The past century has witnessed many excavations at Antelope Creek sites and a much smaller number of substantial published results. Archeologists now have a fairly good grasp of the "material signature" of Antelope Creek culture—the characteristic architectural patterns, artifacts, and ecofacts (animal bones and such). And we have begun to understand the geographic extent and variation of Antelope Creek and related Plains Village cultures in the region. But what we know pales by comparison to what archeologists could and, frankly, should know by now.
Consider, for example, that as of 2004 fewer than a half a dozen published reports have described, counted, illustrated, measured, and identified source material for the stone tools and pottery fragments recovered from a specific excavation at an Antelope Creek site. Such technical details may seem mundane and even boring to the general reader, but they are the critical building blocks upon which any archeological scholar must depend. Good science demands good data, good published data.
Improved understandings of the Plains villagers of the Texas Panhandle will require a lot more of what is known in other fields as "basic research." We do not mean simply "more digging," we mean a lot more top-notch research, in the field and the laboratory. Research carried out by thoughtful design and research that is carried through to proper completion including full reporting of all the technical details.
A Dozen Antelope Creek Research Problems
While dozens and dozens of basic research needs, large and small, could and should be spelled out and pursued, listed below are a dozen worthy research problems and needs as identified by archeologists Chris Lintz, Doug Boyd, and Scott Brosowske. The first four items are very basic research needs upon which almost all interpretations of Antelope Creek culture rely.
(1) Dating. We still need many more radiocarbon dates from Antelope Creek sites to refine our understanding of the origins, development, and demise of Plains Village life in the Texas Panhandle. Lintz and others have put forth some intriguing arguments, but most of these cannot be properly evaluated without more rigorous sets of dates from a variety of sites, contexts, and settings.
While radiocarbon is the most widely accepted and commonly used dating method, other useful techniques have been around for awhile (such as archeomagnetic dating, thermoluminescence, and obsidian hydration dating), and there are some new promising techniques on the horizon. For instance, optically stimulated luminescence measures the elapsed time that the quartz particles within buried sand deposits were last exposed to sunlight and the technique could be a particularly important tool in future archeological studies in the region.
(2) Paleoenvironment. The past climatic history of the Texas Panhandle before, during, and after the Plains Village era remains imprecisely understood. While much has been made of the apparent onset of drought conditions around A.D. 1250 and the increasingly inhospitable conditions for the next 150-200 years, our interpretations are based largely on extrapolations of climatic data from neighboring regions. We need better paleoclimatic data from the heartland of Antelope Creek culture.
(3) Economy. We still have a very inadequate understanding of how Antelope Creek people supported themselves. Until recently, domesticated crops (including corn, beans, and squash) were generally assumed to have supplied most of the food upon which Antelope Creek people depended. This assumption seems at odds with the argument that the region experienced worsening drought conditions during Antelope Creek days. Studies of animal bones indicate that a wide range of species large and small were hunted, trapped, bopped, and netted. Even so, at some sites almost 90% of the bone was broken and reduced into unidentifiable fragments. This pattern is consistent with the systematic extraction of bone grease and marrow, a practice suggesting that every bit of food value was being removed from the animal bones. Recent technological studies of ground stone manos as well as isotopic chemical studies of human bones suggest that horticulture (early agriculture) may have played a relatively minor role in food acquisition.
The idea that Antelope Creek people may have been mainly gatherers and hunters who supplemented their diets with planted crops does not seem consistent with the considerable evidence that they were semi-sedentary (living in one place) for much of the year. This suggests that Antelope Creek culture would make a most interesting case study in Late Prehistoric survival strategies, but this will require many more well-dated samples of plant and animal remains from a variety of sites. The use of typical ¼-inch mesh sifting screens, while a standard recovery practice in archeology, rarely yields the tiny, but highly informative, pieces of charred plants and small animal bones. It is imperative that all future excavations take sediment samples and process them using the flotation technique to increase the recovery of this important evidence.
(4) Tool Function. Detailed studies of the manufacturing, use, and life cycles of the stone and bone tools used by Antelope Creek villagers are needed. Even though archeologists routinely speculate about the function of such tools based on their general form, detailed studies elsewhere in the world suggest that the actual functional uses of such tools are more complicated and meaningful. The same is doubtlessly true for Antelope Creek. For instance, Marie Huhnke's recent study of buffalo scapula (shoulder blade) implements from Alibates 28 suggests that most were not suited to be used as agricultural hoe blades, as previously assumed. Instead she postulates that scapula tools probably served mainly as trowels for mixing and applying mortar and plaster during house construction and maintenance. Many such thoughtful analyses are needed to give us behavioural insights into Antelope Creek life.
