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A Prehistoric Cemetery: Mass Burials and Mutilations

Field drawing of burials
Some 800-1000 years ago, mourners laid these individuals—among them, three women and a small child—to rest in a large shared grave. Based on their arrow wounds, they clearly had fallen victim to violent aggression or warfare. In all, 32 people were buried in the small prehistoric cemetery. Field drawing of burials 19-23 adapted from Fox, 1938; manuscript on file, TARL Archives.
Scallorn arrow points
Scallorn arrow points from the Harrell site. Small but deadly, arrow points such as these were found amid the bones of several individuals and were very likely the cause of their death. Photo by Milton Bell.

Click images to enlarge  


In contrast to the sweeping warfare implied in the evidence from the desert Southwest, most of the violent prehistoric deaths in the southern Plains, including Texas, appear to be the result of relatively small-scale raids.

Map of burials at Harrell Cemetery
Map of burials at Harrell Cemetery, showing depths and arrangement of some of the graves. Although analysts recorded the remains of 32 individuals, many skeletons were weathered, disarticulated, and incomplete.In some graves, body parts of several individuals were intermingled. Adapted from field drawings; Fox 1938, TARL Archives.
field drawing of female burial
Several feet to the southeast of the mass burials 19-23, the burial of an adult female (burial 26) was found. She had been placed within a stone cist, her legs extended and upper torso folded over. A bone awl was discovered near her head. Adapted from field drawings; Fox 1938, TARL Archives.

On removing the bones, in the earth below were skeleton hands—seemingly Burial 23 clasped the hand of Burial 22. George Fox, 1938.

field drawing of bones
Bones of parts of some individuals were found mixed within the skeletal remains of others, as in this grave holding burial 4 and a skull fragment of burial 15. Drawing from Fox, 1938; TARL Archives.
field drawing of burials
Burials of three individuals were found in close proximity, as shown in this drawing. The compact arrangement of bones at bottom left is termed a "bundle burial." The remains of that individual likely had been bundled into a mat or covering and carried to the cemetery from another location (the inset box shows the burial after excavators removed the top bone, revealing the skull).

How the mandibles, or jawbones, of the dead were treated at the Harrell site indicated a more ritualized pattern, clearly not a phenomenon of weathering or nature.

Cranial measurement and observation card
One of the hundreds of Cranial Measurement and Observation data cards completed by Marcus Goldstein, on file at TARL Archives.
A cache of mussel shells
A cache of mussel shells was found to the southwest of burial 11 and near hearth 4. More than likely, they were put aside.
drawing of "bundle burial"
Burial 30, another possible reburial or "bundle burial". Drawing from Fox, 1938; TARL Archives.

Violence was clearly afoot in prehistoric Texas and neighboring regions some 1100 years ago and for centuries thereafter. We don't fully understand the nature of the conflicts, the triggering causes, or what carried the hostile impulse across the southern Plains and far south into central and coastal Texas. What we do know about this seemingly abrupt behavioral shift comes chiefly from graves. In small cemeteries of this time period, archeologists have found widespread evidence of killing and tell-tale evidence of the instrument of death—arrows tipped with small stone points—within the graves or even embedded in the skeletal remains. Some skeletons show more horrifying signs of violence—crushed skulls, decapitation, and missing limbs. Taken together, this evidence shows that during a three- or four-century span between about A.D. 900 and 1200-1300 killing and violence were widespread across prehistoric Texas, a pattern that is also seen in the Southwest in the A.D. 1200s and 1300s.

While humans have been killing one another throughout recorded history and probably the entire span of prehistory, direct evidence of violence is not seen at most Native American sites in Texas. Aside from burned houses, which may or may not have been intentionally set afire in anger, the only way we can spot violence in the archeological record is through studying human remains. Analyses of human remains found in other areas of Texas, especially in the central coastal plains, suggest that violence began to increase during Late Archaic times about 2000-3000 years ago. While we will never know what triggered individual episodes, increasing violence is generally thought to reflect increasing competition for resources brought about by population increase sometimes coupled with deteriorating climatic conditions that forced people to intrude into the territories of others. This is a plausible big-picture explanation for what happened in the southern Plains in Late Prehistoric times.

One of the most obvious changes that distinguishes the Late Prehistoric way of life from the longstanding, earlier Archaic pattern is a change in weaponry systems, from the ancient spear-throwing device called an atlatl, to the bow and arrow. Researchers believe this transition occurred gradually, beginning with the "self" or simple bow (not recurved), and that hunting peoples may have used both types of weapons for some period of time. While Plains Indians apparently adopted the bow and arrow well before the time of Christ, south of the Red River the transition to the bow and arrow did not occur until after A.D. 500. By the 1200s a more powerful type of bow, the recurved bow, began to be used. But other lifeway changes were probably more fundamental. The introduction of pottery making allowed people to more easily create containers and cooking vessels that could be exposed directly to fire, thus changing (and improving) the way certain foods were prepared. Even more important was the spread of agriculture, which gradually allowed (or forced) people to stay in one place for longer periods.

