The Ernest Witte Site, an aboriginal cemetery, is located on a bluff overlooking the Brazos River in Austin County, about forty miles west of Houston. A low sandy knoll marks its location. In the 1930s Ernest Witte and his brother, then young boys living on a nearby farm, began digging for a treasure that they believed an eccentric uncle had buried in the area. In a deep hole dug into the sandy knoll they found human bones. In 1974 Witte relayed this information to a team of field archeologists from the Texas Archeological Survey of the University of Texas at Austin, which was investigating prehistoric Indian sites on land where the Houston Lighting and Power Company proposed to build the Allens Creek Nuclear Generating Station. The Ernest Witte Site was therefore included in the investigation, which was sponsored by the company. The site is coincidentally located where engineers planned to place one of the reactors for the nuclear plant. Excavations began in 1974 and continued into 1975. The field crew was headed by Grant D. Hall and under the general supervision of David S. Dibble, director of the Texas Archeological Survey.
The site contained the skeletal remains of 238 people buried at various times over a period of more than 4,000 years, from 2700 B.C. to A.D. 1500. Reflecting the gradual accumulation of soil on the site and its periodic use as a burial ground by local prehistoric Indian populations, the burials occurred as four distinct, superimposed groups separated by layers of soil in a deposit with a maximum depth of about eight feet.
The group of skeletons buried deepest in the site, and hence the oldest, contained the remains of an estimated sixty-one people. Radiocarbon assays indicate that these earliest burials occurred between 2700 and 1600 B.C. These Group 1 burials, affiliated with the Middle Archaic Period, thus constitute the oldest human cemetery presently known in Texas. Artifacts were placed in the graves of seven people. A Pedernales dart point and some pencil-shaped bone implements represent the complete array of grave goods for these Middle Archaic burials.
Remains in the next layer were interred in the period from 600 B.C. to A.D. 300. This layer, designated Group 2, contained the skeletal remains of 145 people. Numerous interesting and significant artifacts were placed in the graves of these Late Archaic people. Seventy, or 48 percent, of the burials in Group 2 contained artifacts. Among these were dart points, marine-shell ornaments, corner-tang chert knives, boatstones, a ground-stone gorget, a graphite abrader, red jasper pebbles, ocher, biotite schist, various worked bone artifacts, and deer skulls and antlers. The rocks out of which some of the boatstones and the ground-stone gorget were made originated in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. This fact suggests that the people represented by the Group 2 remains were participants in a far-reaching exchange network. Five of the people in Group 2 apparently died violently, as indicated by chert dart points stuck into their bones.
Above Group 2 was a third layer of burials consisting of ten individuals. Group 3 developed in the period from A.D. 550 to 950. Only one individual in this group had grave inclusions. Scattered about the chest of an adult male were seven chert projectile points.
The final use of the Ernest Witte Site as a cemetery was evidenced by a shallowly buried layer of the skeletons of thirteen people. These Group 4 burials, assigned to the Late Prehistoric Period, were probably interred well after A.D. 1000. No artifacts were found in any of these latest graves on the site.
Development of cemeteries in Middle and Late Archaic times at Allens Creek and elsewhere on the Texas coastal plain has been interpreted as evidence for substantial growth of human populations in the region. As these people were hunters and gatherers who lived off the natural products of the land, it may have become necessary to define territories containing adequate food supplies. Cemeteries may be one way the people had to legitimize their claim to a home range. The exotic artifacts and violent deaths evidenced in Group 2 may also be interpreted as signs of increased population densities in the period. With more people settled across the landscape, lines of communication were better, and material goods could pass from group to group, eventually being transported far from their natural origins. The boatstones, which came from Arkansas, and the marine-shell ornaments found with Group 2 burials at Allens Creek exemplify the results of such an exchange system. The violent deaths in Group 2 may also be symptomatic of more densely settled populations, the theory being that social organizations were not designed to cope with stresses produced as more people attempted to make a living from limited food resources. The greatly reduced body counts and the scarcity of grave inclusions in Groups 3 and 4 may indicate smaller, more mobile populations after A.D. 500.
The artifacts, skeletal remains, notes, photographs, and other data related to investigation of the Ernest Witte Site are curated at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, University of Texas at Austin.