Texas State archaeologist digs up
clues to rock art painters’ lives
By Ann Friou, College of Liberal Arts
The discovery of a large prehistoric earth oven on a ranch in southwest Texas is giving an archaeologist at Texas State University the opportunity to answer questions about the lives of the ancient people who painted the famed rock art along the Texas-Mexico border.
Dr. Stephen Black and students enrolled in Texas State’s Summer Archaeological Field School will spend the month of June excavating the earth oven, on the Ryes ‘N Sons Ranch in Val Verde County, near Comstock. The oven, called a “burned rock midden” by archaeologists, is about three-quarters of a mile from a well-known rock art site. The area is part of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, the name archaeologists give to the rugged, deeply incised canyons formed by the Rio Grande and its major tributaries, the Pecos and Devils Rivers.
Earth ovens are layered arrangements of earth for sheltering the red-hot limestone cobbles used to bake local desert semi-succulent plants such as agave, lechugilla and sotol hearts. The plants were baked for two days to render the complex carbohydrates into edible sugars. Prehistoric peoples—hunter-gatherers whose tribal names have been lost—began baking plants some 7,000 years ago or earlier, a practice that intensified 3,000-4,000 years ago and peaked about 1,000 years ago. (The oldest pictographs in the rockshelters date to 4,000-5,000 years ago). Continue reading