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Plateaus and Canyonlands Main
Prehistoric Texas Main

Archaic Pavo Real

overhead photo of burned rock midden
Overhead view of an Archaic burned rock midden (Feature 4) at Pavo Real after initial exposure. The image was taken from a hydraulic lift. Note the irregular shallow depressions with darker soil and a few larger rocks near the center of the photograph and in the central part of the midden. Later excavations would reveal remnants of two large hearths thought to be the heating elements of earth ovens within which roots were baked.
photo of excavations
View of Pavo Real excavations in progress during the investigations of the site's Archaic deposits, summer of 1979.

Click images to enlarge  

photo of unifacial Clear Fork tool
Both faces of a unifacial Clear Fork tool, probably used for wood-working. These have been found in Paleoindian and Early Archaic contexts elsewhere; this one is probably an Early Archaic artifact.
photo of a large thin knife
Both faces of a large, thin knife (biface) made of a dark chert unlike that found at Pavo Real. Date unknown, possibly Late Archaic.
photo of odd tool
Odd looking tool that resembles a miniature version of a "fist axe," a specialized tool type commonly found in Late Archaic contexts in the southern Edwards Plateau.
drawing of plan map of archaic excavation units
Plan map of main Archaic excavation units showing the location of the burned rock midden (4) and most of the hearths. The features are numbered.
photo of crew member sketching
Crew member sketches a partially exposed cluster of burned rocks that may be an irregular hearth. During the Archaic dig, many of the excavations units were not connected to one another. As a result, partially exposed features such as this one were difficult to evaluate.
photo of small hearth
Small hearth (Feature 8) that appears to have a rectangular shape. Most hearths at central Texas Archaic sites are circular to oval in outline shape.
overhead photo of burned rock midden
Overhead view east-southeast of the burned rock midden (Feature 4) after initial exposure. The image was taken from a hydraulic lift. Note the irregular shallow depressions with darker soil and a few larger rocks near the center of the photograph and in the central part of the midden. Later excavations revealed remnants of two large features in this area.
overhead photo of the burned rock midden
This overhead photo of the burned rock midden at the Higgins site clearly shows the dark-stained central cooking pit and the large rocks representing the remains of a large earth oven. Click to see the enlarged view and you will also see that there were two large ovens just outside the midden.
overhead photo of Feature 4B
Overhead view southeast of the lowest exposed portion of Feature 4B. This oval pattern of rock probably represents most of an intact heating element from a sizable earth oven about seven feet in length.
photo of small fragment of charred wood
Archeologist points to a small fragment of charred wood found between the large rocks of Feature 4B, one of the large hearths/earth ovens found in the midden at Pavo Real. The charcoal sample was later dated to about 4,000 years old (2000 B.C.).

The Archaic deposits proved to be shallow—no more than 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) thick and sometimes only half that. The shallow Archaic deposits also contained a mix of artifacts of different ages including dart points perhaps 2000 years old, others perhaps 9,000 years old, and many dating to between these extremes. Unfortunately, artifacts of mixed age were often found together in the same layers. This is because the Archaic deposits formed atop a stable surface to which very, very little sediment was added. Radiocarbon assays from the site and the dart point styles suggest that the Archaic deposits formed intermittently over a span of perhaps 7,000 years, from sometime in the Early Archaic (ca. 7,000 B.C to the latter centuries B.C.).

This means that, roughly speaking, there was a maximum 1 centimeter (about 3/8 of an inch) of deposition for every 100 years of the Archaic occupation span. Of course, most of the deposition must have occurred in erratic spurts separated by lengthy periods of stability and intermittent erosion. Nonetheless, this calculation pretty much sums up the main problem with the Archaic deposits—too much time represented by too little deposition.

The site's Archaic artifacts are similar to those found at many other Archaic sites. The table below shows a breakdown by general category of the Archaic artifacts. Most are pieces of tool-making debris (debitage) or fragments of bifaces (two-sided shaped pieces) that were broken during manufacture before being finished as knives or dart points. Among the projectile points were only three fragments of arrow points dating after A.D. 800 and some 184 dart points dating mainly to the Middle and Late Archaic periods. Because the Archaic artifacts of differing ages were mixed together, there wasn't much that could be learned from them that isn't already known from studies of other sites in the region. Photographs of a few of the site's more unusual Archaic artifacts can be seen in this section.





Flake Tools




Early Stage Bifaces


Late Stage Bifaces


Undiagnostic Dart Points


Diagnostic Dart Points


Arrow Points


Ground/Battered Stone


Total Archaic Artifacts


More informative than the artifacts were the site's features—discrete clusters representing mainly cooking activities. A total of 19 Archaic features was documented at Pavo Real; three were burned rock middens, 15 were individual features (hearths and clusters), and one was a burned tree root.

Of the three burned rock middens, Feature 4 was the main focus of investigation and was found to be an annular (ring-shaped) midden that had remnants of two large hearths (Features 4A and 4B) in its center. Feature 3 was a sheet midden (single layer of rock) within which no internal features were recognized. The other midden was only minimally investigated, so its size and form were not determined.

