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Prehistoric Texas Main

Investigations

Photo of hearth and mussel shell

The Hinojosa site was found in 1974 by archeologists from the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio (CAR-UTSA) . They were surveying several properties that were to be affected by flood control projects planned by the Soil Conservation Service. The campsite was designated 41JW8, the 8th formally recorded archeological site in Jim Wells County. The site was later named the Clemente and Herminia Hinojosa site after the former landowners, but became known to archeologists simply as the Hinjosa site or just JW8.

The following year a research team from CAR-UTSA spent a week evaluating the site by digging a dozen 2-x-2-m test pits. This testing revealed what appeared to be a single-component site (i.e., one occupation period) dating to around A.D. 1300-1400. Preservation conditions were found to be unusually good for the region; animal bones in particular were very numerous and in excellent condition. The finding of a large cluster of bison and other animal bones termed the “bone bed” led CAR Director, Dr. Thomas R. Hester, to hypothesize that the Hinojosa site was mainly a bison hunting camp seasonally occupied during the winter to early spring over a few years or decades at the most.

The site was recognized as an important and significant locality that preserved evidence of a little-known chapter of prehistoric life. Because of its research potential, the Hinojosa site was nominated and subsequently placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Because the planned flood control work and long-term inundation threatened the site, the National Park Service’s Interagency Archeological Services-Denver contracted with UTSA-CAR to carry out additional investigations.

In the fall of 1981 and early winter of 1982 a crew of six archeologists from CAR-UTSA carried out major excavations over a several months. TBH editor Steve Black, then a young professional archeologist and part-time graduate student at UTSA, ran the dig. The analysis and reporting of the site was Black’s Master’s thesis project and was published by the CAR-UTSA in 1986. Sections of the report are linked throughout this exhibit.

To learn more about the history of the work at the site, read Chapter 1 of the site report, Introduction Introduction pdf.

The excavations were aimed at addressing a series of research problems or questions, some of which targeted basic site characteristics (limits, depth, dating, etc.) and some targeted narrow site-specific questions (nature of the bone bed, seasonality, bison hunting hypothesis, etc.). The big-picture problem was to explain how the Hinojosa site fit within regional Late Prehistoric cultural patterns. By today’s standards in 2006, the research design was not very sophisticated, but for its day it was a useful and fairly explicit set of research problems. To learn more about the research design and strategy, read Chapter 2 of the site report, Research DesignResearch Design pdf.

We began the 1981 field season by carefully mapping the site, relocating the earlier work, and carrying out additional testing to determine where to locate the main excavations. Although only six years had elapsed since the 1975 work, the test pits had been dutifully back-filled, fences had been moved, and an old dirt road had been abandoned and reclaimed by dense white brush. We hoped to return to the bone bed area and excavate the surrounding area, but a massive colony of leaf-cutter ants had taken over the area, perhaps drawn to the softened deposits created by the 1975 test pits.

So instead the major excavations were carried out some 100’ (30 m) to the north where promising intact deposits were encountered. This spot was centered on an old fence that had long separated the agricultural field from the brush and tree-choked banks of the creek. This boundary proved fortuitous, because the plowing had stopped just short of the fence—within the field the site deposits had been churned by decades of plowing. The abandoned dirt road had run just inside the fence, which led us to give the major excavation block the somewhat euphemistic name the “Wagon Trail Area.”

Our excavations followed and sometimes improved upon standard field methods. These are detailed in Chapter 3 of the site report, Research MethodsResearch Methods pdf. As we encountered intact features, such as cooking hearths and clusters of discarded animal bones, we expanded the “Wagon Trail Area” excavations to form an excavation block that eventually measured 6-x-6 meters with two adjoining smaller blocks. The combined wagon trail area totaled about 52 square meters. We were able to open up a modest-sized excavation area on the edge of the bone bed area before realizing the full extent of the leaf-cutter ant depredations. We documented part of an intact layer of occupation debris we called a “living surface” and we surmised that this would have been a good area for broad excavations had it not been for the pesky ants.

