Friday, June 23, 2017

Charnel Structures, Petal Structures and the Disappearing Monongahela Culture

Figure 1

The Monongahela were a Late Prehistoric group of people who lived in the lower Upper Ohio Valley of southwestern Pennsylvania from circa A.D. 1050 - A.D. 1615/35. Many of their settlements were built on bluffs overlooking large river systems while others were hidden away on low terraces adjacent to smaller waterways. The typical Monongahela village can be described as a single or double ring of small round houses (domestic/storage/burial zone). Many of the houses also had a semi-subterranean pit that was free-standing or attached to the wall (Figure 1). Houses were built around an open plaza (communal zone) encircled by one or more gated palisades (defensive zone). An encircling ditch-trench, surrounding the palisade, was used as a convenient place for discarding trash (disposal zone) (Figure 2). Most villages covered an acre or more though some were enormous, approaching  nine acres in size. Village locations were re-used over time as is indicated by overlapping palisades and midden features of accumulated trash at some sites (Figure 3).

Figure 2

Figure 3


               During the 15th century the internal composition of Monongahela villages changed to include a single, larger-than-average, round house, a pattern that over time appears to have moved toward the outermost ring of houses. This type of structure was a place where some of the dead were interred, frequently exceeding more than 10 individuals (Figure 4). These so-called charnel structures may have been reserved principally for individuals, who were perhaps considered prominent members of the community i.e. headmen or others serving special roles or perhaps members of a certain lineage. There was, however, no general preference as to the gender or age of the interred individuals. By the late 16th century houses for the dead disappear from the archaeological record and infants and children are the only classes of individuals being continually interred in the common village household. Adult and elderly Monongahelans were evidently buried elsewhere which marks a defining moment in Monongahela mortuary practices from earlier times.

Figure 4

                Curiously, by the proto-Historic period circa A.D 1550/75 Monongahelans began building large round-shaped buildings with semi-subterranean petal-shaped appendages at some of their settlements (Figure 5). Petal structures, like the smaller size Monongahela households had a centrally placed hearth where residents prepared and processed food. At colder temperatures, the hearth became the sole source of radiating heat both in households and petal structures. The archaeology at these sites suggests that newer petal-structures were often rebuilt on or very near the footprint of older ones thereby demonstrating a desire to reuse the same general locations through time.
Figure 5


The number of appendages associated with petal structures varied widely. For example, at Sony, Throckmorton and the Foley Farm sites, archaeologists found as few as 11 to as many as 24 appendages attached to petal structures. An opening or doorway always appears on the northeast to southeast side of the petal structure. When petal structures were first incorporated into the ring of houses, as at the Throckmorton site, the doorway always faced toward the village plaza (Figure 6). The appendages associated with houses and larger petal structures are recognizably different in that the latter generally had a greater length ratio of nearly 2 to 1.
Figure 6

There is a long-standing assumption by archaeologists that semi-subterranean structural features, whether free standing or otherwise, were used for storage of perishable foods and, no doubt, a resident’s personal effects. The function and purpose of Monongahela petal structures may never be satisfactorily explained since their morphology is generally comparable to Monongahela dwellings. That petal structures abruptly appear in southwestern Pennsylvania at the very end of the Late Prehistoric period when goods of the European trade begin to filter into the region from the eastern coast of North America seems clear from the archaeological evidence. With these changes in village architecture came disease, sickness and often death, to people who had little resistance to biological vectors of calamity.

In summary, it is interesting to note that Monongahela villages grew from small settlements containing a half dozen or so houses to enormous settlements covering many acres followed by a recognizable reduction in village size in the closing years of the Late Prehistoric period with the appearance of petal structures and the disappearance of charnel structures in the Monongahela core area of southwestern Pennsylvania. These archaeologically deduced observations leave us with many unanswered questions regarding the driving forces that forever changed the settlement, community and mortuary patterns of a disappearing people called Monongahela.


We hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the past at the Monongahela peoples who occupied Pennsylvania during prehistoric times and invite you to visit other blogs on TWIPA which discuss the Monongahela.   Understanding and exploring our archaeological heritage is pivotal to our understanding of human behavior and our ability to change and adapt over time- just as the Monongahela peoples did for hundreds of years.


References:

Davis, Christine E. and Amy K. Wilks
1997       Phase III Data Recovery Sony Site, 36WM151, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. A Cultural Resource Management Report prepared for the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corporation.

Dragoo, Don
1955     Excavations at the Johnston Site. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 25(2): 86-141.


            George, Richard L.
1983       The Gnagey Site and the Monongahela Occupation of the Somerset Plateau. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 53(4): 1-92.