Most of the smaller features (hearths) occurred around the midden in a small hearth field. Of the 15 individual hearths and burned rock clusters, three partially exposed clusters cannot be confidently classified as hearths. Of the 12 remaining individual features, all are regarded as hearths. Four are small hearths less than 1 m in diameter, 6 are medium hearths having a diameter of 1-1.5 m, and two are large hearths having a diameter of at least 2 m. While the size distinctions are somewhat arbitrary, there do seem to be three distinct size classes of hearths that may have important functional implications.

In the technical report, each of these hearths is described and considered in detail. Frankly, for most we have little to go on apart from their size and shape. Organic materials (like charred plant remains and animal bones) were preserved very poorly, if at all, at Pavo Real. So basically, all that is left are the burned rocks. The accompanying photographs show some of the range of variability. Black thinks that most of the hearths were once part of earth ovens of various sizes.

Significantly, the larger hearths were found near the center of the site's largest burned rock midden, while all those outside the midden were smaller. This pattern suggests that larger amounts of certain kinds of foods (very likely bulbs and roots) were baked in a designated cooking pit around which the midden formed. In contrast, it is obvious that smaller amounts of food were prepared in the smaller hearths. Black speculates that a wider range of foods may have been cooking in the smaller hearths/earth ovens, perhaps including meat and plant foods requiring relatively short cooking times. These ideas will have to be evaluated at other Archaic sites where better preservation conditions prevail and direct evidence of food can be found.

Although charred plant remains were scarce, a few small samples of charred wood were recovered from the burned rock midden, its internal features, and two of the hearths in the surrounding hearth field. Seven radiocarbon dates were obtained. Of these, six (including all four from the midden) formed a tight cluster of dates between about 1900-2400 B.C. The seventh date was about 3500 B.C. and came from one of the hearths. These dates suggest that the main period of Archaic use (or at least the main time during which most of the hot rock cooking was done) was during the Middle Archaic and early part of the Late Archaic.

Anatomy of a Burned Rock Midden

The largest and most complicated feature recorded at Pavo Real is the burned rock midden (BRM) designated as Feature 4. It was also the focus of investigation and better documented than most of the hearths. As the excavations progressed, it became apparent that the overall form of the midden was annular or ring-like, with a central area within which were clusters of large rocks surrounded by a ring made up of densely packed rocks of uniformly small size. Two adjacent remnants of large, circular hearths (Features 4A and 4B) were documented within the central area of Feature 4.

The TxDOT archeologists began the investigation of the midden by exposing much of its surface prior to further excavation. By doing so, they were able to recognize the existence of the internal features, Feature 4A and 4B. In 1979 this was an important discovery because archeologists had not yet realized that most burned rock middens formed around central cooking areas. In part this was because most of us didn't have a very good excavation strategy for investigating middens. And I (Black) should know.

As Pavo Real was being investigated in 1979, I was in charge of the excavation of the Panther Springs Creek site (41BX228) a few miles to the east. We were investigating five middens there and, instead of trying to expose the upper surface of any one of them, we dug through each of them with small excavation pits and narrow backhoe trenches. As a result, we just saw thick layers of jumbled rocks and did not perceive any overall organization to the middens. I am now confident that each of those middens probably had central cooking areas similar to the one found at Pavo Real.

One reason I think this is because in 1993 I also had the opportunity to excavate another burned rock midden at the Higgins site (41BX184) directly across Panther Springs Creek from the site I just mentioned. At the time, I still thought that most middens were just unstructured piles of discarded cooking rocks and that the actual cooking had taken place in hearth fields around middens, but not in them. (I knew about the internal features at Pavo Real, but thought these were the exception to the dominant pattern.) But when we used a Gradall to expose the top of the Higgins midden, we found a dark-stained central pit within which was a large "hearth" quite similar to those found at Pavo Real. Other archeologists have since found similar patterning at dozens of other middens in central Texas.

Back to Pavo Real. The accompanying photographs show why the technique of exposing the entire surface of a midden is an effective way to understand its structure. By laying bare almost the whole accumulation and then selectively removing the smallest rocks from the central area, the distinctive patterns of the two internal "hearths" could be clearly seen. The midden had an overall circular pattern near the center of which was an area pitted by several irregular shallow depressions. In the pitted central area, as compared to surrounding mass of rocks (the ring), the soil between the rocks was darker and there were some very large rocks. Eventually, two partial rings became apparent and it was realized that these were remnants of two large internal features side-by-side within the central area.

The lower part of the central area revealed a more complex situation than was reflected on the midden's upper surface. Feature 4B proved to be an intact oven bed, while most of the larger rocks in Feature 4A formed a crescent shape around a depression that was apparently devoid of larger rocks. Based on the existing records and on experience with other middens, I believe that Features 4A and 4B represent the superimposed, juxtaposed, and mixed remnants of many similarly constructed cooking features built within the center of the midden. Each successive cooking event would have impacted the configuration of the central area, new pits, enlarged pits, rock robbing and reuse, sediment stripping (for earth to seal ovens), etc.

