You can walk in the footsteps of the pre-historic people who hunted, gathered, cooked and lived along the Colorado River at the Nightengale Archaeological Center in Kingsland.
“This part of the country was heaven on earth to pre-historic people,” said Patrick Hatten, a member of the Llano Uplift Archeological Society, which is based in Llano and runs the center. Along with plentiful water, says Hatten, they had plenty of wildlife to hunt and some of the best tool-making material around: Edwards chert, or flint, from the Edwards Plateau.
“(The flint) was widely traded, because of its quality,” Hatten explained as he recently conducted a tour of the grounds at the Nightengale Archaeological Center. The center is nestled between the Twin Oaks subdivision and the shores of Lake LBJ on RR 1431 just before the highway climbs up Lookout Mountain and descends into town.
Complete with an air-conditioned building, restrooms, displays and open digs, the facility is owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority. It is operated by society members who give tours to anyone who shows up between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month.
Talented Tour Guide
Hatten is one of the members usually on hand to lend his expertise as he leads visitors along winding, gravel pathways through the wooded acreage along the lakeshore. His excitement for and knowledge of his subject shows as he tells the story of our Hill Country ancestors. When asked about his enthusiasm, he humbly maintains his status as an amateur.
“I’m just a history nut,” he says, before moving on to explain how looters found this site about 25 years ago by spotting smoothed-out indents in the bedrock.
“These bedrock metates are all over the place,” he said, noting that people probably used metates and manos to ground pecans into meal that they then mixed with water. Pecan-meal cakes were cooked on flat stones in stone ovens.
“These are stone-age people. They did everything with rock,” he said.
Neighbors notified authorities about the looters, which is how the area’s importance was first discovered. Archaeologists, both professional and amateur, excavated the site, cataloguing more than 100,000 artifacts. Although it is no longer an active dig, artifacts are still unearthed by rain and animals.
Every piece uncovered is catalogued by its location and sent to the University of Texas at Austin, where it is stored and studied, Hatten said. Researchers value the tools and information for what they can tell us about the past but also about what more we might learn from them in the future.
“We don’t know what kind of new technology might be coming down the road years from now,” Hatten said. “We can get new information.”
For example, when a large site was uncovered near the Kingsland Slab several years ago, archaeologists at first assumed it was a village. In the center was a large hearth with what looked like dozens of smaller hearths surrounding it, all of which would have been covered by grass huts.
A UT professor had developed a method of using Earth’s magnetic field to determine how hot a rock has been heated to in its existence. Called archaeomagnetism, this method was used to discover that the hearth rocks near the Kingsland Slab had been heated to about 750 degrees, a temperature no grass hut would have survived.
“Instead of a village, we had an industrial cooking complex,” Hatten said. “This was a group of ovens. This is why you curate so much material. You can come back and test and completely change your interpretation.”
Hearth stones, metates and manos (the Cuisinarts of the stone age) are not the only artifacts found at the Nightengale site. Spear points, arrowheads and cutting tools have been found in abundance.
Hatten pointed out that the bigger flint points are not actually arrowheads. They are spear points and points used on atlatls. Tiny arrowhead points are only about 1,000 years old, which is when bows and arrows were developed in this area. The larger spear points can date to the time of the mammoths.
Atlatl is an Aztec word for a weapon common to all hunter/gatherers around the world. They were in use 18,000 years ago in Europe and 6,000 years ago here. It is a throwing device that gives the human arm enough power through leverage to pierce the hide of a mammoth at short distances.
“This was the weapon of mass destruction of its time,” Hatten said.
You can learn much more about our pre-historic past with a visit to the site, which you can find by turning into the Twin Oaks subdivision on RR 1431 and following the signs. Call ahead at (830) 598-5261 to make a reservation with a society volunteer. The Llano Uplift Archeological Society meets 7 p.m. the second Wednesday of most months at the center.