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What the Artifacts Tell Us

array of tools, weapons, pottery, and other debris uncovered at the Harrell Site
Analyzing the distinctive array of tools, weapons, pottery, and other debris uncovered at the Harrell site enables a glimpse of life along the Brazos River some 500 to 800 years ago and earlier.

In looking at the artifacts from Excavation 3, we see traces of a people who farmed, hunted bison and other game in the prairies and woods, and fished and gathered mussel in the rivers. They also fashioned pottery vessels of clay tempered with crushed mussel shell and made both practical and decorative objects of bone, shell, and chipped stone.


deer antler and bone
Excavators found this deer antler and bone among camp refuse, underneath a hearth. They are examples of the many resources suitable for food, tools, or both used by the prehistoric dwellers at the site.
A spatulate tool with beveled edges was made from a bison or deer rib.
A spatulate tool with beveled edges was made from a bison or deer rib.
Later dart point types
Late dart point types found at the site. The smaller Darl points are considered "transitional" types, among the last of the dart points still used as the bow and arrow weaponry system came into use.
Side-notched points
Side-notched points such as these were found in quantity at the site. Those with side notches only are called Washita points; those with side and basal notches are known as Harrell points, for which the site was named. Harrell points are found widely in Late Prehistoric sites across Texas as well as across the Plains and as far north as Canada.
drawing of dart points
The variety of dart points found at the Harrell site, shown in this drawing from Krieger 1946, suggests the site was used by prehistoric peoples for several thousand years before the Plains Village groups came to the spot.
Chipped stone scrapers and cutting tools
Chipped stone scrapers and cutting tools of various shapes and sizes likely served a variety of uses in butchering and other camp tasks. The brightly colored pinkish-red specimen is made of Alibates "flint," a banded dolomite occurring chiefly in the Texas Panhandle area to the northwest. (For more on how these stones were procured, see the Alibates Flint Quarries section.)
serrated mussel shell
The edge of this mussel shell has been cut, or serrated, perhaps for use as a scraping or cutting tool.
Bones of various species of animal
Bones of various species of animal were sharpened to use as awls, tools to sew or punch holes in hides for clothing, containers, or other materials. Fiber mats were woven with the aid of pointed tools such as these.
perforators or drills
Among the large selection of perforators or drills found at the site, about 40 were simply made on flakes, unshaped except for the drill shaft.
sherds decorated with simple exterior designs
Although termed Nocona Plain, a small number of sherds were decorated with simple exterior designs including rounded nodes, impressions of textile or paddle, incised lines, and parallel lines of fingernail marks.
pottery vessels
Once reconstructed, sherds of Nocona Plain pottery from the Harrell site might resemble these vessels found in graves in east-central Oklahoma and northeast Texas, according to Krieger. He suggested these vessels may have been trade ware brought into areas where this type of pottery was not locally manufactured. Vessels a and b were found in LeFlore County, Oklahoma. Vessel c was from a site in Fannin County, Texas, and Vessel d from a Titus focus burial in Titus County, Texas. (Photo from Krieger 1946).
distinctive reddish sherds
Unlike other types of pottery at the site, these distinctive reddish sherds were not tempered with shell and they apparently had been hand molded rather than coiled. Based on the distinctive red coloring on the interior, they may have once been cups which held pigment for painting.
reddish "paint cup" sherds
Exteriors of the reddish "paint cup" sherds were roughened with incised lines or other texturing, perhaps to make the vessels less slippery to hold.
bone butchered by humans
Cut marks and a clean-cut end indicate this bone has been butchered by humans.
hollow bones marked with incised parallel notches
Marked with a series of carefully incised parallel notches, these hollow bones had a purpose we can only guess at today. Although often called "tally bones" and considered counting devices, they are more likely rasps used as musical or ceremonial instruments.
An array of beads and ornaments
An array of beads and ornaments made of different materials, including polished bird bones ( right), an Olivella shell bead (bottom right), mussel shell disc beads (top, center), and disc beads of fossil crinoid stems (bottom, center). The perforated object at top left is made of baked clay and is probably a spindle whorl, suggesting that cotton or other kinds of plant fibers were woven at the site.
strap-handled sherd
A single strap-handled sherd was all that was found of a Brownware pottery vessel likely made in southeastern New Mexico during the late 1400s.
dart point
A dart point with a complex past, this specimen was made of banded agatized dolomite, or Alibates flint, which outcrops along the Canadian Breaks of the Texas Panhandle some 300 miles northwest of the site. The style of the point resembles types more common in East Texas and Louisiana, perhaps as early as 3000 years ago.

