Prehistoric Pottery of the Llano Uplift
Part One of Two Parts

by Charles Hixson

 

 

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Many of our readers may be unaware that prehistoric Indians in Central Texas made and used pottery, principally as containers to boil food. This should not be surprising considering how little prehistoric pottery has been found in this part of Texas, and how few whole or restorable pots have been recovered-much less illustrated in popular publications. Nevertheless, excavations in the Llano archeological techniques and documentation are some Uplift region routinely uncover small numbers of potsherds (commonly called sherds). These are the fragments of broken ceramic vessels,.

One reason for the paucity of prehistoric pottery in our area has to do with the relatively brief time period pottery was in use, from about 800 to 300 B. P. (Before Present), a mere 500 years out of at least 12,000 years of human presence in Central Texas.

Another, more important consideration involves the kind of societies which inhabited the central and southern regions of our state in prehistoric times; they were composed of small bands of people who subsisted by hunting, fishing, and gathering invertebrates and edible wild plants. This way of life required frequent relocations of the camp site since local resources could be rapidly depleted, even by small numbers of people, in all but the most favorable environments. Long-term storage of seasonally abundant wild foods such as acorns would permit a group to establish permanent camps, but this strategy is not believed to have been practiced in the Central Texas Late Prehistoric period.

The use of pottery by hunter-gathers is unusual but not unique among such societies worldwide. The Andaman Islanders, the Ainu of Japan, and certain Eskimo groups all used pottery to boil food, but their relatively productive environments coupled with an adequate subsistence technology allowed for a more sedentary way of life. In general, the more sedentary the group, the more likely they are to use pottery. Ceramic vessels do offer an efficient way to boil food but are not well suited for hunter-gatherers with a mobile way of life. Why the late prehistoric people of Central Texas even bothered to use this technology--their predecessors did quite nicely for thousands of years without it--remains a mystery.

Artifact collectors who dig ancient campsites without sound archeological techniques and documentation are sometimes referred to as "pot hunters" regardless of the kind of artifacts sought. Recently, pot hunters digging for projectile points on a site on the Llano River near Kingsland actually uncovered about a dozen fragments, or sherds, of a prehistoric ceramic pot. These sherds were passed on to members of the Llano Uplift Archeological Society (LUAS). One of the sherds is now on display at the Kingsland Archeological Center.

pottery1A.jpg (50225 bytes)Although the sherds represent only a very small portion of the original pot, their curvature and surface characteristics allow the tentative reconstruction shown here. Before it was broken and discarded some five to seven centuries ago, it had been a relatively large (four to five liter capacity), red dish vessel, with large gray discolorations or "fire clouds," which are a consequence of the firing process.

The pot was probably globular in shape and had a constricted mouth. This latter characteristic, along with the carefully smoothed and polished exterior surface, suggests the pot was used for carrying or storing liquids or loose solids such as seeds.

Most of the pottery of the Central Texas hunter-gathers was, however, used for cooking and was not as carefully made as the Llano River vessel described here. Our pot does share one very distinguishing trait with other locally made prehistoric pottery: the paste contains abundant particles of crushed bone. Why prehistoric potters would prepare their clay in such a manner will be discussed in the next installment, along with other aspects of the ceramic technology.

Archeologists have known for over sixty years that prehistoric pottery could be found in Central Texas. J. E. Pearce, an early University of Texas anthropologist, was the first to systematically excavate burned rock middens, mostly in the Austin area. In a 1932 article on Central Texas archeology, Pearce included pottery, as well as the bow and arrow, as defining traits of his "Upper Mound Culture." He suggested that this culture represented the influx of agricultural tribes from East Texas who displaced the indigenous Central Texas people. It was popular at the time to explain culture change in terms of migration, and Pearce's theory regarding the origin of the Late Prehistoric in Central Texas is no longer accepted.

On the edge of the Llano Uplift at Fall Creek Falls, WPA excavations in the 1930s led by A. T. Jackson uncovered over one hundred pottery sherds, and confirmed their late appearance in the archeological record (as well as their association with arrow points). Jackson was certain that Central Texas Indians did not make pottery themselves but acquired it from pottery-producing peoples in eastern and coastal regions of Texas. Further analysis of Central Texas archeological collections soon made it clear that, contrary to what Jackson believed, pottery was being made locally.

