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Patterns of Daily Life

Photo of hearth and mussel shell



Map of debris piles
The stone debris piles and concentrations of mussel shells, snail shells, animal bones, burned clay, and burned rocks close to hearths in Level 8 of the Main Block at the J. B. White site suggest that workshop and day-to-day habitation activities were performed adjacent to the hearths. This pattern was consistent through all four levels within Zone 2. Graphic by Sandy Hannum. Click to see full image.






Painting of prehistoric peoples

 A young Indian girl pours a basketful of snails into a hide-covered pit of water heated by hot stones in this reconstructed scene by artist Nola Davis. Prehistoric peoples at the J. B. White site may have cooked land snails using the stone-boiling method shown here, or may have opted for the simpler technique of steaming them on rocks in a cooking hearth. Image courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.



Photo of typical pit hearth
A typical pit hearth lined with stone, shown in plan view, or from overhead.



Photo of snails

Native Texas Escargot!

Texas archeologists have long wondered whether land snails, and in particular Rabdotus dealbatus dealbatus, often found in concentrations on archeological sites, were eaten by prehistoric Native Americans.

Part of the uncertainty stems from the lack of detailed information about the natural habits of these snails. For instance, it is not known what exactly Rabdotus snails eat. Some suggest that they could eat decaying organic materials or the fungus that grows on such materials. If so, they would have been attracted to prehistoric garbage dumps.

This explanation may account for some of the many thousands of snail shells that have been found in prehistoric sites, but it probably does not explain all of them. There is direct evidence that Indians used snails as food from the historic chronicles of Cabeza de Vaca, who witnessed the coastal Mariame Indians collecting and eating snails at the same time that they were collecting prickly pear tunas.

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Photo of snails



Photo of onion plant in flower
Photo of wild onions
Photo of charred onion bulb fragment
Wild onions recently pulled from the ground are compared here to the charred onion bulb fragment, at bottom, identified from the large cooking pits of the South Block. Onions may have been baked for use as food in their own right or added to the pits to flavor other foods baked there. At top is an onion plant in flower (photo courtesy Wild Plants, Inc.). Click to see full images.





Photo of mussel shell
Shell of the three-ridge mussel, Amblema plicata, one of the two most common species  found at the site.


As the archeologists uncovered cultural feature after feature at the J. B. White site, significant patterns began to emerge. When the distributions of artifacts and features were mapped and studied, it became apparent that, to a large extent, these formed thin layers representing what archeologists call living surfaces. These surfaces represent distinct occupations—short periods of intermittent site use. Even after several centuries, the spots where activities such as tool making and specific cooking tasks had taken place during a given occupation were still apparent.

The stone-tool-making debris piles described in the previous exhibit section had yielded two important bits of information. First, they showed that the site is not mixed up, with artifacts of different ages all jumbled together. Second, they showed that people made and used stone tools in particular places close to hearth features. Other concentrations of materials, such as freshwater mussel shells, Rabdotus snail shells, animal bones, burned rocks, and burned clay also surrounded the surface hearths found in the Main Block. Since these other kinds of materials were in the same levels as the stone debris piles, often overlapping them, they also appear to represent the refuse of daily life left right where it was generated, close to the hearth features.

The patterning of features, stone debris, tools, and other materials within the Main Block was explored in Levels 6 though 9 within Zone 2. Patterns were clearest in Levels 6 and 8 and were obscured in Level 7 due to large quantities of overlapping materials and in Level 9 because of few materials and features. Still, analysis showed that similar kinds of patterning occurred in all four levels, suggesting that the camp was used in much the same way throughout the 400-year span represented by Zone 2.

Patterning was easiest to see in Level 8 where five surface hearths surround a relatively empty space. Such an arrangement of hearths would be expected if they were situated relative to something like a shade tree, or maybe around an open communal space. Still, the concentrations of materials surrounding these features vary enough to suggest that people did different kinds of things around particular hearths. For instance, mussel shells are most prevalent around one hearth while land snails are concentrated near another. Two of the hearths are off by themselves and have little around them.

