The Developing Tales of Sayles Adobe

By Victoria Pagano


E.B. Sayles 1932 sketch map of Eagle Nest Canyon.  Note the area labeled “Sandy Adobe.” Courtesy Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, UT Austin.

Tori here, former 2015 ASWT intern and current Texas State anthropology graduate student. This season I am back leading excavations at the Sayles Adobe site as I collect data for my master’s thesis.

The terrace site of Sayles Adobe (41VV2239) sits just within the mouth of Eagle Nest Canyon (ENC), a short distance up the canyon from its confluence  with the Rio Grande. On E.B. Sayles’ 1932 sketch map of the canyon the site area is indicated as “sandy adobe,” with no mention of cultural material. Apparently, it was considered to be just a natural terrace formation.


1958 photographs showing the site area looking toward the mouth of the canyon (above);  Skiles Shelter as viewed while standing on Sayles’ “sandy adobe” (below). Courtesy Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, UT-Austin.



During the Ancient Southwest Texas Project’s 2014 field season, the massive June 21st flood (see The Canyon Runs Deep) deposited a thick layer of flotsam atop the back dirt pile for the Skiles Shelter excavations. In order to finish filling in the open excavation units, the crew decided to take fill  from the alluvial terrace deposit nearby. This seemed like a good choice until the crew encountered fire-cracked rocks (FCR) about a meter below a thick bed of sandy Rio Grande alluvium. Digging stopped immediately and the area remained untouched (by archaeologists) until late 2015.



And so it begins..

In December 2015, a crew of five: Drs. Steve Black and Charles Frederick, Charles Koenig, Amanda Castaneda, and myself, carried out a three-day reconnaissance of the alluvial terrace and 2014 borrow pit with the idea that this as-yet-unrecorded site might make a good thesis research project.


Discovery borrow pit, pre-clearing and post-clearing, December, 2015.

My initial observations were limited.  It was clear that the locality was an alluvial terrace and that the burned rocks that the 2014 crew had encountered were not likely just discard washing down from Skiles Shelter. But vegetation across the terrace made any sort of determination on the full extent of the site difficult. We cleared just enough vegetation to get a better idea about the morphology of the terrace. The most promising formation model is that large limestone boulders in the canyon bottom and the canyon wall created a catchment for alluvial sediment during back flooding from the Rio Grande. Repeat flood deposits created an open terrace just a few meters downstream from


Current views of Sayles Adobe from the canyon rim looking toward the mouth of the canyon (above) and (below) the large boulders in the canyon bottom that seem to have formed a massive sediment trap. Skiles Shelter that could be used for certain activities between deposition events. This formation process would make Sayles Adobe a bit different in comparison to other investigated terraces in the Lower Pecos.

During this visit we worked to clear vegetation from and around the initial exposure to facilitate testing at the site. A quick surface reconnaissance (mostly on hands and knees) revealed scattered FCR on the surface at multiple locations across the terrace. Frederick and I cleaned and squared off two exposed faces of the borrow pit to examine the stratigraphy. I soon discovered a thin, compact layer of very fine silt, directly above (covering) several burned rocks amid carbon-stained matrix. Frederick recognized the silt layer as a flood (mud) drape.  The stratigraphic sequence looked very promising.




Extent of the flood drape exposure at the end of the December 2015 visit. You can clearly see the color and textural changes.  From top to bottom: light brown sandy loam, tan silt flood drape, and burned rock and carbon-stained matrix below.


Understanding the Geoarcheaology of the Canyon

The excavation and analysis of Sayles Adobe is being conducted as part of my Master’s thesis research in order to reconstruct and understand the natural formation of the terrace and document the prehistoric uses of the locale. I hope to be able to address four main research questions:

  • What is the nature and timing of flood events during the human history at Sayles Adobe?
  • What can the Sayles Adobe terrace deposits tell us about the climatic and environmental conditions at the time the formed?
  • Do flood deposits at Sayles Adobe correlate to other flood deposits seen in shelters in the canyon?
  • How do site use behaviors seen at Sayles Adobe relate to other sites in the canyon?

The primary focus of our excavations will be to collect data aimed towards the cultural and natural formation processes witnessed at the Sayles Adobe terrace. This will form the foundation for my interpretation and analysis of behavioral patterns witnessed at the site.  The cultural materials and geoarchaeological samples will be analyzed and compared to the other sites within Eagle Nest Canyon.

2016 Sayles Adobe Investigations

Our first session focused on testing the Borrow Pit area that was exposed in 2014 and cleaned up in December 2015. During this time myself, Spencer Lodge, and Kelton Meyer, worked to carefully peel away the mud drape in the north to south profile (PS01) and reveal as much stratigraphy as we could.


The mud drape could easily be “peeled” off in chunks from the charcoal stained sediment below.


Annotated Profile Section 01 (PS01).










To add greater resolution to the Sayles Adobe tale, Tiffany Osburn of the Texas Historical Commission visited Sayles and carried out a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey across the terrace. Using two different range antennas, she made multiple passes in a grid and in transects to provide us with an idea of what might be under the surface that we wouldn’t know without completely excavating the site. The GPR results  will aid in the interpretation of (and guide) further excavations at the site.

A priority of our second session at the site was to continue work in the Borrow Pit area. The ultimate goal of the work here is to create a deep profile that can be used to document and sample the natural and cultural stratigraphy of the site.

Sayles 400 Annotated

Partially annotated results of the 270Hz GPR survey. Courtesy of Tiffany Osburn.

Using GPR data, we began working to ground-truth these results by conducting bucket auger tests that reach up to 3m deep along the East-West and North-South axis of the site.  (More on our auger testing in a few weeks, when intern Justin Ayers takes on the Sayles auger survey).


Ongoing investigations at Sayles Adobe.

Some readers might ask, why even bother with a site like Sayles Adobe in a canyon that has such culturally rich rockshelters?  In comparison to those sites, Sayles may seem like a pipsqueak with not much to offer.  But, in truth Sayles is no less exciting or enriching than the sheltered sites. Sayles provides an opportunity to see what other activities were taking place in Eagle Nest Canyon that we can’t see in the shelters or along the canyon rim.  Our initial work shows that we have at least one sealed cultural layer that has not been disturbed by later occupation. In contrast, hunter-gatherers returned to the rockshelters time and time again, with the remains of each visit co-mingled with that of the last and mixed through pit digging, plant baking, and many other activities. As ASWT has documented in high resolution, the rockshelters have palimpsest deposits with complicated stratigraphy and few, if any, expansive areas of sealed cultural deposits.  Sayles Adobe has the potential to add a new level of understanding to human behaviors and natural formation processes of deposits in the canyon.

Our goal isn’t just to put together a chronology of the use of the canyon over the past few thousand years, it is to weave together an understanding of the people and the natural world in which they lived.  Stay tuned for further developments.


A Sabinal arrow point has just come to light about 10 cm below the flood drape.

2 thoughts on “The Developing Tales of Sayles Adobe

  1. Pingback: Journey to the Center of Sayles – Ancient Southwest Texas Project – Texas State University

  2. Pingback: 2017 ENC Expedition: The Final Chapter – Ancient Southwest Texas Project – Texas State University

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