These changes were neither simultaneous nor uniform across the southern Plains. But as the societies were transformed from old ways of life to new, violence became widespread, particularly during the period between about A.D. 900 and 1300. At Southwestern pueblos, there is indication of all-out warfare or large-scale killing during the A.D. 1200s and 1300s. Archeologists in New Mexico and Arizona have studied the ruins of large defensively fortified pueblos that had been burned to the ground. At pueblo sites such as Techado Springs in west-central New Mexico, there were piles of unburied skeletons—many of them young women—apparently laying as they fell during an attack or massacre hundreds of years ago. In some Southwest sites, victims had been scalped, and in others, body parts had been taken, perhaps as war trophies.

Across the southern Plains, the scale of violence that occured during this time may have been more extreme than archeologists previously thought. Archeologist Doug Boyd believes there is ample evidence of devastating raids and attacks, mutilations, and the taking of body parts as trophies in the burial data. Although Boyd notes that southern Plains populations may have been lower than in the Pueblo world, "intertribal warfare was every bit as important and destructive."

Arrow Points among the Graves

At the Harrell site, the signs of violence were unmistakable. In the small cemetery overlooking the Brazos River, skeletons bearing signs of arrow wounds (or with points lying nearby) were found within three or possibly four mass graves. According to the very cautious field analyst's description, arrow points in one of the mass burials were found "in such positions as to suggest death from wounds." His notes continue:

The skeleton of B19 had an arrowpoint lying between the ulna and radius of the right arm and a second point lay between the ribs. In the section of the backbone, B-20 had a point protruding from the spinal column; it entered from the left side, slightly forward of the spine and when found, protruded from the back at a slight angle downward.

Perhaps the group burials, or mass graves, were a hasty means of interment of several individuals who had been killed in a conflict with outsiders. But, in haste or not, the care shown for the dead is evident in how some of the graves were arranged. In the largest group interment (shown in the top photo, burials 19-23), two young men, their bodies flexed, had been arranged to face a small child who lay between them (burials 21-23). One of the adults—his pelvis pierced by an arrow tip—appeared to clasp the hand of the child who, archeologists noted, had a badly crushed skull. Another two individuals, also victims of arrow wounds, were laid close together in "spoon fashion," their knees drawn up and almost interlocked. Finally, the entire grave had been covered over with large limestone slabs, grinding slabs, and smaller rocks.

Nearby, a second slab-covered grave (burials 27-29) held the incomplete remains of three individuals who had been placed in the grave in similarly close fashion. Investigators discovered an arrow point lying roughly in the area of what would be the central man's lung or spine area, or possibly the arm of the adjacent individual. Five other arrow points, described as long, narrow, and thin (Scallorn type), and a number of mussel shells, some used as tools, were found among the skeletal remains of the other two individuals.

Another possible mass grave held the remains of perhaps six individuals, their body parts layered atop one another in a puzzling arrangement. One individual and a child (represented primarily by skulls and leg bones) lay in a flexed position beside another burial (represented by only a skull.) Resting atop the thigh area of the two flexed skeletons were the leg bones of another individual, and lying over the shoulder area were two more sets of legs from yet other individuals. Although some might speculate that the elements laying on top might have been intrusive later burials, archeologist Fox noted the alignments of the higher bones: "Either these bones were placed with extreme care so as to have them in correct position, or the limbs were yet in flesh when buried."

During excavations in the area (Excavation 3, which also included the hearth field), investigators uncovered the remains of 32 individuals in all. Although the depths of the graves varied, they all were within the upper deposits and apparently formed a series dug in from the same surface, suggesting a burial ground in continuous use by the same peoples. Few of the graves intruded into one another—possible evidence that the cemetery was a designated place and that the grave locations were marked or well remembered. The tight grouping also suggests that the graves are roughly contemporaneous and probably occurred within a few generations.

Beyond that, however, the interments varied radically: while 16 graves contained only one individual, four bore the multiple interments discussed above. Another grave—a likely reburial—was compressed into what is termed a "bundle burial." It is likely that this individual died elsewhere and the bones were brought back to the Harrell site sometime thereafter. Other graves had stone coverings, a few may even have been placed into a slab-line enclosure or box-like cist. In one, an older woman (Burial 26) had been placed in an unusual position with legs extended and upper body bent forward over the legs. The remains were in poor condition and a number of elements were missing. Against the top of the skull, excavators found what they termed a bone awl (likely a hairpin). Although the grave was just southeast of the mass burials numbered 19-23, it was several inches higher than the others, and Fox was uncertain whether it was related to the same burial event.

Archeologists studying the human remains at the cemetery noted that the skeletons, as a group, were poorly preserved; they could not determine whether this was due to ordinary decomposition alone. There are several indications that bodies or skeletons were dismembered or buried in an already fragmented condition. In five, there was no sign of the skull; two others contained merely skull fragments; one had several teeth and a few bone fragments; several others contained only sections of leg bones. In four, the skulls had been carefully placed crown down, presumably after they were no longer connected to the spine. Archeologist Fox wrote that the inverted skulls were "so definitely in position that the theory that a settling of the overlapping earth displaced the skulls is untenable."

How the mandibles, or jawbones, of the dead were treated at the Harrell site indicated a more ritualized pattern, clearly not a phenomenon of weathering or nature. In six graves, jawbones were absent even though the skull was otherwise well preserved; in several others the jaws had been removed and placed in the grave separately. In another, more bizarre instance, the lower mandible appeared to have been turned around and set in place inside the skull.

Displacement and removal of mandibles in burials, whether a ritual among the aggressors or the families of the aggrieved, has been fairly widely documented in other cemetery sites across the region. Based on absence of mandibles in graves from the Abilene area and farther west, early avocational archeologist Cyrus Ray speculated that the jaws might have been "war trophies." There is evidence for this type of practice in the East Texas area as well.

Enigmatic cut marks on several of the Harrell skulls have raised the possibility that the individuals may have been scalped. Both Drs. Michael Collins and Darrell Creel, who briefly examined the specimens under less than ideal light, found the marks possibly to be suggestive of scalping but altogether inconclusive. A more-thorough examination is needed to fully understand and interpret the condition of the skeletal remains from the site.

Funerary Objects

Throughout the cemetery, there were only scant signs of what archeologists term "offerings" or funerary objects, the special items sometimes placed with the dead. Even then, the investigators could not be sure whether the items had been worn by the individual, were embedded in the body, or were laid into the grave with the body. As lead investigator Fox describes their placement:

The grave offerings were very few; but with three exceptions, doubt is entertained as to their being purposely interred with the body. Within one grave, a bone awl stood against a skull. In another, a small scraper lay beneath the pelvic bone. In a third, two points, well made, were close to an arm bone, in such a position as to indicate the two arrows buried with the dead.

And further:
A bone bead was beneath the central portion of one grave with two mussel shells, nested, not far away… In another grave, about 12 inches from the bones, a mussel shell was erect in the clay, standing on its pointed end. In yet another, the mussel shell was set on edge….

At the north end of the cemetery, Fox recorded a number of possible post-hole stains in the area of several graves with very incomplete skeletal remains. The stains were in groups or clusters; several appeared aligned in rough arcs. Although neither Hughes nor Krieger addressed these features, it is possible they may represent the supports for some sort of mortuary structures or part of a larger building.

Aside from their obvious human interest, the Harrell site graves are significant from a larger perspective. In north Texas and further west across the southern Plains, a number of sites bearing similarities to the Harrell cemetery have been reported. Most of the graves seemed to be Late Prehistoric; individuals usually were placed in the grave in a flexed position and covered with stone. As at the Harrell site, some were multiple graves in a single large grave, and some lacked mandibles and other body parts. In rare cases, objects or grave "goods" were added. Because of these similarities, we suspect that the Harrell cemetery dates to roughly A.D. 1000-1300 in the transitional period between the early part of the Late Prehistoric period and the Plains Villager era which was the Harrell site's heyday.

map showing small cemetery
The small cemetery was located on the western edge of the ridgetop habitation area-a maze of hearths, pits, and refuse deposits accumulated over thousands of years. Some evidence suggests, however, that the cemetery may date to a more-limited time span somewhere between A.D. 1000 to 1300. Map adapted from Fox, 1938; TARL Archives.
Partial grave covering
Partial grave covering of Burials 19-23. The limestone slabs and grinding stones had been laid over portions of the bodies of three adults and a child. Photo from TARL Archives.
field drawing of a multiple burial
A 1938 field drawing of a multiple burial (27-29) records the close position of the individuals and the arrow points which likely killed them. Adapted from Fox; 1938, TARL Archives.
field drawing of burial 1
The individual in Burial 1 was found in a flexed position with arms bent up and hands before the face. A section of the lower jaw was found inside the skull. Excavators found a flat stone "platform or hearth," with a small amount of ash, roughly 9 inches below the lower part of the body. Drawing adapted from Fox, 1938; TARL Archives.
drawng of burial
Remains of perhaps as many as seven individuals were recorded in this burial. Drawing from Fox, 1938; TARL Archives.
Marcus Goldstein
Physical anthropologist Marcus Goldstein, shown in his laboratory at the University of Texas, circa 1938. The cranial data he gathered provides information on the sex, age, and condition of many of the skeletal remains from sites such as Harrell. Photo from TARL Archives.
drawing of burial
The burial of an adult man (burial 25) who was judged to be roughly 35 years old and appeared to be "low-vaulted" to Marcus Goldstein, who performed the cranial analysis. Drawing from Fox, 1938; TARL Archives.
Stones covering burial 25.
Stones covering burial 25. Photo from TARL Archives.
field drawing of human remains
To the east of the more defined cemetery area, excavators found human remains in an apparent refuse pit. Burial 32 consisted of little more than an inverted skull, a displaced jaw bone, and leg bones lying in the midst of shell and animal bones, a stone slab, and what were recorded as dark spots in the soil. One of the human leg bones was described in the records as gnawed, suggesting the body had been left unburied for some period of time—long enough for rodents to disturb. Adapted from Fox, 1938; TARL Archives.
drawing of soil stains
A pattern of small circular soil stains in the cemetery was thought to represent postholes. If so, the posts may have been supports for small mortuary structures or for a larger building.