Friday, March 13, 2015

Groovin' with stone axes

This week in our alphabetical trip through Pennsylvania archaeology, we have reached the letter “X”; and, to keep it simple, “X” stands for axes, specifically stone axes.

Axes are one of several hafted stone tool types that are differentiated by the angle at which the head is seated. An axe blade or head, is hafted parallel to the handle rather than perpendicular to the handle as in hoes or adzes. There are two basic axe forms; chipped axes and pecked and polished axes. Chipped axes have two opposing notches and the notches were used in the hafting process. They are relatively simple to make and were used during many time periods in prehistory. Ground and polished axes are grooved for securing the head to the handle. A full grooved axe has a groove that encircles the entire piece. On the ¾ grooved axes, the groove does not extend to the bottom side.

chipped axe

sketch of full grooved axe

sketch of 3/4 grooved axe

Ground and polished axes frequently start out as river cobbles that were chosen for their general size and shape. Metamorphosed siltstone or sandstone, basalt or diabase was frequently used and sometimes quartzite. Depending on the degree of stone that needed to be removed to reach the desired shape, axes are first chipped to remove excess material or if only a small amount of material needs to be removed, they are pecked into shape. The pecking process involves using a stone hammer and repeatedly but carefully striking the axe blank, removing small pieces of the surface. The groove formed early in the manufacturing process. Once the entire surface was pecked to the desired shape, the axe blank was rubbed on a piece of sandstone to smooth the surface. Although not found in Pennsylvania, special axe grinding slabs have been found in the western United States. In order to attain a very high polish, the final rubbing takes place on a charred piece of wood.  

groove started on an axe blank

Full grooved and ¾ grooved axes were hafted slightly differently as can be observed in the figure below. The functional differences, however, are not clear. In addition, sometimes the groove is bordered by a ridge on one or both sides and sometime there is a double groove. It is assumed that this was part of the hafting method but again, the functional differences are not clear. Depending on the hardness of the stone, the manufacturing process for a full grooved and completely polished axe required 30 to 60 hours of work.

sketch of hafted axes

finished full groove axe

finished 3/4 grooved axe

double grooved axe

Axes were sharpened by simply grinding down the bit end as it became worn. Most of the axes in The State Museum collection are broken or worn down, nearing the end of their use life. However, some are very large (see below) and some of the unfinished pieces are extremely heavy weighing 4445 gr or 10 pounds and measuring 39 cm or 15 inches in length.

large finished full grooved axe

longest axe

 heaviest axe

Native Americans have been using axes to cut wood ever since they arrived in North America. However, during the Paleoindian period (11,700 - 20,000 BP.) they are neither notched or polished and difficult to identify unless systematic microwear studies are conducted. It is not until the Middle Archaic period (6850 – 10,200 BP.) that ground and polished axes are produced. Full grooved axes are the earliest and ¾ grooved axes do not appear until the (Late Archaic 4850 – 6850 BP.) and become common during the Transitional period (2800 – 4850 BP.).

            The State Museum is initiating an inventory and preliminary analysis of its unprovenienced collection of grooved and chipped stone axes. This group of artifacts was received as part of various donated collections such as those from Gerald Fenstermaker and Samuel Farver and are not located by specific site. They are primarily from eastern Pennsylvania and mainly the Susquehanna drainage basin. Up until a month ago, they were stored in boxes and underutilized. For exhibit or research purposes, we didn’t know what we had unless we inventoried and catalogued all 54 boxes. Our goal is to make a list of all that we have, catalogue them by type and take some basic measurements to determine variations in size, breakage patterns, how they were made and the lithic materials that were used. Our intern this semester, Tamara Eichelberger from Elizabethtown College, has volunteered to process the collection. Although they had been washed sometime in the past, over 40 years of dust had accumulated so they needed to be wiped clean. Since each will be measured and entered into a data base, each needs an individual catalogue and specimen number. With the help of volunteers, Tamara is completing the labeling process and will begin taking measurements next week. There are over 500 specimens in the collection so she should be able to develop a good characterization of axes from eastern Pennsylvania. The results of her analysis will be the subject of a blog in early May.

Tam and her axes

Additional reading

Adams Jenny L.

2014    Ground Stone Analysis: A Technological Approach. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. 

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, February 27, 2015

Archaeology on the World Wide Web

In the almost 25 years since the creation of the first website a  lot of technical changes have occurred and we have evolved from one site to over a billion sites. Obviously there is a lot of information available on the web, and weeding out the accurate from the inaccurate can sometimes be overwhelming.  Today, we’d like to direct you to the web site for the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and more specifically to the Archaeology Page.

Recently, the State Museum’s Section of Archaeology has been actively improving its website. Our goal to share resources through our current site has proven difficult. In the next few months significant structural changes will be made, and, if all goes well, a more navigable and useful website will emerge. Since many of the biggest changes are yet to come, we will take you on a tour of the best resources currently available on our website.