(5) Architectural Patterns. Settlements in the eastern Texas Panhandle, particularly east and south of the Canadian River, seem to have houses that lack stone foundations in favor of picket-post walls, but yet they have the central channels, central hearths, "altars," and other floor features found in classic Antelope Creek houses. What accounts for these architectural differences? Are they merely reflections of local conditions and available building materials or are they indications of distinct cultural groups, such as the one apparently represented by the Zimms complex of western Oklahoma?
We generally know very little about what the superstructural (above-ground) portions of the classic Antelope Creek houses looked like. Some researchers, for example, feel these houses were more like Plains earthlodges than Southwestern-style pithouses. Accurate reconstructions of what prehistoric houses were really like must be based on many lines of evidence, such as thoughtful analysis of very detailed excavation data, special emphasis on understanding post-depositional processes (what happens to a prehistoric house once it is abandoned and buried), and even experimental archeology aimed at replicating such houses.
(6) Settlement Zones. Antelope Creek settlements do not occur uniformly across the region. For instance, in the vicinity of Palo Duro Reservoir, west of the Buried City area and between the Canadian and North Canadian rivers, there are very few typical Antelope Creek stone slab houses. Was this a "no-man's land," a buffer zone between major settlement zones, or simply a place were houses were built with picket-post walls rather than with rock foundations? More generally, how do we explain the distinct geographic clusters of Antelope Creek sites?
(7) Field Huts or Guest Houses? The 1962 excavations at the Conner site and several others in the Lake Meredith area exposed small circular structures that were associated with relatively few artifacts and a disproportionately high number of buffalo limb elements (leg and foot bones) from only one side of the animal. This pattern prompted Lathel Duffield to postulate that these may have been seasonal field huts where villagers stayed while away from their main homesteads and hamlets. (The bone pattern suggested organized food sharing whereby family groups may have divided up carcasses into equal portions.) Yet, recent studies of similar, small circular structures at the Roper and Chicken Creek sites reveal very robust assemblages of artifacts and bones rivaling those found at any hamlet (i.e., a typical Antelope Creek “village”).
Are these smallish sites with circular structures really clusters of seasonally occupied field huts or could they be areas where visiting Plains Village groups stayed while they traded for Alibates flint? In this model, the large, typical Antelope Creek houses were home to the resident villagers who controlled access to the flint quarries, while visitors lived in modest, temporary quarters. Other possibilities exist, a fact that underscores the need for more detailed analyses of Antelope Creek structures and their associated debris.
(8) Landergin Mesa Refuge? Lintz estimates that there may have been as many as 95 isolated homestead-type structures built within the half-acre top of Landergin Mesa and that these houses were built over the duration of the Antelope Creek phase. This finding contradicts his earlier notion that during early Antelope Creek days (which he called the “subhomestead period”), houses were clustered into room blocks, especially in a locality that has obvious, severe spatial limitations. Why does the settlement pattern atop mesa sites differ from the pattern identified around the Alibates quarries (i.e., at Antelope Creek 22 and Alibates 28)? Was Landergin Mesa used as a temporary refuge that was occupied for such brief periods that contiguous structures (pueblo-like room blocks) never evolved?
(9) Antelope Creek Rock Art. Systematic archeological surveys (uniform, thorough coverage of sizable areas) have taken place in the Antelope Creek region only very recently (since the late 1990s). As a result, some new site density and distribution patterns are being seen. For instance, studies of the burned-off areas at the Alibates National Flint Quarries have found numerous examples of rock art in apparent association with Antelope Creek habitation sites. The rock art in question presumably consists mainly of boulders with petroglyphs (pecked designs) or “cupules" (cup-shaped pecked areas). Better known petroglyph designs thought to be associated with Antelope Creek culture include footprints and turtles. Some have also argued that certain pictographs (painted designs) were created by Antelope Creek artists, but pictographs are rare in the Texas Panhandle. We are a long way from understanding which designs (if any) were actually executed by Antelope Creek peoples. Thorough documentation, dating, and analysis of such rock art sites might reveal common design patterns that tell us something about Antelope Creek symbolic and ritual life.