The stratigraphy in the area of the main excavation block was uncomplicated. At the surface was a light-colored plow zone (Zone 1) of varying thickness below which was a darker-colored sandy clay layer (Zone 2) with no visible internal layers. Zone 1 had been churned (disturbed) by plowing and had no intact features, but some displaced artifacts. Zone 2 had intact features and numerous artifacts—this was the main occupation zone. The darker color was caused by higher levels of organic material, such as decayed leaves and, especially, decayed organic materials left behind by the site’s former inhabitants (food debris, sticks, worn-out sandals, tattered fur, and a hundred other discarded and abandoned things made of perishable materials).

photo of archeologist Mike Woerner mapping the site
Archeologist Mike Woerner maps the site using a plane table and alidade, the standard mapping equipment used by archeologists until the use of total data stations (computerized survey instruments) became routine in the 1990s.

As can be seen, this part of the site area was quite overgrown, and, naturally, the main area where intact deposits occurred and where the main excavation block was located lay within the wooded band paralleling the creek (to the right) and the fenced off agricultural field (to the left). Several sweaty days were spent clearing the site by hand.
photo of the excavation
Excavations in progress early in the 1981 field season.
photo of the excavation
Excavations in progress near the end of the field season. The archeologist on the left (assistant field director Al McGraw) maps artifacts which have been exposed and left in place. On the right Courtenay Jones (standing) and Cecil Peel excavate a standard unit-level (10 cm thick, 1-x-1 meter square). Also visible are assorted excavation and mapping equipment as well as a trailer used to store tools and supplies on site.
stratigraphic profiles from different exavation areas
Stratigraphic profiles from different exavation areas. Enlarge to see details.
photo of the north wall of the main excavation block
The north wall of the main excavation block shows the basic stratigraphy—two layers, the upper, lighter-colored plow zone overlying the darker gray silty clay layer within which intact cultural features and artifact distributions were documented.

The plow zone is thickest and least disturbed along the fence line, which was can be traced by the remnants of large roots on the excavation floor. The wooded fence line protected the archeological deposits in this area by fending off plowing. The roots caused some minor displacement and proved aggravating at times for excavators trying to maintain straight unit walls and consistent unit-levels. Two columns can also been seen where small soil samples were collected to analyze the soil characteristics including chemistry and particle size.

Judging from the intact materials, it appears that following the occupation of the Hinojosa site, the cultural remains were covered fairly quickly by the same long-term process that formed the terrace upon which the site occurs. Namely, sediment from overbank floods. That said, there was no obvious evidence of distinct flood layers, probably because the floods left behind only thin deposits that were soon mixed within the soil by tree roots, worms, and other agents of “bioturbation.” If the site were excavated today, a geoarcheologist would conduct a special study to explain more precisely how the site deposits formed then we were able to in 1981. Geoarcheological investigations were relatively uncommon in those days and, as site deposits go, those at the Hinojosa site weren’t very complicated. Still, there may well have been subtle evidence of layering that we did not recognize.

We did sink deeper test pits in several places in search of deeper occupation layers and found none, although we did encounter deeper soil layers that contained little or no archeological evidence. We also did something a bit unusual. We purposefully dug two test pits in the agricultural field, well outside the limits of the archeological site. These “noise pits” were excavated to give us a sample of the “background noise,” meaning a sample of the natural, non-cultural debris which we could compare to the materials recovered from within the site. We did this because we wanted to know if all the rocks, bones, and snails found within the site could be attributed to humans. The noise pit results gave us confidence and measurable data showing that there was very little background noise in the area around the Hinojosa site.

photo of noise pit excavation
Two “noise pits” were excavated well outside the site area to give us a sample of the “background noise,” meaning the natural, non-cultural debris which we could compare to the materials recovered from within the site.