That freshwater mussels and Rabdotus snails were foods eaten by the people who lived at the site is indicated by the more than 180 pounds of mussel shells and 12,842 Rabdotus shells recovered. The two most common mussels within the concentrations of shells are the three-ridge mussel (Amblema plicata) and the smooth pimpleback mussel (Quadrula houstonensis). Both can live in river bottom conditions of mud, sand, and gravel. Living in sand and gravel, they may have been collected from the Little River at the same time chert river cobbles were gathered for making stone tools. The land snail Rabdotus dealbatus dealbatus is a relatively large snail that lives in grassy patches.

The habitat preferences of other very small snails common to the site, but probably not used as food because they are so small, indicate that the site area lay within a wooded bottomland (riparian forest) at the time Native Americans lived there. This would not have been an ideal habitat for Rabdotus, and thus these snails probably were collected from nearby open grassy areas and brought to the site to be eaten. These snails may have been collected along with wild onions, as both would have been found in the open grassy areas.

The snails and mussels may have been lightly roasted or boiled to open the shells and allow the meat to be removed, or they may have been used to make a stew. Evidence of burning on mussel and snail shells was limited, suggesting that prolonged exposure to heat was not a primary cooking method. Nor was any evidence found of modification of shells to form tools or ornaments.

Animal bones found by the archeologists provide strong evidence for what else the people who lived at the J. B. White site ate. The three animals whose bones occur most frequently are deer, turtles, and rabbits. The archeologists found concentrations of bones near some of the hearths, overlapping the stone debris piles and shell concentrations there. Within these bone concentration are many spirally fractured bones. Fresh bones, particularly deer leg bones, fracture in this way when people intentionally break them open to get the nutritious marrow (fatty tissue) within bone cavities. Because spirally fractured bones are common near the hearths, it appears that extracting marrow was one of the things people did around the campfires. Many cultures around the world highly prize bone marrow.

Another food processing method they may have used was roasting turtles in their shells. Most of the animal bones found were not burned, but many pieces of turtle shell were burned, often only on the outside of the shell. This could happen only if the interior was protected in some way, such as if it still had the fleshy parts of the turtle attached when the shell was placed in the fire.

Concentrations of burned rocks and burned clay also surrounded the many hearth features. Archeologists use the somewhat misleading term burned rocks to describe rocks that are discolored and often cracked because they were heated in campfires and used as cooking stones. At the J. B. White site, the burned rocks were mainly sandstone and quartzite river cobbles. The burned clay consisted of small chunks and nodules of clay-rich dirt hardened and discolored by fires in the hearths. Both frequent reuse of the camp and occasional flooding likely displaced some of the smaller burned rocks and burned clay chunks from the hearths.

There were two kinds of hearths in the Main Block. The most common kind was the surface hearth. These are the remains of small fires built directly on the ground surface for cooking food or heating. They were marked by patches of ash, burned clay, and charcoal flecking and generally were no larger than 2 feet across. The second kind of hearth—pit hearths—may have been used as small earth ovens with heated river gravels used to cook food. Pit hearths appear to be smaller versions of the large baking pits discovered in the South Block. The pit hearths and baking pits have similar shapes, and they also are similar in that both contained burned rocks surrounded by dark gray to black dirt. But the pit hearths covered areas of only 1.2 to 3.0 square feet (0.11 to 0.28 square meters), while the baking pits ranged from 6.5 to 12.2 square feet (0.6 to 1.13 square meters).

The materials found in all levels of the Main Block indicate that Native Americans used the site in much the same way over a 400-year time span. Two of the main kinds of things they did there (that left obvious evidence) were prepare various kinds of food and make and fix tools for hunting. These activities were organized around a number of small hearths and appear to have been carried out by small groups of people, probably extended families. This conclusion is based partly on the array of foods collected and consumed at the site. These foods included freshwater mussels, land snails, wild onions, various seeds and nuts, deer, and various small animals that could have been collected by hand or trapped such as turtles and rabbits. Many hands, both male and female, young and old, were needed to bring together and prepare this broad array of foods.