(10) Agricultural Technology. What particular methods were used to grow corn, beans, and squash? Where, specifically, were most of the agricultural fields situated relative to Antelope Creek villages? Did they plant fields in the middle of the floodplains and hope the floods would spare the crops? Or were the main fields on top of the first major terraces above the floodplains? Where appropriate, were crops planted adjacent to sand dunes to take advantage of the water that drains from the base of saturated dunes? Or perhaps fields were planted below steep slopes in places where run-off water could be diverted to specific fields? While it is almost certainly the case that various planting strategies were employed, the ancient agricultural technology of the region has received precious little careful study.
(11) Plains Villager Interactions.The distinct marine shell and turquoise jewelry, obsidian, and painted ceramic vessels made by, or at least obtained from, Southwestern groups are relatively easy to recognize as non-indigenous (foreign) trade goods in Antelope Creek sites. It is much more difficult to discern the trade items obtained from other Plains Village groups in the Southern and Central Plains, groups who made similar kinds of pottery and used similar kinds of stone resources. Difficult, but not impossible. Detailed studies are needed of the pottery paste characteristics and raw material sources (based on trace elements) of sizable samples of cordmarked pottery before we can really understand the nature of Plains Village interactions.
(12) Cultural Identity and Conflict. Who were the Antelope Creek peoples, who were they most closely related to, and who were their enemies? In a recent summary of Antelope Creek culture, Oklahoma state archeologist Robert Brooks wrote that, “Much of the Antelope Creek mystique is linked to the biological characteristics of the population. While study of this area is clouded by the propriety of examining human remains, for tribes as well as archeologists, systematic evaluation of the biological nature of these groups is critical to our understanding of the origin and ultimate destination of the group and its culture.” Many questions about the ethnic identities of Antelope Creek and other Plains Village peoples can be addressed using modern scientific techniques such as DNA studies and craniometric (skull measurement) data analysis. Furthermore, other innovative techniques such as a bone chemistry study called isotope analysis can provide direct evidence on human diet that can be used to define a group’s economy and cultural identity.
The trophy skulls at the Footprint site and the finding of numerous burials with evidence of violence (such as embedded arrow points) in the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma demonstrate that considerable hostility took place in Antelope Creek times. But who was fighting whom? Were Antelope Creek villagers fighting each other? Or was it raids by competing villagers from elsewhere in the Southern Plains? Perhaps, late in Antelope Creek times, it was mainly non-villager Athabascan-speaking intruders (ancestors of the Apache peoples) from the northwest. Was the violence simply an inevitable consequence of unstable “trade and raid” relationships with Puebloan peoples of the Southwest? It seems quite likely that conflicts occurred between and among various groups in the region for various reasons, but we are a long way from understanding even the broad outlines of what happened.
Although it is not always a pleasant topic of discussion, prehistoric warfare may have had a huge impact on the lives of various prehistoric groups in and around the Southern Plains. In his book Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest, Steven LeBlanc put it succinctly when he said of warfare: "It cannot be ignored or relegated to a footnote, if the past is to be understood."
Preserving the Past for the Future
Antelope Creek architectural remains tend to stick up like an unnaturally square thumb on the landscape of the Texas Panhandle. As a result, most sites in the Canadian River Valley have been vandalized, some much worse than others. For every Antelope Creek house that archeologists have excavated, 10 or 20 others have been dug into or completely destroyed by others. Explorers, treasure hunters, pothunters, and curiousity seekers have all dug up Antelope Creek houses and most were disappointed by what they found. The combined forces of progress, housing development, and commerce have also taken their inevitable toll and torn asunder many ancient settlement areas.
Even so, many traces of Antelope Creek life yet remain; if not untouched, they are at least recognizable and capable of yielding telltale scientific clues about the human past. But today's archeologists can only do so much. Even if we had unlimited time and funding, we know that the archeologists of the future will have analytical tools and research goals we never dreamed of. By modern standards, most of Floyd Studer's archeological field techniques were crude and not very scientifically productive, and we can be sure that archeologists 50 years from now will look back at us with equal disappointment. From the archeological perspective, that is why preserving/conserving ancient sites and ancient landscapes by leaving them intact and undisturbed is a worthy and ethical goal.
There is another, more important consideration. If those of us living in the early 21st century don't make concerted efforts to preserve important archeological sites, future generations may not consider us too kindly. Every generation of Panhandle residents looks across the landscape, flatlands and breaks alike, with wonder. How did those who came before us survive and even thrive for so many generations? The story of the Antelope Creek culture isn't entirely lost and we owe it to our great grandchildren to learn what we can about our human ancestors and predecessors and to do that we must preserve meaningful traces of past for the future.