Feature 4 and its internal features are interpreted as the remains of an earth oven facility that was reused dozens of times (but not hundreds) over a period of at least 300-400 years during the Middle Archaic and early Late Archaic. It is a good example of a "classic" central Texas BRM as defined by my colleagues and I in a 1997 study. The two central features suggest that the midden accumulated as the result of the repeated construction of large ovens about 2 meters (6 feet) in diameter with substantial heating elements (beds). No plant or animal remains were recovered apart from a small amount of charcoal from the fuel wood. Nevertheless, based on what has been learned in the last decade from other BRMs in the region, it seems likely that Feature 4 was used to process bulk quantities of some sort of roots or geophytes such as lily family bulbs, sotol, or possibly yucca.

I calculate that Feature 4 could represent about 40 earth oven events. If we assume that the cooking episodes took place over a 300-year span (as suggested by the radiocarbon dates), the midden could have formed as the result of one site visit and earth oven use every 7.5 years. This calculation is mentioned only to make the point that Pavo Real was just one of many convenient stopping places along Leon Creek and so many other stream valleys located a short distance from the places where root foods grew (some grow in stream valleys, others on rocky slopes; both are near Pavo Real). Every so often when plant densities and/or human needs drew people to this spot, another oven or two was built and fired. In other words, small burned rock middens do not imply intensive occupation, nor do they necessarily imply intensive use of a particular resource. They imply a strategy of gathering and baking relatively large batches of food resources (roots and bulbs) that took a lot of time and effort relative to the amount of caloric energy represented by the food.

Why would anyone have gone to such trouble? I suspect the answer is fairly simple: they didn't have much choice. Faced with starvation during the winter and early spring when virtually no other plant foods are available, when hunting was unsuccessful and stored foods were exhausted, Archaic peoples had no recourse but to eat roots. Why, you might ask, didn't they just pick up and move where food was more plentiful? No doubt they did whenever they could, but by Middle Archaic times (about 5,000 years ago) there were lots of hunting and gathering people throughout the region and there was no place left to move to that wasn't already occupied. This simplified explanation is speculative, but it seems to fit the growing body of evidence from Pavo Real and many other sites on and near the Edwards Plateau.

photo of initial test excavations
Initial test excavations underway, May, 1979. Archaic artifacts and burned rocks were exposed on the surface. The area had apparently been cleared and graded in the past, probably removing some of the top few inches of soil.
photo of a bifacial Clear Fork tool
Both faces of a bifacial Clear Fork tool, probably used for wood-working. It probably dates to the Early Archaic.
photo of an asymmetrical knife
Both faces of an asymmetrical knife (biface) that was broken during excavation. Notice that one face is completely white with patination (weathering), while the other face has an unpatinated edge that shows the original color of the artifact. The material is not local. The unpatinated edge indicates the artifact was picked up long after it was originally abandoned and partially resharpened. This sort of recycling was probably a lot more common than archeologists realize.
photo of dart point fragment
"Eccentric" dart point fragment with multiple notches. Artifacts like this are never common and are thought to be practice pieces used by a flint knapper perfecting the difficult technique of creating narrow notches. This style of notching is found on Andice and Bell dart points dating to the early Middle Archaic period (several fragmentary examples of these styles were found at Pavo Real).
photo of partially excavated sheet midden
This partially excavated sheet midden (Feature 3) appeared to be a single layer of burned rocks covering an area at least 4.5 meters (14.6 feet) across. Sheet middens like this one may represent places where several earth ovens were built and dismantled, but were not used long enough for a full-scale midden to form.
photo of medium hearth
Medium hearth (Feature 6) about four feet across after it has been sectioned (removing one half). As this cross-section view shows, the hearth was built on a flat surface. All of the hearths at Pavo Real were built on flat surfaces or placed in shallow basins.
photo of sotol
Sotol (Dasylirion sp.) has a large bulb (head), most of it is fiber. Only the innermost leaves are edible and then only after prolonged baking for up to 48 hours. Yet, prehistoric peoples apparently ate quite a bit of sotol at times, probably because it was one of the few foods reliably available in crisis times—winter/early spring and during droughts. Although no sotol was identified at Pavo Real, it may have been among the plants cooked in the larger hearths within the midden. There are many other species of potentially edible roots and bulbs (geophytes).
overhead photo of feature 4
Overhead view south of central area of Feature 4. The two emerging internal features, both partial rings, are clearly visible. The larger ring toward the bottom of the photograph is Feature 4B, while the smaller ring is Feature 4A. Recent rain made the large upper rocks of the two internal features stand out against the darker, wetter, and smaller rocks of the main midden mass.
photo of burned rock midden
View of the burned rock midden excavations at Pavo Real, looking northwest. Here, a row of excavation units has been dug through the midden in search of earlier Archaic layers. The deeper units cut through the central midden area and the two large internal features. Portions of these are still visible on the right.