Herbstritt, James T.
2003       Foley Farm: The Importance of Architecture and the Demise of the Monongahelans. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 73(1): 8-54.

Mayer-Oakes, William J.
1955       Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley; An Introductory Archaeological Study. Anthropological Series No.2. Annals of the Carnegie Museum.

NPW Consultants, Inc.
1983       Excavations at Two Monongahela Sites: Late Woodland Gensler (36GR63) and Proto-Historic Throckmorton (36GR160). Report submitted to Consolidation Coal Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


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

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Archaeology of Three Mile Island


With Three Mile Island once again in the headlines as of late, what better time could there be than now to share some additional information about the archaeology of the island that hosts the nation’s most infamous nuclear power plant.

Residents of central Pennsylvania (of a certain age) can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they received word about fears of a meltdown at the plant in late March of 1979. Truly a “where were you?" moment in history outdone only by the disasters at Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima. 

Avid followers of TWIPA will recall a previous post thoroughly reviewing the excavation and artifact analysis of the northern-most site on the island, 36Da50, and it can be found here. There have been, over the course of the last 50 years, eight additional archaeological sites registered on Three Mile Island.

First, enjoy a few newpaper clippings and the formal press release from that initial work conducted in 1967 that are now themselves as of this year technically, historic.




 “The Metropolitan Edison Company in developing and creating the Three Mile Island complex made every effort to cooperate with concerned environmental and historical groups. Long before the establishment of State Offices of Historic Preservation or the need for Environmental Impact Statements, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission requested and received from the electric company a grant to examine prehistoric remains on the island and to obtain a sample sufficient to be able to reconstruct its culture history” (Smith 1977)




“The types and relative quantities of lithic artifacts, as well as, the horizontal distribution of ceramic artifacts suggests that Three Mile Island was occupied intermittently by small groups of Early and Middle Woodland peoples utilizing a local fish or animal resource.”(Smith 1977)

The Middle Woodland cord-marked storage vessel seen below was excavated, and ultimately donated by Monroe Brown to the State Museum where it was then reconstructed in the early 1970s. Assigned to site 36Da52, the provenience information indicates it was discovered eroding out of a pit on the southern bank of the island. Generous contributions like Mr. Brown’s go a long way in enhancing our collective understanding of Pennsylvania prehistory.


Sites 36Da96 through 36Da99 were recorded with the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey in 1976 and are attributed to the work of Tom Grace and others. Mr. Grace worked at TMI as GPU Nuclear’s environmental licensing engineer, and for several years, as weather and time would permit, he would hunt for artifacts on undeveloped parcels of the island. His enthusiasm for archaeology and some of his discoveries were highlighted in the fall 1987 edition of GPU Nuclear Today, a periodical published for employees working at the plant and their families. His findings were consistent with earlier work and reinforced ideas about how long people had been occupying the island.




In the 1980s, another employee at TMI, Gary Prinkey, was also scouring the island for artifacts. On one excursion, he uncovered a fragment of a human skull eroding out of the bank of the island. Unsure whether the deceased was a victim of crime, Prinkey notified the State Police. State Museum of PA curator of archaeology Steve Warfel was contacted and investigated the grave site with Trooper John Brown in February of 1988.  The presence of wood fragments and cut nails indicated to Warfel the remnants of a coffin, dispelling any notion of nefarious deeds. Furthermore, vest buttons recovered from the site (36Da101) were identified as a particular type manufactured between 1850 and 1880. Likely an inhabitant farming TMI in the late19th century, their remains were re-interred further inland on the island after analysis.  

In the mid-nineties archaeologists re-identified site 36Da51, the second of three sites originally recorded in 1967, during survey and evaluation work in connection with a proposed fish passage facility on the southeastern side of the island. Phase II work determined that what was initially considered a buried A horizon containing chipping debris, a few sherds of Early/Middle Woodland ceramics and FCR was actually the historic plow zone from 19th century farming activities. The disturbed nature of the soils in the the project area precluded any additional archaeology. 

Finally, the most recent archaeological investigations on TMI were conducted in 2014 in anticipation of a “Nature-like Fishway” construction project on the southwest side of the island. At this site, 36Da100, archaeologists observed stratified and sealed deposits, the earliest of which contained a Thebes projectile point made of jasper. Thebes projectile points are classified as Early Archaic in age and date between 10200 and 11700 years before the present. Due to its potential to contain significant new information, this site has been determined eligible to the National Register of Historic Places. If construction plans cannot be designed to avoid the site, a data recovery effort may be necessary to mitigate adverse effects the project may have on this important cultural resource.


For archaeologists, there’s just no such thing as TMI about TMI.

