Piney Woods (USA): three 15th Century sites left behind by Caddo people

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While expanding an East highway, the Texas Department of Transportation unearthed centuries-old remains of a lost Piney Woods village.

1024x1024 1"The investigation, which includes recovery and processing of artifacts, found on the US 175 Expansion project route is ongoing and therefore we cannot provide pictures of the items," said Kathi White, spokeswoman for TxDOT in Tyler. "The types of items discovered along US 175 are the same types as those in the attached pictures which were found at recent archaeological sites in Frankston and Camp County." Photo: TxDOT

Last week, excavators identified three 15th Century sites left behind by Caddo people, who dwelt in the state's eastern forests until they were killed or driven to Oklahoma in the 1800s. For archaeologists, the discovery presents a rare opportunity to look into Texas' past, which most often is inaccessible on private land.

"These kinds of sites are all over the place. There's probably thousands of them," said archaeologist Tim Perttula, an Austin-based Caddo specialist since 1975. "But they almost never get worked on—only if they're in the path of a development and can't be avoided. That's apparently the case with these sites."

Federal law requires archaeological surveys precede major construction projects in order to prevent the destruction of historical and cultural records. Kathi White, spokeswoman for TxDOT in Tyler, said about one percent of the Department's projects reveal an archaeological site that requires intense excavation.

"These particular sites remain under 24-hour security while the [archaeological] investigation continues," White said. "No light project work will be allowed in the areas where they're doing the site investigations until all work and any necessary mitigation is completed."

TxDOT archaeologists first suspected in January that a road project near Tyler would pass over prehistoric human sites. In May, the department hired an archaeological firm to investigate in depth. The experts determined it was a valuable site, so full-scale excavation began last week and the first artifacts are coming up.

White said they've found broken pots, bowls and bottle, stone tools and arrowheads typical of the Caddo people.

Perttula, who owns the firm Archaeological and Environmental Consultants, LLC, went out to see the sites when they were first identified in winter. He said it was actually identified by researchers with the University of Texas in 1931, but maps were mistakenly plotted and it was lost until rediscovery this year. In spite of the discovery, most of the site will remain unexcavated.

"Anything outside of the [road project's] right-of-way, we don't have any idea what's out there. You can look at the site and see that there's a lot more of it, but it's just going to sit on private property," Perttula said. "What if they're on the edge of the village?"

As law requires, Caddo people came down from Oklahoma to view the site during early excavations. They were the predominant culture of East Texas from about 800 AD to 1838, when they were forcibly removed from the Piney Woods.

"After Texas became a republic [in 1836] they did everything they could to kill every Indian in Texas and get rid of them," Perttula said.

Now the recovered artifacts will be curated at a state facility and a report will be written. The investigation could take several months to a year.

When TxDOT stumbled on the sites, the department was working on an almost 14-mile, $100 million project to U.S. Highway 175 from two to four lanes between the towns of Baxter and Frankston. That project is scheduled for completion in late 2018. White said that because the project is so long, work crews can make progress on other areas while the archaeological sites are excavated, and the recent discovery shouldn't affect the project schedule.