Buried City Indian Ruins

from: The Courson Archeological Projects, 1986

One of the best kept archeological projects in Texas is the Buried City Indian Ruins which run for a distance of almost five miles along Wolf Creek Valley in the northeastern Panhandle. The discovery evolved over nine decades and never made the news as new discoveries often do today. The findings at the site are unusual for the high plains area and several new discoveries have been made recently which add to our knowledge of the Indian culture of the region just prior to historic times.

    Kirk Courson, the present owner, was very cooperative in sending information for an update on the recent Texas Archeological Society field school findings from their recent two summers of digging. Work has slowed while the findings are being researched, interpreted, and documented.

    For a good understanding lets start when the site was first discovered and documented.  Dr. T. L. Eyerly, a professor at Canadian Academy in 1907, was told of the site and took one of his classes to investigate what was there.

"...because of peculiarities here is evidence that this small and picturesque plain may be justly considered one of the strategic centers in American Archeology.

Dr. Warren Moorehead; 1931

     Dr. Eyerly later conducted some formal excavations between 1910 and 1912 and selected the name "Buried City" which, after other titles such as "Handly Ruins" and Gould Ruins" faded, is still used today. At the request of Eyerly, Dr. Warren Morehead from the Peabody Foundation of Phillips Academy in Hanover, Massachusetts became interested. World War 1 delayed action until field teams were sent to the site in the summer of 191`7, 1919, and 1920. Fred Sterns of Harvard was conducting archeological studies along the Arkansas River Valley in Kansas at that time and visited Buried City as part of that study.

   The findings were a bit puzzling. The site was not a Plains Pueblo site from the New Mexico Indian cultures and was not typical of the Plains Indian villages.  Morehead wrote in 1931 of his Buried City field work; "...because of peculiarities here is evidence that this small and picturesque plain may be justly considered one of the strategic centers in American Archeology. Apparently all agree that the remains are not Pueblo...yet it is distinctive departure from ordinary Plains or Buffalo cultures as we understand the term."

   Texas put a stone marker on the site in 1936 and the ruins were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The interpretations on this marker no longer represent the consensus opinion of archeologists conducting the excavations sponsored in part by the Courson family. The Texas Archeology Research Laboratory gave the general site the trinomial designation 410C1 and 53 sub-sites have been added and numbered since. Kirk Courson can be contacted at his ranch located on the Buried City Site if someone has a deeper interest in the findings of this archeological project.

   The five miles of dense habitation was built during one of the wetter periods in the region now known as the Panhandle of Texas. The buildings are widely spaced, single room dwellings just under the edge of the caprock escarpment. Along Wolf Creek Valley the geological formation contains an outcropping of the Ogallala aquifer, the water bearing strata which underlines most of the high plains of the United States.  The upper end of the village starts where the Ogallala seepage begins and ends five miles downstream where the water bearing formation becomes covered with silt and sand.  The terraces along Wolfe Creek where buildings were located may have been sub-irrigated during the period of inhabitation, providing excellent conditions for gardening and growth of timber.  This is also indicated by the wide variety of food remains found at the sites during excavations.  

The Buried City Ruin and subsites are believed to represent a new cultural complex not yet identified by archeologists studying Indian Cultures in the southwestern part of the United States.

The ruin which produced the most early interest is a large structure known as the “Temple”; also documented earlier as the Gould Site.  This rectangular building is located at the edge of the creek and one long wall has either eroded into the gully or has been completely destroyed by earlier excavations that were not reported.  The existing wall was approximately 23 meters (55 ft.) long and indicated this was a central gathering place.  There may have been one interior wall separating about one-fourth of the floor space.  The missing wall makes the exact size difficult to estimate but the indicated amount of space could have been 1000 to 1200 square feet, extremely large for Plains Indian villages or any other southwestern Indian culture.  Three fire hearths have been located in the floor of the building, one large one near the center of the structure.  An archeomagnetic dating from clay around the center fire pit was conducted by Colorado State University in 1988, indicating a date from A. D. 1250 to 1375.  The absence of debris, pottery, stone artifacts, and materials typical of the habitation centers also points toward a special purpose for this structure.  More details about the Temple will be given in forthcoming reports from recent excavations.

Typical of the inhabited structures is the Kit Courson House Site (410C43) which was excavated in 1986 and the middle area by the Texas archeological Society field school in 1993.  The house shown in the accompanying sketch is 9 meters long and 7 meters wide (29 x 23 ft.) with a typical east facing tunnel entrance of hard packed dirt.  Some tunnel entrances at other locations were found to be rock lined.  The house had a central clay-lined fire pit about 3 feet deep and 3 feet in diameter with four primary support posts that were up to 19 inches in diameter.  Raised benches extend about 6 feet from the three walls away from the tunnel side.  Numerous small postholes along the walls were the base of a double-pen wicker wall structure with vertical uprights.  Mud daub was found in large quantities around the exterior walls.  The roof material has not been clearly defined although there are numerous grass cutting tools in the artifacts found indicating grass thatched roofs.  About 50 miles west at Lake Meredith, archeologists are finding evidence of yucca-mat thatched roofs.  Either conical or steeply sloping flat grass roofs are possible at the Buried City Site.  

 A smaller additional structure was attached to the south wall.  An exterior activity area for food preparation and material processing yielded several grinding stones, deer antler tine tools, broken pots, and a deer-jaw sickle.  A nearby middle of debris was found and excavated to reveal some everyday life information about the culture.  Much of this is still being analyzed.  The overall impression based on the better quality of pottery found at this site is that it represents a later period of occupation that other structures excavated.  The archeologist in charge, Billy Harrison, believes there may be a much older Woodland culture pit house southeast of the main house at Kit Courson.


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One interesting characteristic of the Buried City ruins is the diversity of the pottery.  Several new kinds were found, one a fingernail-impressed named Courson Pinched, and a wide variety of other previously identified types.  This variety of potteries indicates mixed cultures, a wide trade area, a long period of habitation, or a combination of the three.  

The radiocarbon dates for charcoal at the site are consistent and run from around 1100 to 1500 A. D.

The Buried City Ruin and subsites are believed to represent a new cultural complex not yet identified by archeologists studying Indian Cultures in the southwestern part of the United States.  It will take a period of time to identify and analyze the key traits of a new complex under the categories of architecture, settlement patterns, material culture, chronology, and distribution.  The radiocarbon dates for charcoal at the site are consistent and run from around 1100 to 1500 A. D.  These dates indicate habitation from the early Woodland through the late Village period, just prior to the first appearance of Europeans on the high plains.  The cultures represented are believed to be related to the Wichita tribes of western and central Oklahoma, rather than the Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa tribes of the Plains in historic times.  The Buried City culture may have traded with the New Mexico Pueblo cultures but were not heavily influenced by them in architecture, pottery, tools, or weapons.  

The Buried City is occasionally mentioned when the historians try to reconstruct the source of the Indian myths of the Seven Cities of Cibola and Gran Quivira which attracted the Spanish explorers to Texas in the 1540’s.  Historians and writers have traced Coronado’s route and determined after-the-fact that Gran Quivira was in Roberts county in the northern Panhandle.  No permanent village sites have yet been found in Roberts county but the nearness of the Buried City Ruin gives rise to speculation that this conceivably could have been the basis for the Indian myths of cities of wealth.  Since wealth had no specific meaning to the Indians, their myths may have been based on some fact and some misunderstanding.


 David T. Hughes & Alicia Hughes-Jones
 The Courson Archeological Projects, 1986

  More Information on Buried City



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