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South Texas Plains Main
Prehistoric Texas Main

Possum Hollow Site (41LK201)

The Possum Hollow site is a good example of what archeologists call an "open terrace site." There are thousands of such sites along creeks and rivers in Texas. Back in prehistoric times, such locations were prime places for hunter-gatherers to camp. There was shade, soft ground, firewood, nearby water, and many different food resources within a convenient distance. This site, now covered by the waters of Choke Canyon Reservoir, was located on the south bank of an abandoned channel of the Frio River, forming a slough where floodwater and rainwater collected in a long "oxbow" lake. When the river left its banks in a flood, water would flow through the slough, and when the flood receded, water would be caught in the slowly shrinking body of water. Fish would also be trapped and, as long as the water lasted, they, along with mussels, turtles, alligators, and other aquatic species, would be available as food to prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

The archeological record indicates that Possum Hollow was repeatedly occupied by prehistoric people over thousands of years, probably in brief camping episodes, with each episode lasting a couple of days or weeks. Concurrent with periodic use of the site through time, the river would flood and deposit thin layers of sediment over debris left by the campers. The terrace gradually built up as time went by—six to eight feet of sediment built up over several thousand years—sandwiching stone tools, animal bones, mussel shells, charcoal, and hearth features in the layers.

Possum Hollow site proved to be particularly informative because its deposits were better preserved than those of most Choke Canyon sites. C. Lynn Highley's 1986 report on the site details its archeology.

Deeply buried Middle and Late Archaic hearths and baking pits had concentrations of burned rocks, ash, baked clay, animal bone fragments, lots of charcoal, and in one case carbonized oak logs. Several radiocarbon assays showed the Archaic deposits spanned at least 600-1300 B.C. Many animal bones were recovered from both the Archaic and Late Prehistoric deposits, revealing that the hunter-gatherers of the area harvested a very impressive array of large and small mammals, reptiles, fish, invertebrates, and birds. Two small excavation blocks measuring 3-x-3 and 3-x-4 meters targeted the Middle and Late Archaic deposits. These blocks were excavated by hand to 2-2.5 meters below the surface (6.5-8 feet). The 1981 UTSA field school excavated a larger block of 6-x-6 meters adjacent to the slough, where the shallowly buried Late Prehistoric deposit was concentrated.

photo of the choke dam trench
The landscape setting of the Possum Hollow (LK201) and Gates-Rowell (LK31/32) sites was a particularly active floodplain area of the Frio River. Shown are several "paleochannels," abandoned paths of the river and its tributaries in the area that is now near the Choke Canyon Dam.
photo of  the flood plain
The Frio River on its way back down from a major rise (flood) during June 1981, when two field schools were held at Choke Canyon. Rain, mud, and mosquitoes took their human toll. Photo by Steve Black taken near the Possum Hollow site.
photo of  the excavation
UTSA field school excavations at the Possum Hollow site sampled a rich Toyah deposit just below the surface. Photo by Steve Black.
Feature 5, a "hearth" that likely functioned as the heating element of an earth oven built around 600 B.C. (2,600 years ago) during the latter part of the Middle Archaic according to the prevailing chronology of the region. Charred wood from the feature was dated to 2450 +/- 60 radiocarbon years, which when calibrated is approximately 580-600 B.C. (An earlier calibration method was used in 1986, yielding a slightly younger estimated date of 480 B.C.)
Anatomy of Feature 5. This annotated plan map drawn in the field and drafted by Kenneth M. Brown, shows the level of detail that archeologists were able to document from this well-preserved Middle Archaic feature. The intense burning suggests the fire upon which the rocks were placed to heat was quite hot, as might be expected from the building of an earth oven intended to bake plant foods, possibly roots, for 24 hours or more. From Highley 1986, Figure 5. Enlarge to see details.
Stratigraphic drawing by Kenneth M. Brown showing the layering documented at LK201. The layering (stratigraphy) suggests that extensive deep excavations would have been able to separate Late and Middle occupations and events with far more precision than was possible at most Choke Canyon sites. Funding and scheduling did not allow large-scale excavation of the buried Archaic deposits. Nonetheless, the excavations were quite informative. From Highley 1966, Figure 16. Enlarge to see original figure caption.

The Late Prehistoric component was a late Toyah horizon campsite dated by two radiocarbon assays to about A.D.1550, several hundred years after Toyah sites, such as Hinojosa, first appeared in the South Texas Plains. Possum Hollow yielded a wealth of Late Prehistoric artifacts including the classic Toyah chipped-stone tool kit (Perdiz, beveled knives, end scrapers, and flake drills) as well as tools made of bone and ground stone, bone and shell ornaments, and pottery. Over 1500 sherds of bone-tempered pottery were recovered, making the Possum Hollow sample one of the largest ceramic assemblages documented at any prehistoric site in the region. The pottery fragments represent approximately 20 vessels, several of which were later partially reconstructed.

The faunal assemblage was extremely well preserved in the Toyah deposit and well preserved in all but the deepest Archaic deposits. Both Late Prehistoric and Archaic samples showed that a very broad range of animals were exploited, over 30 species, from large mammals to rodents, carnivores (bobcat, coyote, and raccoons), catfish, turkey, and turtles. Except for a single tooth found in the Archaic deposits, bison was only found in the Toyah deposit, where many bison bones were present. The faunal analysis, however, showed that deer was the main prey species even in late times. The second runner in the most-frequently-harvested animal category was the rabbit, both cottontail and jack rabbits. Ten species of rodents were identified. The faunal evidence also showed that spring was the main occupation period, but the site was occupied in other seasons as well.

All in all, the Possum Hollow site was one of the most informative sites studied at Choke Canyon. In hindsight, much more could have been learned if funding and time had allowed truly large scale excavations, but that is true of many archeological sites.

photo of archaeological debris
Close-up view of a Toyah "living area" at Possum Hollow. Visible are flint flakes, bone fragments, potsherds, a beveled knife, mussel shells, and various other items. The concentrated debris suggests the site served as a major camp, either repeatedly reoccupied or used for a long stay.
photo of a late prehistoric point
Beveled knife found at Possum Hollow.