Texas archeology began to follow national trends in the late 1940's when J. Charles Kelly and others analyzed and categorized previously excavated collections, including one from the Lehmann Rockshelter, located fifteen miles west of Enchanted Rock. This interesting site yielded, in addition to a burial and numerous stone artifacts, a number of pottery sherds with what appeared to be a red coating or slip. Kelly grouped these sherds under the same type name, "Doss Red Ware" in accordance with a classification system developed earlier by Southwestern archeologists. The first part of the type name refers to a nearby geographic feature, in this case the town of Doss, and the second part an important physical characteristic of the pottery. Kelly used the term, "Red Ware" to mean the presumed red slip which covered one side of the sherds.

The Doss Red Ware type name quickly fell out of favor among most archeologists, and all bone tempered pottery from Central Texas is now usually typed as "Leon Plain," as described in An Introductory Handbook of Texas Archeology, by Dee Ann Suhm, Alex Krieger, and Edward Jelks. The "plain" designation indicates that this kind of pottery is undecorated, but in fact, a very small percentage of Leon Plain sherds exhibits some kind of decoration, as the next discussed site reveals. Also, bone-tempered sherds, excavated from a Choke Canyon site were recently reported to have traces of a fugitive, or easily worn, red slip.

Excavations in the 1950's, particularly of rockshelters, by Suhm and Jelks, revealed that Leon Plain pottery was confined to the latter half of the Late Prehistoric (that period of time when arrow points were in general use). This period is now known as the Toyah Phase, and is identifiable by the appearance of the Perdiz arrow point. [Ed. note: Perdiz arrow points, as illustrated below, are available for viewing at the Kingsland Archeological Center.]

The Spencer site, which lies on a terrace above Sandy Creek near the base of Enchanted Rock, has yielded over 250 sherds, two of which appear to be from a non local (i.e. non-Central Texas) pot. These two sherds closely resemble certain Caddoan types in that their exterior surfaces have been roughened by brushing while the vessel was still soft, and their paste has grog (crushed sherd) temper instead of bone. The rest of the sherds appear to come from locally-made pottery in that their paste contains, in addition to crushed bone, minerals common to the Llano Uplift but rarer elsewhere in Central Texas. Many of these local sherds show decoration in the form of incised lines and punctuation's (done while the vessel was soft), techniques common on prehistoric pottery from east and coastal Texas.

The Slab Site on the Llano River near Kingsland, located about one mile below where pot hunters recovered the sherds discussed at the 'opening of this article, was excavated by the Texas Highway Department in the early 1980's. While the site attracted attention for the possible remains of prehistoric dwellings, fifty-two sherds were also recovered, all but one conforming to the Leon Plain type. As at the Spencer Site, these sherds contained a mineral unique to this part of Central Texas and is further evidence of local manufacture. The one non local sherd is from a sand-tempered (not bone-tempered) pot, the origin of which is unknown. Sand-tempered sherds occur sporadically across Central Texas and may represent trade pottery from the coast or even Mogollon region of the Southwest where such temper is more common.

Last year LUAS vice-president Roger Gibson discovered a large sherd on a heavily disturbed site on the shore of Lake LBJ. Rarely is such a large piece of pottery found in Central Texas, and even more rare is the incised and punctuated decoration and "stirrup" handle. The source of this pot can be pinpointed with certainty to Late Prehistoric Caddo villages on the upper Nueches and Angelina Rivers in East Texas. The people who lived in these villages were the immediate ancestors of the Tejas Indians of the Historic Period.

Archeological excavations in the Llano Uplift region have clearly demonstrated that pottery was made and used by the late prehistoric people who resided in this part of Central Texas. A small amount of pottery did enter the Llano Uplift and other parts of Central Texas, primarily from the Caddo people of east Texas and perhaps from regions farther afield.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Charles Hixson of Sunrise Beach is the Archeological Steward in for LUAS in Llano County, as part of a network of volunteers sponsored by the Texas Historical Commission.