References:

Franz, D. (2015)
Phase I Archaeological Investigations for the proposed Nature-like Fishway at the York Haven Hydroelectric project. Brockington & Assoc.

Geidel, Richard (1998)
Phase I and II Archaeological Investigations 36Da51 East Channel Fish Passage Facility, Three Mile Island, Dauphin County, PA. KCI Technologies

Smith III, Ira F. (1977)
Early and Middle Woodland Campsites on Three Mile Island, Dauphin County, PA. PHMC

Warfel, Stephen G. (1988) A Report on the Discovery of a Human Skeleton at Three Mile Island, Dauphin County, PA. The State Museum of PA


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

Friday, May 26, 2017

Going Native

The current popular trend for small sustainable gardens filled with heirloom seedlings and native plants is nothing new, it is simply a return to our roots. 

Archaeologists carefully examine the botanical remains recovered during excavation in determining what plants were utilized in the prehistoric and historic landscape. Plants were utilized for medicinal practices and were important in making cordage, basketry and mats.  Seeds and plant fibers recovered in flotation and charred residues on pottery all provide an opportunity to assemble a list of plants, nuts and berries utilized by peoples in the past and assemble a list of food resources.  Several of our previous blogs have addressed the processes for recovering botanicals and their subsequent analysis which has yielded important information on their role in the prehistoric diet.

 Anthropologists consider the ethnographic documentation and the oral traditions or ceremonial practices of native groups in conjunction with this archaeological evidence to enhance our understanding of the use of many of these plants.


 During the Woodland Period (2,900 BP.- 1550 AD) population increases escalated the dependency on the natural resources necessary for survival and as previously addressed on our blog, the development of agriculture during this period as well.   Domestication of native plants such as Chenopodium (lamb’s quarters or goosefoot and other plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex) knotweed and little barley began in the Middle Woodland as tribes had more people to tend the garden and the environment was conducive to horticulture.

Chenopodium

little barley

Ceremonies surrounding the planting or gathering of plants supported the significance of these resources. In Iroquois culture the Thanksgiving address or prayer usually began and ended every ceremony associated with planting or harvesting. The prayer gave thanks to the earth, water, food plants, medicinal plants, trees, animals, fish, birds, winds, sun, moon, stars and the teachers. The appreciation for and understanding of nature and the balance of these elements is important for gardeners and for society in general.  Understanding that your survival is dependent on these resources and respecting and honoring them as valuable was important for native peoples and why many of us today are working to conserve, restore and respect our remaining natural resources. 



There is much to celebrate after a long winter and the coming of fresh plants in the spring and summer had to have been extremely important to native groups as well as early settlers.  Many of the plants native people were consuming are considered weeds today. I think of the dandelion plant which is not native to North America and is the curse of many a landscaper, but is considered a food resource utilized by many.  My grandfather’s dandelion wine was family lore and I recall many a dish of cooked dandelion on their farm table.  The emerging plants of spring and the lunar calendar have guided planting time for many generations and ceremonies such as the Planting Ceremony marked the beginning of the summer growing season.


Timucua Indians preparing land and sowing seeds, engraving by Theodor de Bry from a drawing by Jacques Le Moyne, c. 1564; first published in 1591.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-31869)

)B
The Strawberry ceremony which honors the native species (Fragaria virginiana) in Iroquois culture celebrates the native strawberry, a plant much different than the commercially grown gigantic berries available at the grocery.  The small sweet berry was symbolic of early summer and community gathering. Archaeologically, the strawberry seed is one of the more frequently recovered berries followed later in the season by raspberries.  If you’ve never had wild strawberry jelly, plan to forage fields and hedge rows in early June to gather this delicious fruit.  If this isn’t an option, then plan to attend a local strawberry festival and enjoy the domesticated berries produced locally.

Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca)


No matter how you choose to enjoy the native plants in our landscapes either for their aesthetic beauty, their medicinal benefits or their food resource, we hope you will consider their value and significance on the landscape.  These native plants have survived and adapted to climatic conditions and may be the resource we will turn to in the future as climate change and environmental factors impact our ability to grow food crops.  Help us to preserve the past for the future and leave native plants in their natural habitat, so that they can be enjoyed for many more generations.

Indian Pipe plant (Monotropa uniflora)

Indian Pipe is a woodland plant found in wet, damp areas of the forest. Used as a pain reliever as one of its main constituents is salicylic acid, which is a base for aspirin.
  
Additional Resources

Gladys Tantaquidgcon, Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians, Anthropological Series Number 3, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1995.

Foxfire 2, spring wild plant foods, Anchor books edition:1973.

Dean R. Snow, The Iroquois, Blackwell Publishers, Inc. 1996.

Web sites;


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