been broken into small slivers and were found in the midst of the hearth features. From studies of buffalo hunters elsewhere in North America, it is known that a common practice was to crush up the buffalo bone and then boil the pieces to extract every ounce of fat from them that they possibly could. It is likely that this was happening at Skillet Mountain and is a good indication of how important fat was in the diet of prehistoric people. Fat is one of the hardest things for most hunter-gatherers to find. In the South Texas Plains the large herbivores (bison, deer, and antelope) were prime sources as were certain plant foods, especially pecans.

The body of information recovered from Skillet Mountain provides a useful example of an archeological assemblage to be expected of an early Late Prehistoric encampment at Choke Canyon and more generally throughout southern Texas.

photo of bison bones and lithics
Scattered bison bones and stone tools point to a bison-butchering scene at the Skillet Mountain site. Enlarge image
photo of the sunrise
Sunrise over Skillet Mountain, the namesake of the archeological site nearby. Area residents say the "mountain" looks like an upside-down cast-iron skillet.Enlarge image