Harris County Boys School Site

By: Lawrence E. Aten

Type: General Entry

Published: January 1, 1995

Updated: February 22, 2017

The Harris County Boys School Site, named for a home for dependent and delinquent boys that operated at the site until 1936, is located near the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, twenty-one miles southeast of downtown Houston and just north of Clear Lake, on a western extension of the Galveston Bay estuary. The site consists of a midden composed primarily of clam and oyster shells as well as other domestic refuse discarded by prehistoric Indians who lived on the upper Texas coast. More recent prehistoric Indians used part of the midden as a cemetery.

Originally the site was 130 meters long, thirty meters in maximum width, and about one meter thick. It was first recorded in 1968, and further excavations were carried out between 1969 and 1972 by archeologists from the University of Texas at Austin and volunteers, primarily members of the Houston Archeological Society. Although the northern half of the site was destroyed by construction work in 1972, the remaining part contains extensive archeological deposits dating to the first and second millenia B.C.

The site consists of two major cultural units. The earliest was an extensive accumulation of domestic shell-midden refuse resulting from intermittent use of the location as a campsite as early as 3,500 years ago. This is the earliest record of the use of estuarine resources by prehistoric Indians yet known from the Texas coast. Although earlier use of coastal resources probably occurred, evidence of it has either been destroyed or was buried under water and sediment after sea level rose following the last major glacial period.

Intermittent use of the Boys School site as a camp continued from approximately 1500 B.C. until about A.D. 500. During the first few centuries camping occurred during late summer; later, after about 1000 B.C., camping occurred consistently during the late spring season; the difference indicates a change in the Indians' schedule to reach the location to fish, hunt, and gather food and other materials. The technology used by Indians at the site also changed over the time the site was inhabited. Throughout most of the history shown by the site, chipped stone projectile points, knives, scrapers, and drills were used. These have been preserved. Relatively late, bone tools (awls, flakers, and projectile points) were found. Pottery came to be used only at the very end of the site's occupation as a camp. No other tool types were found.

The second major cultural unit was the prehistoric cemetery. Use of the site for burial purposes began around A.D. 600 and continued until about 950. Burials probably occurred during the late spring, since that was the season in which this part of the Galveston Bay area was then being visited by Indians. During 3½ centuries, thirty-two men, women, and children were interred. The nutritional and health status of these individuals generally was good insofar as this is indicated by their bones. There were limited instances of arthritis, dental abscesses and cavities, healed broken bones, and bone infections. Particularly interesting was one adult male whose right arm and leg had atrophied as a result of some paralytic condition.

The cemetery exhibited important cultural characteristics. All burials had been made relatively shortly after the death of the individual and without any specialized intermediate treatments such as cremation, dismemberment, or defleshing. Each grave contained only a single body, although graves frequently were cut into and disturbed by the digging of later graves. This suggests that burials were made infrequently and that grave locations were forgotten in the interim. By contrast, there are winter season cemeteries known in the Galveston Bay region where burials during this more stressful time apparently had to be made frequently; these winter cemeteries do not have intersecting graves, and more than one body was often placed in the same grave pit. Nearly three-fourths of the burials at the Boys School site were placed with their heads pointing toward the east; the rest pointed toward the west. Such body orientation was a common symbol usually reflecting the use of cardinal directions as structural devices in native myths, folk tales, and religious beliefs. Artifacts were placed with twelve of the burials. They included shell beads and pendants, bone fishhooks, awls, dice, flutes, and red ochre. Most burials, however, had no grave goods of any kind associated with them. Culturally, these burials reflect the archeological assemblage known as the Turtle Bay Period, whose populations very likely were ancestral to the Orcoquisa Indians known from the historic period in the Galveston Bay area.

The Harris County Boys School Site remains an important locality in Texas for investigating the history of cultures and environments as these coexisted and evolved on the upper coast. The collections and records from excavation of the site are curated at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory on the J. J. Pickle Research Campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

Lawrence E. Aten, Charles K. Chandler, Al B. Wesolowsky and Robert M. Malina, Excavations at the Harris County Boys' School Cemetery: Analysis of Galveston Bay Area Mortuary Practices (Texas Archeological Society Special Publication 3, Austin, 1976). Lawrence E. Aten, Indians of the Upper Texas Coast (New York: Academic Press, 1983).

  • Archeology
  • Land Sites
Time Periods:
  • Prehistory
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Lawrence E. Aten, “Harris County Boys School Site,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 06, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/harris-county-boys-school-site.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

January 1, 1995
February 22, 2017

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: