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Excavations at the Ysleta Jacal Site

Ysleta plaza and the Jacal site. Archeological excavations conducted there prior to construction of the Ysleta Neighborhood Health Clinic revealed a small jacal community dating to shortly after the Pueblo Revolt period. As denoted in the marker, the site was "part of the earliest Native American settlement associated with a Spanish Mission in the state of Texas."

The Ysleta Jacal site (41EP2840) is a Pueblo Revolt era settlement located in Ysleta, Texas near the southeastern city limits of El Paso. The site lies within 200 feet of the current location of the historic Ysleta Mission and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (Tigua reservation).   

The site was discovered in 1990 during archeological test excavations below a gravel-covered parking lot where the City of El Paso planned to build a Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) health facility. Since the WIC clinic was a federally funded public project, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and City of El Paso were responsible for taking into account the effects of the project on significant archeological or historic sites as required under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Prior to construction, Batcho & Kauffman Associates, a local archeological consulting firm, was awarded a contract to conduct an archeological testing program to determine if a significant site was present. Having established that an important archaeological site did exist at the location, they were awarded a contract to perform the subsequent data recovery excavations to recover important data that would be destroyed during construction of the WIC clinic. 

Backhoe trenches dug during the testing program and data recovery excavations revealed the presence of numerous deep pits filled with trash and discarded food remains. These pits were likely associated with the remains of a burned jacal (stick and mud or “wattle and daub” construction) house. All of these features were situated in an occupation surface almost one meter (three feet) below the gravel parking lot. This historic settlement surface had been buried beneath nearly 200 years of accumulated sand and clay layers deposited when the Rio Grande River overflowed its banks and by more recent agricultural fields. The area investigated for the WIC facility was only 80 x 50 meters (260 by 160 feet), and the portion of the site revealed within this construction footprint is undoubtedly part of a more extensive settlement that is presently buried under the surrounding commercial and housing developments of central Ysleta. 

Through the presence of well-dated Mexican majolica wares, New Mexican polychrome ceramics, and Rio Grande Glazewares, archeologists have determined that the occupation of the site occurred sometime between A.D. 1680 and 1725. Therefore, the occupants of the Ysleta Jacal site were among the first generation of Native American Tigua or Piro refugees who, along with Spanish settlers, fled the 1680 Pueblo Revolt conflicts in northern and central New Mexico and settled in the El Paso area. Archeological excavations at the site provided a fascinating look at the lifeways of these Pueblo Revolt immigrants and insights into the level of assimilation they may have experienced under Spanish authority, as well as subtle hints suggesting some degree of resistance to such authority. 

The most prominent archeological feature at the site is the remains of a jacal house. Jacal is a Spanish term that refers to a type of house built using the jara (stick) method of construction. This type of house was built by first placing a series of major support posts at the corners and sometimes at intervals between the corner posts. Lines of sticks and branches were then secured between the posts and covered with mud and clay (or daub) similar to “wattle and daub” construction in other arid regions of the world where wood is not particularly plentiful. Examples of jara construction and jacal houses are known from historic photographs from the area.  

The example of an historic jacal house at 41EP2840 had collapsed and burned, with most of the wood and daub wall and roofing debris present in a mounded arc around the eastern margin of the feature. This mounded deposit was a mosaic consisting of thousands of burned stick and branch fragments intermixed with daub that had been turned an orange color by exposure to heat. Small metal hinges and latches were found in this deposit and represent the few metal objects at the site. Remnants of a caliche-plastered floor were found within the arc of mounded wall and roof materials. Several burned corn cobs and fragments of pottery ollas were embedded in the floor. 

Photo of archeologist Myles Miller
Archeologist Myles Miller leans against the wall of the excavation block at the Ysleta Jacal site after excavation is complete. The block was excavated down to the level of the floor of the jacal structure that once stood here. Photo courtesy of Batcho and Kauffman Associates.
Photo of an aerial view of the jacal structure and excavation block
Aerial view of the jacal structure and excavation block. Note the mounded arc on the eastern (right) edge of the structure. This deposit was a mosaic consisting of thousands of burned stick and branch fragments intermixed with daub that had been turned an orange color by exposure to heat, indicating that the structure had collapsed and burned. Photo courtesy of Batcho and Kauffman Associates.
Early 1900's photograph of El Paso families living in a community of jacales
Early 1900s photograph of El Paso families living in a community of jacales. The jacal houses shown are built of vertical wooden sticks and branches covered with mud and clay (daub); they are probably very similar to those constructed by the native people of El Paso in the late 17th century. Photo from the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History.
Photograph of a jacal house in El Paso from the late 19th or early 20th century
Photograph of a jacal house in El Paso from the late 19th or early 20th century. The Ysleta Jacal likely looked very similar to this one. Photo from the Rio Grande Historical Collection, New Mexico State University.
View of the mounded daub and charcoal deposit surrounding the Ysleta Jacal
View of the mounded daub and charcoal deposit surrounding the Ysleta Jacal. Photo courtesy of Batcho and Kauffman Associates.
Photo of metal hinge found in the layer of burned daub
Metal hinge found in the layer of burned daub. Photo courtesy of Batcho and Kauffman Associates.
Photo of a view of the mounded daub and charcoal deposit
View of the mounded daub and charcoal deposit covering the floor of the Ysleta Jacal. Photo courtesy of Batcho and Kauffman Associates.

None of the primary corner or roof support posts were present and no burned beams were found among the mounds of wood and daub. This indicates that the house was probably intentionally razed and the valuable wood beams were removed for use elsewhere. The absence of domestic items and tools on the floor of the house also indicates that it had been abandoned prior to its demolition and burning. Some years later the eastern edge of the house was removed by construction of a narrow historic irrigation ditch or perhaps a trench for a modern utility line.