In the latter half of the period when the site was used, approximately A.D. 1100 to 1300, people visited the site and stayed there more and more often. This increasingly intensive use is best represented in Level 7, which produced more of every kind of artifact than any other level. Most of those materials were concentrated on the west side of the Main Block, and thus it appears that the main part of the campsite at that time probably lay outside the area the archeologists excavated.

Some 10 meters (over 30 feet) south of the area of small hearths and debris piles in the Main Block, a concentration of 10 large baking pits was uncovered in the South Block excavation. All of these large pits appear to have been used only during the later occupations of the site. The large size and number of these pits are another reflection of the intensified use of the site late in its history. These large pits measured as much as 2 meters (6.6 feet) across and 50 centimeters (1.6 feet) deep. Five of the large pits in the South Block intersected other pits, indicating the area was reused for the same purpose a number of times. Each pit was filled with many burned sandstone and chert river cobbles, small shattered pieces of burned rocks, burned clay, and charcoal fragments. This abundant burned material suggests that intense heat was associated with these pits. These cooking pits probably were placed away from the main camp area because of the heat and smoke they produced.

The charcoal from these pits indicates that oak wood was the fuel of choice, though hackberry, hickory, pecan, and other hardwoods also were burned. And the archeologists found burned wild onion bulb fragments in all of the large cooking pit features. Native Americans are thought to have baked these small onions in large batches for food. These pits also contained small amounts of animal bones, including fish, pond turtle, cotton rat, rabbit, rodent, and deer. Whether these represent animals cooked in the pit features or not is uncertain. However, given that these bones account for only 1 percent of all the bones recovered from the site, it seems that if animal parts were cooked in these pits, they were removed and the bones discarded mostly elsewhere after the meat was eaten.

To get a better idea of what the Indians cooked in these pits, the archeologists tried a special study of organic residues left on the rocks from the baking pits. They based this study on the idea that both plants and animals contain organic fats, and the fats from whatever was cooked in the pits could end up on the river cobbles used to retain heat in them. Nine cobbles from the pits were found to contain such residues. While the study could not identify specific plants and animals, it was able to determine that a variety of both animals and plants probably were cooked in these features.

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Photo of snail shells
Feature 17 was a concentration of land snail shells in the Main Block. It was composed almost entirely of the land snail, Rabdotus dealbatus dealbatus, and contained almost 3,000 shells. Size measurements confirmed that the feature was composed of only adult snails. The lack of younger snails suggests that the larger adult snails were collected as food and that the concentration does not represent a natural land snail die off where snails of all ages would be represented.






Photo of small pit hearth

The cross section of this small pit hearth shows dark gray fill within a shallow basin. Burned rocks are concentrated in the top of the fill; they may have been used to hold heat within the pit as a way of baking foods.





Photo of baking pit excavation
Archeologists combine efforts to finish excavating the large baking pit features in the South Block. They are working within an area of five intersecting pits. The intersecting pits indicate that the area was used repeatedly for the same purpose: here, native peoples baked foods such as onion bulbs, using hot rocks as a heating element.  As the crew removed the pit fill, they left the burned rocks they found at the bottoms of the pits in place. These rocks helped the archeologists discern the shapes of the pits, but are only a small part of the 75 pounds of rocks found in these features.





Photo of surface hearth
This cross section of a surface hearth shows a 2-inch-thick ash concentration mixed with burned clay and reddened soil. These materials are the remains of a campfire built directly on the ground.




Map of tool distributions

Tool Distributions

As part of the analysis of the information from the site, this author (Gadus) mapped the numbers of tools in each excavation unit against the overall extents of the debris scatters surrounding the hearths within Level 8 of the Main Block.

The point was to see if people used certain kinds of tools consistently at the hearths and other kinds away from the hearths.

This comparison visually showed that most of all kinds of tools, including arrow points and knives and their preforms, hammerstones and abraders, bone tools, and expedient flake stone tools, occurred most often where multiple kinds of debris tended to be especially abundant.

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Photo of mussel shells

Remnants of prehistoric meals.  A large mussel shell concentration is shown at top. Click to see full image.