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WPA Excavations

Workers from the University of Texas-WPA project uncovering structural remains on mound platform at the Hatchel site. Photo from TARL archives.
Workers from the University of Texas-WPA project uncovering structural remains on mound platform at the Hatchel site. The concentric arcs are alignments of postholes; the large hole at left, center, of photo may have been a hearth.
Temple mound, as shown in the Teran expedition map of Upper Nasoni village.
Temple mound, as shown in the Teran expedition map of Upper Nasoni village.
Schematic cross-section (north-south) through mound.
Schematic cross-section (north-south) through mound.
WPA crew excavating through mound.
WPA crew excavating through mound.
Structural remains of large buildings on east end of first mound platform.
Structural remains of large buildings on east end of first mound platform.
WPA plan of buildings and other features in first mound platform.
WPA plan of buildings and other features on first mound platform.
Structural remains on mound platform.
Structural remains on mound platform. Concentric arcs of postholes represent northern portions of three large buildings on mound platform.
Reconstruction of pre-mound buildings, as visualized by artist Charles Shaw.
Reconstruction of pre-mound buildings, as visualized by artist Charles Shaw.
East-west cross-section through middle of mound showing flat top of original mound and later addition.
East-west cross-section through middle of mound showing flat top of original mound and later addition.
North-south cross-section through middle of mound showing flat top of original mound.
North-south cross-section through middle of mound showing flat top of original mound.
Village excavations by WPA.
Village excavations by WPA. Work during this phase was directed by A. M. Woolsey.
Large village excavation by WPA.
Large village excavation by WPA.
Village area excavation.
Small cemetery in village residential area, with three graves shown following excavation.
Pottery from early interments. Photo by Darrell Creel.
Pottery from early interments.
Pottery from early interments. Photo by Darrell Creel.
Pottery from early interments.
Bald eagle burial in earlier levels.
Bald eagle burial uncovered on first mound platform.
Ceramic duck head from effigy vessel.
Ceramic duck head from effigy vessel.
Early style ceramic pipe, Red River type. Photo by Milton Bell.
Early style ceramic pipe, Red River type.

In 1938, archeologists from the University of Texas-Works Progress Administration (WPA) project began excavation on a massive mound on the East Texas farm of Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Hatchel. The couple were accustomed to living in the looming shadow of the mound, but they were curious about its derivation—it was clearly a man-made structure, its age and purpose unknown.

Several years previously, pioneer Texas archeologist A.T. Jackson of UT had visited the site and conducted test excavations on the Hatchel mound. He also investigated one of the mounds atd tdhe Eli Moores site, as well as graves that had been disturbed during levee construction on the nearby Mitchell site; during the course of his work, he uncovered four more graves in the yard area of the Mitchell farm. In the next year, 21 more graves were excavated by other individuals. Other Caddo sites, such as the Foster site in Southwest Arkansas, contained mounds with numerous graves, and these locales were thought to be special cemeteries. While there had been no indications of interments in the Hatchel mound, it was nonetheless becoming clear that the Hatchel-Mitchell area held the potential to be one of the largest and most significant Caddo archeological sites in Texas.

For the WPA investigators, the task was daunting, but the crews were willing and numerous at a time when jobs were scarce. Leading the fieldwork were William C. Beatty, Jr., Glenn Martin, Arthur M. Woolsey, and Alden Hayes. Initial focus was on the mound area although, during the yearlong venture, the crews excavated broad areas in the village and cemetery areas adjacent to the mound as well.

As workers painstakingly excavated through the center of the mound, its complex anatomy became more apparent. At least eight superimposed occupational surfaces (labeled A-H)—each showing signs of structures, other features, and occupational debris—were visible as discrete layers in the deep trench profiles. These occupational surfaces were constructed atop a primary platform (labeled I and J); the mound stood 7.7 m in height and had ramps leading down to the plaza and village. As excavators continued digging, they found four graves and a pit where two bald eagles had been interred. Finally, below the mound—on what was termed the "pre-mound" surface (labeled K)—investigators found the outline of a large circular structure that had been constructed prior to ca. A.D. 1300. The mound itself began to be built around A.D. 1500 and continued in use until ca. A.D. 1691. In the months-long process, they had combed through layer after layer of history, documenting what proved to be an astonishing chronicle of the mound's creation.

Sometime before A.D. 1300, the inhabitants of a village at the Great Bend of the Red River built a least one large thatch-covered structure. How the structure was used is unknown, but we know it was built at what was then the natural ground level. After some 200 years, that structure and other remains were covered over by the erection of the first mound platform. The classic Caddo mound-building tradition—with attendant pageantry and customs—was in full sway. In the centuries to come, other mound-building episodes with new temple structures were to follow—fully eight in all, based on the layers in the mound fill observed by investigators.

Given the size of the mound—about 200 feet long by 145 feet wide and eventually reaching as high as 25 feet—the labor involved in each construction episode must have been staggering. Basket load after basket load of dirt was carried in by the villagers until, finally, a sufficient height was reached for the community’s purposes. For the initial mound platform, this may have been about 13 feet in height. Once completed, the mound was leveled off in preparation for the next step: the erection of one or more large circular, bee-hive-shaped structures in the ca. 11-12 feet of occupation surfaces on the second mound platform. With low vertical sides, the buildings appeared to have a separate pitched roof, unlike those at other mound sites such as the Davis site.

These special structures were used for an unknown period of time—perhaps as the dwelling and ceremonial places of a special religious leader. Then, the evidence tells us, these structures were burned. Some speculate that the firing of the special structures marked the death of the individuals who used them, perhaps chiefs or religious leaders. But once the structures had been burned, the rebuilding process began anew, and the cycle was repeated —at least seven times— as structures were built, fired, mounded over, and then renewed again. Over time, the proportions of the mound reached enormous heights. The mound in the Upper Nasoni village, marked as "Temple" on the Teran expedition map was described by European explorers as dominating the landscape like a small hill.

WPA excavators also investigated remains of several village areas of the Upper Nasoni. Adjacent to the mound, workers uncovered remains of dwellings as well as several interments that were contemporaneous with mound construction episodes; one village area has been shown by more recent work at the Hatchel site to date as early as A.D. 1040. At the nearby Mitchell site, workers found 50 graves, along with midden deposits and the possible remnants of a large structure. Although archeologists also found the graves of four individuals within the Hatchel mound fill, it was not believed to be a burial mound, but, rather, a temple mound

Archeological evidence generated by the WPA excavations showed an almost 650-year occupation at the site. An array of materials provides a glimpse of Caddo lifeways—both on a day-to-day basis as well as in ceremony. Among the artifacts are artfully decorated vessels—the trappings of rituals and burial offerings—as well as more utilitarian pottery jars, such as those that might have been used to cook simple corn and bean stews. Ornate jewelry of bone and shell as well as ceramic pipes were found, along with the more-mundane chipped stone and pottery tools needed for hunting and farming and domestic life: arrowpoints and adzes, the milling stones used by the Caddo women to grind corn and nuts, spindle whorls and pottery smoothing pebbles, each with a simple beauty all its own.

Among the pottery remains, 68 whole or partial vessels were recovered, along with more than 15,000 pottery sherds. In studying and sequencing their shapes and design motifs, archeologists have been able to develop a chronological pottery style sequence for post-A.D. 1500 Caddo periods in the local area. The full collection of artifacts and documents from the Hatchel-Mitchell-Moores complex investigations have been analyzed, including the many identified structures.

The photos and maps shown here are from the 1938 WPA investigations; these are housed, along with associated field notes and documents, at TARL. Only a few of the artifacts recovered are displayed here although one day we hope to add an expanded gallery of these fascinating objects, as well as additional sections on the archeology and history of the Upper Nasoni village.

Temple on top of mound (side view) circa 1690, as drawn by artist Charles Shaw.
Temple on top of mound (side view) circa 1690, as drawn by artist Charles Shaw.


Map of 41BW4, Mitchell site, disturbed (red) and undisturbed (blue) graves.
Map of 41BW4, Mitchell site, disturbed (red) and undisturbed (blue) graves.

Late pottery.
Late pottery.

Late pottery.
Late pottery.

Late style ceramic pipes. Photo by Milton Bell.
Late style ceramic pipes.

Mound at beginning of WPA excavations. Structures on top of mound and at right are contemporary barns and outbuildings for animals.
Mound at beginning of WPA excavations. Structures on top of mound and at right are contemporary barns and outbuildings for animals.

Click images to enlarge  

WPA excavation supervisors at work on record keeping.
WPA excavation supervisors hard at work on record keeping.
WPA crew excavating upper portion of mound.
WPA crew excavating upper portion of mound.
Length-wise cross-section showing different mound levels.
Lengthwise cross-section showing different mound levels. Wooden grid stakes are laid out to mark the excavation units.
Burned stubs of posts in entryway of building on mound platform.
Burned stubs of posts in entryway of building on mound platform.
WPA trenches to pre-mound surface.
WPA trenches to pre-mound surface.
Plan of WPA excavations to pre-mound surface.
Plan of WPA excavations to pre-mound surface.
Large intersecting buildings beneath west end of mound.
Remains of very large building, with arc-shaped internal partition, beneath west end of mound.
Reconstrcution of buildings on first mound platform by artist Charles Shaw.
Reconstruction of buildings on first mound platform by artist Charles Shaw. Unlike structures at sites such as Davis, the buildings atop the Hatchel mound had low vertical walls with pitched roofs apparently attached separately.
Restricted access building on first mound platform.
Restricted access building on first mound platform. Circle of postholes on left may be a wall enclosing the entrance to a special structure.
WPA crew at work on village excavations.
WPA crew at work on village excavations.
Structural postholes in village areas being examined by WPA crew.
Structural postholes in residential areas being examined by WPA crew. Postholes probably represent one or more buildings as well as remadas for shelter, and elevated granaries.
Early interments at 41BW4.
Early interments at Mitchell site. The cemetery was in one of the village residential areas occupied over many generations.
Pottery from middle group of interments.
Pottery from middle group of interments.
Pottery from middle group of interments.
Pottery from middle group of interments.
Pottery disks, possibly used as spindle whorls.
Pottery disks, possibly used as spindle whorls.
Pottery smoothing pebbles. Photo by Milton Bell.
Pottery smoothing pebbles.