Pits of various sizes and shapes were the most common type of archeological feature. Several of the larger and more irregular pits probably served as borrow pits for gathering mud clay for use in both house construction and pottery manufacture. Pits with bell-shaped profiles may have served as temporary underground storage facilities. Whatever the original use, almost all the pits finally served as locations for the disposal of animal bone and other food remains, broken pottery vessels, and other household trash. 

Most of the food remains were recovered from within these pits, and included corn cobs and kernels and charred peach pits, showing that the native groups had access to this Spanish-introduced fruit. Several wild plant foods such as mesquite, amaranth, and prickly pear cactus were also found, showing that the inhabitants continued to gather and consume wild plant foods in a manner similar to prehistoric groups in the area.

 Large quantities of animal bone were recovered. Bone deposits were particularly dense in the disposal pits scattered across the site. Analysis of the bones identified numerous species including both domesticated animals introduced by the Spanish and non-domesticated animals common to the surrounding desert and mountains. Compared to the high proportions of domesticated cow, pig, chicken, and goats or sheep found at later mission-era settlements in the valley, the Pueblo Revolt occupation at 41EP2840 had much higher quantities of non-domesticated animals such as rabbits, fish, birds, and deer. Additional evidence that Native groups continued to hunt game is demonstrated by the presence of arrow points and stone tools.

Thousands of plain brownware pottery sherds were recovered from refuse pits and from the deposits around the jacal house. The ceramic tradition represents a blend of Spanish-influenced vessel forms and indigenous brownware manufacturing techniques. Very little of the pottery was decorated with red slips or white slips. Large ollas and serving bowls were common vessel forms, but Spanish forms such as plates and candlesticks were also manufactured. Some of the ceramics may have been brought along from the northern pueblos, and include various red and red-slipped wares, Rio Grande Glazewares, and Tewa Polychrome. Mexican majolica wares such as Puebla Blue-on-white, Puebla Polychrome, and Abo Polychrome were also present, but in relatively small numbers.

View of burned corn cobs, peach pits, and fragments of pottery ollas embedded in the floor of the Ysleta Jacal
View of burned corn cobs, peach pits, and fragments of pottery ollas embedded in the floor of the Ysleta Jacal. Photo courtesy of Batcho and Kauffman Associates.
Photo of one of the pits discovered on the floor of the Ysleta Jacal
Profile of one of the pits discovered on the floor of the Ysleta Jacal. The site’s pits served as locations for the disposal of animal bone and other food remains, broken pottery vessels, and other household trash. Photo courtesy of Batcho and Kauffman Associates.
Planview of one of the pits discovered on the floor of the Ysleta Jacal
Planview of one of the pits discovered on the floor of the Ysleta Jacal, showing its fill of charcoal, plant remains, bone, and burned daub. Most of the food remains recovered from the site came from its pits. Photo courtesy of Batcho and Kauffman Associates.



Ceramics recovered from the Ysleta Jacal. The site’s ceramic tradition represents a blend of Spanish-influenced vessel forms and indigenous brownware manufacturing techniques. Left: Valle Bajo brownware sherds produced locally; middle: Tewa polychrome bowl sherd (on left) and Ogapage polychrome jar sherds (on right) from the New Mexico pueblos; right: collection of Puebla polychrome (blue and black on white), Abo polychrome (Green, yellow, blue, and black on white), and Pueblo Blue-on-white majolica sherds from Mexico. Photo courtesy of Batcho and Kauffman Associates.

The absence of painted ceramics and any noticeable quantity of majolica and other quality ceramic vessels may reflect the lack of social and economic status of the household. Very few items suggestive of status or social differentiation were found. Only three glass beads were recovered from the site. Very little metal was present, although this may have resulted from lack of access due to disruption of supply routes along the Camino Real during the Pueblo Revolt period. Analysis of animal bones and butchering marks indicate and that most meat was prepared and consumed within the household and that lower-quality portions were consumed.

Yet, despite the apparent low social and economic status of the household social group residing at the Ysleta jacal site, there is tantalizing evidence of an undercurrent of resistance to total Spanish authority in the form of Native American social and religious practices. The lack of evidence for social status among the residents of the Ysleta jacal structure should not be construed to mean that there was no social or leadership status among the Tigua and Piro groups living under Spanish rule. Religious practitioners and lineage or community leaders would undoubtedly have been present as observed among all ethnographically and ethnohistorically documented Southwestern pueblo societies. 

Several items of shell, pigments, and mica or selenite were recovered at the site. These types of items are strikingly similar to those found at prehistoric pueblos across New Mexico (see Madera Quemada) and west Texas. More telling was the recovery of a ceramic animal figurine and a projectile point coated in red ochre pigment. When considered as a whole, the presence of this collection of items demonstrates the continuation of social and religious practices having considerable time depth in the region.

Graph showing comparison of fuanal assemblages and domesticated fauna
Comparison of faunal assemblages from Spanish Colonial and Historic period contexts in the El Paso lower valley showing proportions of domesticated and nondomesticated groups through time. Compared to the high proportions of domesticated plants and animals found at later mission-era settlements in the valley, the Pueblo Revolt occupation at the Ysleta Jacal had much higher quantities of wild plants and animals. Graphic from Miller and Kenmotsu 2004, Fig. 41.
photo of a late prehistoric point
Ysleta Plaza, site of the excavation, as it appears today. Photo by Susan Dial.