Over time, hundreds of stone tools, weapons, pottery sherds, bone implements, food remains, and other items were left behind by the various occupants of the Harrell site. What can these bits of household debris tell us about the people who lived along the Brazos River and what their lives were like?

A first consideration for researchers analyzing site remains is identifying where each item came from in the site deposits in order to understand its placement in time. Like many prehistoric sites, the Harrell site does not represent a single episode of occupation by one group of people. Rather, the types of artifacts, ranging from roughly 5000-year-old spear points to 600-year-old arrow points, tell us that the site had a rather long history, as is discussed in the section, Harrell Site Reconsidered. The challenge for archeologists studying the Harrell site is to determine which artifacts date to the same time period and represent the same period of site occupation. Because of the nature of the site itself as well as the way it was excavated and documented, the task of sorting things out into meaningful groupings is no easier today than it was 70 years ago when archeology student Jack Hughes began looking at the collections.

Here we will simplify the matter and concentrate mainly on the materials that date from the Plains Villager period at the Harrell site, roughly A.D. 1200-1500. This period accounts for the bulk of the artifacts from the site and it is this period for which the site is best known. Artifacts known or suspected to date to earlier periods are identified as such.

Farming Tools

Farming implements were made from a variety of materials close at hand, including bone and antler from both deer and bison and shell from freshwater mussel. Plains Villager farmers commonly used hoes made of bison scapulae (shoulder blades) that were trimmed and cut to make a flat triangular blade, which was attached to a wooded handle. Fourteen fragments of bison scapula hoes were found at the Harrell site (representing at least four or five whole tools). Another hoe was fashioned from a section cut from a bison skull near the horn core. Bone hoes may not have been common because of the ready availability of large thick mussel shells, some 33 of which were found that show signs of heavy wear and battering along their edges. These large shells may have been used as digging tools or hoes to cultivate corn and perhaps other crops (corn cobs were the only domesticated plant remains recognized at the site).

large mussel shell
A large mussel shell with heavy edge wear and polish likely was used as a tool. Krieger suspected that prehistoric farmers were using them as hoes, and that the holes found in many shells were where a stick was inserted to form a handle. Click image to enlarge. Click here for microscopic views of edge.

Hunting, Fishing, and Butchering

Among a variety of implements, the tool kit of prehistoric hunters included chipped stone or bone points to tip weapons, gear for fishing and trapping, and the knives and other tools to process their kill.

"Turtle-backed" scrapers
"Turtle-backed" scrapers, so-called for their rounded hump-back appearance, likely were hafted in bone or wooden handles for use in butchering and preparing animal hides. Also called snubnosed end scrapers, the scrapers were chipped unifacially (on one side) on a stone flake and beveled on the wide end. They are commonly found in Late Prehistoric sites, particularly those of bison hunting people.
drawing of chipped stone end scrapers
Plains Indians often hafted small, plano-convex, chipped stone end scrapers into antler tine handles for use in hide working. These specimens, from Rice County, Kansas, show various views of scraper blades in sockets. Drawings by Marcia Bakry (a) and G. R. Lewis (b-d), from Wedel, 1970. Used with permission of Plains Anthropologist.

Most of the 81 dart or spear points found at the Harrell site date to the Archaic period before the bow and arrow was in use. Dart points were affixed to wooden darts or small spears thrown with the use of an atlatl or spear thrower. Their presence tells us that the site was used by hunters at least as early as 5000 years ago, the approximate age of the beveled-stem Nolan points. Later Archaic styles found at the site include the broad-bladed Castroville, Marcos, and Marshall types, all dating to the Late Archaic about 2000-3000 years ago, as well as smaller and later types such as Darl, Ensor, and Fairland points, all dating to the very end of the Archaic, about 1200-2000 years ago. Some of the smaller dart points may have still been in use when the bow and arrow was introduced.

Arrow points were much more numerous; over 550 of them were recovered from the Harrell site. Most of these are triangular points that have side and/or basal notches including the Harrell style, named after the site, and the Washita point. Scallorn points, the kind found with the burials, are much less common; only about 25 were found. There are also various other stemmed points including Bonham and a few Perdiz as well as unstemmed and unnotched triangular points and preforms.

bifaces or knives
Long bifaces or knives, some beveled on edges, were likely used in cutting meat, plant foods, or in other tasks.

A typical tool found at Plains Village sites and other Late Prehistoric sites with evidence for bison hunting is the beveled knife. These stone tools were probably favored for their durability and longevity. Beginning as long oval-shaped thin bifaces, their edges were resharpened repeatedly through "microflaking" or edge-beveling and reused in successive butchering tasks. As a knife was reused and resharpened over its "lifetime," it became progressively narrower with steeply angled, or beveled edges. Particularly distinctive are narrow diamond-shaped or 4-beveled knives. While beveled knives were used over a wide region, the diamond beveled knives are particularly common in Plains Village sites. Several of those from the Harrell site are made from Alibates flint (banded dolomite, technically) that outcrops near Amarillo, some 250 miles to the northeast of the Harrell site.

Tools to Make Tools

Prehistoric toolmakers used a variety of tools and resources in their work. Knappers would have employed bone and antler batons and hammers as well as small rounded hammerstones in the first stages of removing flakes from larger pieces of chert (flint) or other stone suitable for flaking. Flakes removed in this fashion were then chipped further and finished using more intricate tools, such as antler tines. Grooved sandstone tablets may also have been used in tool making and maintenance, for dulling surfaces or for straightening heated wooden shafts for arrows. For other tasks, chipped stone burins or gravers may have been used both for cutting and grooving bones and for ornamental incising.

flintknapping tools
These flintknapping tools made of antler and bone were used to make stone tools. The larger specimens likely served as "billets" or soft hammers for striking flakes off pieces of stone, such as flint or chert, whereas the three pointed antler tools on right are flaking tools used to remove small flakes from nearly completed chipped stone tools.

Food Processing, Cooking, and Storage

Amid the quantities of burned rock and other hearth debris were quantities of grinding stone fragments and pottery sherds—all that remained of the food processors, cooking pots, and "Tupperware" of prehistoric times. Milling and grinding implements, such as manos and metates, were important processing tools for farming peoples who grew corn. It is likely that—along with corn kernels—grass seeds, mesquite beans, and nuts also were ground into flour for making bread.

Of the handheld manos, some were made of hard sandstone, others of quartzite or a hard, sandy limestone. Most of the nearly 160 manos had been pecked or worked into an oval shape, and showed signs of heavy wear. Two manos with traces of red pigment may have been used for grinding hematite or ocher for paint. The grinding slabs, often known as metates, chiefly were made of hard sandstone; only 10 whole ones were found among the 81 metate specimens. Grinding slab fragments were often reused as cooking stones, or griddles; many of these were found among the hearth stones.

Although a great deal of cooking involved use of small hearths, ovens, and flat stone griddles, simple clay pots were used for cooking stew-like meals and also for hauling and storing water. To make the vessels, potters used crushed mussel shell as a tempering agent and formed long coils of clay into globular jars and deep bowls. The globular jars, which had rounded bases, likely were cooking vessels.

Among the roughly 600 potsherds recovered at the site, none could be refitted into whole vessels. Based on similarities and differences, at least 25-30 separate vessels are represented, according to a recent reexamination of the collection by archeologist Michael Brack. Judging from the sherds, most of the vessels were round-bottomed jars with restricted necks, many of which flared out at the rims. The openings of these jars were small—averaging 6 inches (15 cm). A few bowls (at least 4) are also in the collection. The vast majority of the site's potsherds (98%) are shell-tempered plainwares, a few with simple decorations. Among the decorated pieces, most had rows of appliquéd nodes; others had vertical fingernail marks, incised diagonal lines, and stamped impressions on the vessel body.

Krieger defined this type of pottery—shell-tempered, coiled, globular-shaped, plain to only minimally decorated—from the north central Texas area as Nocona Plain on the basis of the Harrell site collection. The pottery was one of the main "traits" or characteristics of the Henrietta focus. Freshly crushed mussel shell was added as temper in almost all the pottery from the site. Brack's study of shell-tempered pottery from north Texas and Oklahoma found that the Harrell site's pottery is the most technologically varied of any assemblage, but closely resembles pottery found at sites along the Red River and the Washita and Canadian River drainages in southern and western Oklahoma. The variety of pottery and relatively large number of vessels suggests that much of the pottery found at Harrell was locally made.

A handful of very interesting and peculiar thick pottery sherds up to an inch thick were unlike the other shell-tempered pieces at the site. These appear to be fragments of small "paint pots"-tall, narrow cylinders with 2-to 3-inch (5-7 cm) openings. Two sherds have textured or roughened exteriors; one with diagonal lines and the other with irregular but closely spaced fingernail punctures or textile impressions, perhaps to provide a better hand hold on the vessels. Interiors are bright red, possibly from holding paint made of ochre. Similar pottery has been found at other post A.D. 1200 sites in upper Brazos and Red River locations as well as southern Oklahoma.


Food Remains

Based on charred and fragmentary remains left behind in the cooking pits and midden rubble, the people of the north-central Brazos ate a varied diet including buffalo, deer, birds (turkey and small birds), turtle, freshwater drum and other fish, and a quantity of freshwater mussels. Meat would have been dried for use as jerky or pemmican, and bones boiled or "greased," to extract fat. The later dwellers also grew corn, as attested to by the fragments of charred corn cobs preserved at the site, and collected pecans and wild plums. Although few other food remains were recovered, this is mainly because the archeologists did not realize the importance of collecting charcoal and soil samples from hearths and of using fine screening techniques to recover the bones of small creatures. Based on what is known from other sites in the region, we can guess that they also hunted a variety of small mammals, collected the beans and acorns of the abundant mesquite and oak trees in the area, and gathered a variety of other plants, grasses, and seeds. Cactus, abundant today in the area, may have been exploited for a variety of uses as well.

In addition to the "tropical" domesticates" such as corn, they probably raised other crops such as beans and squash. Drass's study of earlier Washita River sites suggests that domestication of plants on the southern Plains may have started much earlier, with eastern Woodland domesticates such as sun flower, marsh elder, and chenopodium.

Art, Ceremony, and Trade

incised bird bone
An intricately incised bird bone with cross hatched designs may have been used as an ornament or in a special ritual.

Among the quantities of tools, debris, and more mundane objects of daily life were a small number of items bespeaking a desire to bring beauty and ceremony into the lives of the people living along the Brazos. There were also objects that indicated contact with groups in regions far afield. Based on the array of "jewelry" found at the site, at least some members of the group wore body ornaments, including beads made of bone, fossil crinoids, and Olivella shell, the latter from the Gulf of California over 700 miles to the southwest. Cut and perforated mussel shells were probably worn as pendants. Certain other mussel shell sections appeared to be pendants or tools in the making—unfinished "blanks" or oval discs cut from flat sections of larger shells.

Certain items may have been used in ceremonies including elbow pipes for smoking native tobacco, tubes or beads of bird bone, and rasps. The smoking pipes were made of hard, fine-grained sandstone, and several were decorated with lines incised around the pipe bowl rim, or with nicks cut at intervals around the rim. This latter specimen also has a hole drilled from the outside near the junction of stem and bowl; archeologist Jack Hughes likened this specimen to modern "carburetor" pipes. One interesting specimen clearly saw much use, as indicated by a highly blackened bowl interior.

Several distinctive sherds of pottery found at the site were almost certainly brought or traded in from other areas: one of southeastern New Mexico Brownware, and one engraved sherd from the East Texas Caddo area.

That there was interaction or trade with people from areas far afield is suggested in several items left at the site including tools made from Alibates flint from the Texas Panhandle, a biface made of black obsidian from the Rocky Mountains to the west or northwest, Olivella shell from the Gulf of California, and sherds of pottery unlike that made at the site. One orange-colored polished sherd with an incised design appears to be Poynor Engraved, a pottery type made by Late Prehistoric groups along the upper Neches in the East Texas Caddo area. Another is a Brownware sherd from southeastern New Mexico. These probably represent trade wares and suggest that the Harrell site was part of a larger trade network. Both Southwestern and Caddo peoples were known to be prodigious traders at various times in their history.


Harrell data sheet
An initial attempt at analyzing artifact distribution, George Fox's inventory of what he called "microliths," or small chipped stone tools such as arrow points, was based on the depth at which they were uncovered. Document from TARL Archives.

Click images to enlarge  

Shaped hematite tools
Shaped hematite tools such as these may once have been hafted on a wooden handle or used as fist axes. The edges of these specimens have been polished through use.
Tiny arrow points
Tiny arrow points, known to collectors as "bird points" for their small size, were capable of felling large animals such as bison as well as much smaller prey.
Chipped stone gouges or end scrapers with beveled bit ends
Chipped stone gouges or end scrapers with beveled bit ends would have been effective tools for woodworking or hide scraping.
Bone and antler hoes
Hoes made of bone. Prehistoric Plains farmers used bone-tipped hoes and other simple digging tools to cultivate corn and probably other crops as well.
corner notched, wide-bladed Castroville, Marcos and Marshall types
Dart points from earlier times at the campsite: corner notched, wide-bladed Castroville, Marcos and Marshall types dating to the Late Archaic period roughly 2000-2500 years ago.
illustration of bifacial knives
Edge beveling of bifacial knives is well illustrated in this drawing. Specimen b is a "two-bevel form" and c-d are "four-bevel forms." Item i is a biface in an early stage of use, suggesting what the original size and shape might have been before successive edge use-wear and resharpening processes. While beveling reduces the width and causes edges to become increasingly beveled or angled, the tool's thickness is maintained and durability enhanced. Item g is a simple cutting tool made on a flake. (Size ½; drawing from Krieger 1946, Figure 7.)
bone fishhook
Prehistoric fishermen might have tied thin sinew or plant fibers to bone fishhooks, such as this unfinished specimen from the Harrell site, for fishing in the nearby Clear Fork River.
Grooved sandstones
Grooved sandstones such as these may have served as abraders, or whetstones, to variously sharpen, dull, or smooth the edges of stone tools, or for straightening or polishing wooden arrow shafts or bone tools during manufacturing.
mussell shell filled with asphaltum
Filled with pitch or asphaltum, early forms of glue, this mussel shell made a handy container. The pitch may have been used to secure chipped stone tools and points into the hafts of handles and shafts.
Manos and other stone implements
Manos and other stone implements used for food processing at the Harrell site. Pecked, or shaped, grinding tools such as manos ( a-e) were handheld and likely moved in a back and forth motion on a metate or coarse grinding slab. The small, unshaped sandstone mano (f) was used in a rotary motion. Item g is a chipped hematite blade, h, a polished sandstone cylinder-shaped object, and i, a fragment of a beveled-edge sandstone tablet. (Krieger 1947, Figure 12).
Crushed shell temper
Crushed shell temper shows up as white flecks within pottery sherds of Nocona Plain. The variation in color is due largely to differences in firing this simple pottery.
Rim profiles of shell-tempered Nocona Plain pottery vessels
Rim profiles of shell-tempered Nocona Plain pottery vessels from the Harrell site. Jars and bowls with globular bodies and rounded bases were the primary vessel shapes. Drawing from Michael Brack, 1999.
mussell shells
Mussel shells with mysterious holes. Mussels gathered from nearby rivers were a useful resource for the peoples of the area, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of shells recovered at the site. In addition to eating the fleshy mollusks, the Harrell site people also used the shells as tools and containers, cut them into beads and pendants, and crushed them for temper in making pottery. The purpose of the holes, found on many of shells, is unknown.
fragmented sandstone pipes
Now in fragments, these sandstone pipes may have been smoked in special ceremonies. The specimen on left has been decorated with incised lines and small nicks around the rim; the elbow pipe on far right shows the right angle juncture for which it is named.
mussell shells
To make disc beads and pendants from mussel shell, workers would cut sections of the shells near the hinge, shape them into circular discs or other forms, and perforate them to be strung on a cord.
Brightly colored hematite stones
Brightly colored hematite stones, or ocher, may have been ground for pigment used for body paint. Several manos, or grinding stones, from the site bore traces of red pigment as did fragments of pottery cups.