Caddo thatched house in the works

Courtesy A portion of a mural on display at the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site in Alto shows Caddo Indians migrating from the upper Red River area to the Neches River valley, and building a Caddo house.



An effort to build a Caddo house on an East Texas historic site is underway.

The Friends of the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site are working to raise money to build a grass-thatched, beehive shaped house in the style of the ones the Native Americans would have lived in when they were in this area.

Although a house has existed at two points during the site's history, there hasn't been one at the location in any long-term period since the mid-1990s.

"It would be a good interpretive tool," site manager Tony Souther said. "It would just be one more object on the grounds that could be used to interpret the life of the Caddo that had once lived here."

The Caddo selected what is now the Alto area for a permanent settlement in 800 and dominated the life in the region for about 500 years, according to the state historic site website.

The present-day historic site, which is on Texas Highway 21 West in Alto, was home to a replica Caddo house from 1981 to the mid-1990s.

But after 15 years it deteriorated beyond repair, so the decision was made to burn it ceremonially per Caddo custom.

Souther said they invited Caddo from several states to attend the ceremony. Organizers put pottery, arrow points and woven baskets inside the house before they burned it.

The idea was that if archaeologists wanted to investigate the site later they could.

Souther said there has been at least one attempt to build a Caddo house at the site after the destruction of the longtime replica, but the house was not well-built and did not last long before the poles cracked and it became unserviceable.

Souther said building another replica has been a goal of his since he was hired as site manager, a position he took on in 2012.


Building the House

Dr. Timothy K. Perttula, manager of archaeological and environmental consultants LLC, said most Caddo houses in East Texas were circular, but there also were rectangular and square shaped houses.

"Some of the differences may have something to do with use as domestic or special purpose buildings, as well as changes over time in house styles," Perttula said in an email. "In other parts of the Caddo area, domestic houses were mainly square."

Houses were built using wooden poles for the center post and wall posts, grass and cane for the walls and roof, and leather lashings.

The Caddo likely used wood sticks and leather lashings to construct storage racks and platforms inside the house, Perttula said.

Although men likely took the lead in getting the wood posts, women and children likely helped build the houses as well, Perttula said. A house could be built in as little time as one day if the community worked together to build it.

To build the houses, the Caddo excavated holes so they could install the central post and surrounding wall posts.

Once complete, a builder would work "from the center post to draw the flexible tops of the wall posts" toward the house's center, where the builder tied them to each other. The builders then cut out and removed the center post, Perttula said.

The walls and roof were made from grass sheaves or cane with a smoke hole sometimes cut from the house's top. The builders created an entrance area on one side of the house.

Perttula said this style of house created several benefits. It sheltered occupants from the elements, provided a strong social bonding for its inhabitants and could be quickly heated with a central hearth. In addition, it protected people from rodents and insects.

Some of the drawbacks included problems with leaking and a short lifespan — the structures typically lasted no longer than 20 years because the wood and grass would rot.

Houses ranged in size from 20 to 30 feet in diameter for one or more families and up to 40 feet in diameter for a priest or chief, Perttula said. One house could have as many as 20 people living inside.

Inside, the houses typically had a clay-lined central hearth, sleeping platforms, below-ground pits for storage and/or trash disposal and shelves near the ceiling for food storage racks, among other things, Perttula said.


Making a Replica

Souther said archaeologists and students worked on the first Caddo house that was on site for 15 years. They determined what tools likely would have been used during the time the Caddo lived in East Texas, made those and built it with those.

However, Souther said that will not be the case this time around. In this effort, the plan is for the builder/s to use the materials the Caddo did but not the tools.

The construction of a replica is dependent upon raising enough funds to pay for the building of it.

The Friends of the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site is the group working to raise the money.

Souther said several people and entities have volunteered to donate materials and labor, but he estimates the construction still could cost $15,000.

This is because the funds have to pay for the knowledge, labor, lodging and meals of one or more Caddo Indians who likely will supervise a volunteer work crew and do hands-on work.

Souther said he would love to see the house constructed within the next two years.

The site already is undergoing a renovation to its museum. Once complete, that renovation will double the exhibit floor space, offer a classroom environment, which was nonexistent before and provide a covered picnic area that could be used for outdoor programs.

These changes will move the site away from being an object-based museum and toward being a museum that provides information about the daily lives of the Caddo, "how they lived, how they hunted, (the religious), social and culture aspects of their lives," Souther said.

The addition of a Caddo house would add to the story already being told through the existing means, which include burial, temple and ceremonial mounds on site.

"To be able to interpret (a) Caddo structure, (a) Caddo house at the site would enhance the visitors experience here," Souther said.



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