Section of Archaeology website

 In an effort to keep visitors up to date on future events, our archaeology calendar has been updated. One upcoming event is the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology’s annual meeting April 10-11, 2015 in Bethlehem, PA. Our Archaeology Publications page has also been updated; here you can find information on upcoming and recent publications, download our archaeology brochures, and more.
You may have visited the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at the State Museum in Harrisburg, but have you ever considered the items that are not on display? Our exhibits represent only a fraction of our total collections. The collections summary page on our website has information on notable prehistoric and historic artifacts curated by the State Museum (there are over 6.5 million items in our collections). Researchers have utilized this incredible resource to produce magazine and journal articles as well as completing Master’s and doctorate degrees.

Pennsylvania has a rich archaeological history, and educating the public about the past is a primary goal. The Section of Archaeology’s website contains a wealth of information, with a focus on Pennsylvania prehistory.

Check out the Native American Archaeology section for overviews of each of the prehistoric periods in Pennsylvania’s archaeological record. These sections have been recently revised and updated to reflect our current understanding of Pennsylvania’s first peoples.

Transitional Period painting by Nancy Bishop

Archaeology conducted during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal continues to play a role in our understanding of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. Our website hosts an entire section outlining excavations during this time in America’s history. These pages contain a wealth of information on excavations, artifacts, and current research as well as photographs of the men who conducted the excavations.

From the arrival of the first Europeans to a rich military history to agriculture and industry; historic archaeology plays an important role in understanding Pennsylvania’s history. Visit our pages on early settlement, military, canal, agricultural, and industrial archaeology to learn more about historical archaeology in the Commonwealth.

Greenwood Furnace, PHMC Collections

Ways for you to get involved with the State Museum’s Section of Archaeology will soon be organized into a series of pages aptly titled “Get Involved”. These pages will contain information on recording archaeological sites, avocational archaeology, as well as volunteer and internship opportunities with The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Professional resources, such as guidelines and policies, instructions for using the Cultural Resources Management Reports Database, and information on using our collections will continue to grow as our website is improved.

Within our education pages, two school curriculums are available for teachers of grades four through eight. For additional educational, archaeological, and PHMC resources, visit our resource list.
Pennsylvania’s history is our history, and the responsibility falls on us to educate the public about archaeology, and the Section of Archaeology’s website is one of the many ways in which we share these resources.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Value of Archaeology

The subject of archaeology often produces “oohs & aahs” of intrigue from people, after all it is the science or study of past human activity via material culture (everyday objects) and their discovery context (the position / place the artifact was found).  As humans we are inherently interested in where we came from.  Consider the blockbusters Hollywood has created, invoking the romantic idea of what archaeology is, even if it’s not exactly accurate…

People have been living in Pennsylvania for ~19,000 years.  The written record of Pennsylvania, on the other hand, has only been available for a fraction of that time, less than 500 years.  Were it not for the scientific excavation and recordation of more than 23,000 sites in Pennsylvania, we would know little about our earliest residents; how they lived or how their modes of survival evolved through time.  As an example, we know that climate changes overtime and because we cannot control it we must adapt to it.  
Implications for the 21st Century
Implications for the 21st Century

Climate Change was the theme for our 2014 Workshops in Archaeology and our 2015 Farm Show Exhibit.  By looking at the strategies that humans of the past adopted we are able to better prepare for our future. 

Among the many functions we, as archaeologists, serve in the Section of Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania is interpreting the importance and value of the extensive archaeological resources our commonwealth has to offer.  We do this through a variety of means: public outreach, field research, maintenance and updates to the anthropology and archaeology gallery at The State Museum, assisting researchers with the examination of our collections and using existing collections to investigate various research problems, as well as serving as the principal repository for collections obtained through Pennsylvania’s cultural resource management (CRM) projects.  As such we are responsible for the care and curation of over six million artifacts representing the entire span of human occupation in Pennsylvania.  We use all of these methods in an effort to demonstrate how archaeology teaches us about human endurance, resourcefulness and ingenuity.

Unlike our cinematic icon, Indiana Jones “destroying every temple he enters” we realize that archaeological sites are non-renewable resources.  This means that when they are destroyed by construction, neglect or for whatever reason, they are gone forever.  The simple economic concept of supply and demand assigns value to things in short supply.  Therefore the limited nature of sites, the fact that there will not be any more Paleo-Indian sites or Susquehannock sites created means that every one of them is valuable due to its scarcity.  Each has the potential to teach us something new that if the site is destroyed or unscrupulously excavated could be lost permanently. 

This simple post barely scratches the surface of the ways archaeology has enriched our lives but hopefully it leaves you intrigued enough to learn more.  If you are interested in reading more about the value of archaeology please visit our website and peruse our past blogs.  They contain a wealth of information about all aspects of archaeology and what we do here at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .