Friday, September 14, 2018

A report by our summer intern on her experience in the Section of Archaeology

This week’s blog comes to you from our college intern this past summer. Working two to three days a week, she processed a huge amount of data and gained practical experience in the analysis of lithic artifacts. She was a quick learner and we enjoyed her stay.

My name is Alaina Helm. I am a sophomore at Oberlin College, and planning to major in Archaeological Studies and Geology. Over the summer, I volunteered with the State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology. I have been fascinated with anthropology and archaeology for as long as I can remember, dragging my family through natural history museums whenever the opportunity arose. As the spring semester drew to a close, I wanted to do something productive and educational over the summer, so I contacted the museum, where I was welcomed and given the wonderful opportunity to learn about the cataloging, processing, and analysis of archaeological artifacts.

Alaina Helm and Dr. Kurt Carr examining lithic material from Kings Quarry (36Lh2)

Most of my time at the museum was spent analyzing stone or lithic artifacts systematically surface collected in three-meter squares from a jasper quarry site in Lehigh County called Kings Quarry (36Lh2). The artifacts were mainly the chips from the making of stone tools rather than the tools themselves. While at first glance the lithics may appear to be regular rocks, at closer inspection you can identify signs of production or how they were made. Evidence of reduction with differing types of percussion instruments such as hammerstones or antler batons reflect all stages of tool making – from the harvesting of raw material from the quarry to the retouching of edges on already formed tools.

 Closely examining a piece of flaked jasper

Under the Direction of Dr. Kurt Carr, I learned to recognize types of percussion and predict the stage of production of a given artifact. After first sorting through a group of artifacts to sort out pieces showing signs of utilization or containing an intact striking platform, I would go through each artifact with an intact platform to determine if they were entire or proximal (broken). I could then determine what type of bulb of percussion was present, the angle of the platform, whether the platform had been ground or flaked, number of flake scars, amount of cortex material, and amount of thermal alteration. After recording each of those pieces of information, I would then make a judgement as to what stage of production likely created the piece and record that too. Sorting through over 7000 pieces, I was able to garner a comparison over different parts of the site to determine if certain types of production activities were occurring in specific areas.  I used an excel spread sheet to record all my data which enabled me to produce analytical graphs for each excavation unit.  These graphs allowed the areas to be compared to each other to determine the location of different types of reduction activities. One of our initial conclusions is that almost 90% of the tools and utilized flakes came two excavation units and these were correlated with a previously discovered fluted point. This suggests a Paleoindian occupation.

A pie chart showing each type of lithic material from Kings Quarry (36Lh2)

 I also spent some time helping to wash and process artifacts in the lab towards the beginning of the summer, a fundamental process for curation. Towards the end of the summer, I also worked on inventorying a collection of artifacts related to the Sheep Rock Shelter (36Hu1) recently donated to the museum.

Alaina showing off a piece of flaked jasper she analyzed

Prior to working with the Section of Archaeology I had very little experience studying and identifying lithic materials. Working with the state museum staff, I learned to identify the different aspects of knapping and the tool making techniques. Sorting through what sometimes felt like mountains of jasper, I learned to identify reduction methods utilized by Pennsylvania natives long ago. Although the summer has ended, and the next semester will begin shortly, only a portion of the surface collection was analyzed. I hope that in the future, analysis of the collection can be completed, and if I get the chance whenever I am next home in Pennsylvania, I would enjoy resuming the project.

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

Friday, August 31, 2018

2018 Fort Hunter Excavations

It’s that time of year again! No, not time for everything pumpkin spice. It’s time to gear up for the annual archaeological dig at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, just north of Harrisburg. For the last 11 years, the Section of Archaeology of the State Museum of Pennsylvania has explored the Fort Hunter property in search of remains of the French and Indian War fort that once was located there. We have found many clues to the presence of the fort, including a cannonball, numerous military items, and a possible bake oven; but, not the fort itself. However, we know from research that the fort was in existence for only seven to eight years out of the nearly 300 years of historic occupation of this site and we have uncovered artifacts that tell us much about the other residents of this property. Not to mention the thousands of years of occupation by Native Americans.  Many of the TWIPA blog posts have dealt with the various Fort Hunter finds and you can access these by typing Fort Hunter into the “Search” box on the blog page.

The 2017 dig season focused on fully uncovering the stone foundation of what we believe to be a smokehouse from the early 1800s and reopening the block excavation behind the kitchen addition of the Mansion house that we investigated in 2016. The foundations of the smokehouse, an octagonal structure in which meats were smoked to preserve them, were carefully excavated to try to determine how it was constructed and to recover any artifacts that might have been associated with it to aid in its interpretation. As the foundation stones were removed, samples of rock and soil in the bottom of the smokehouse were taken to conduct further analyses. Following the mapping and removal of all the stones, this area was backfilled.

Area of the smokehouse foundation partially removed 

Come out and see what we find! This is an opportunity to learn about this important historic site and embrace our Commonwealth’s heritage. Artifacts will be on display and archaeologists will be on hand Monday-Friday, 9am-4:30pm (weather permitting) to answer questions about the site and how field archaeology is conducted. In addition to weekdays, excavation will take place on Fort Hunter Day on Sunday, September 16, 2018. Excavations will close for the year on October 5, 2018. 
 Excavations of the foundation revealed clues to its construction, including how the builder’s trench was dug and how the stones were fitted together without mortar to form a strong base for the wooden superstructure. Some stones that were removed even appeared to have been shaped with steel tools so that they fit together better, creating a stronger foundation.

Smokehouse foundation, partially removed, showing the builder’s trench

Stones removed from the smokehouse foundation that were shaped with tools to fit tightly together

The block excavation in the rear of the kitchen addition had been filled in following the 2016 excavations but was reopened last year because of the discovery of some interesting artifacts from the 1700s. Although 2017 excavations in this area did not end up producing much in the way of fort-related artifacts, some exciting finds were made. A ground surface believed to be the original surface during prehistoric time periods was found roughly 2 feet below the current ground level. This surface, called a buried A-horizon (a dark-colored, heavily organic soil), was covered by years of natural and manmade (fill) buildup. This A-horizon yielded several hundred native-made artifacts including pottery, stone weights for fish nets, projectile points (arrowheads), part of a native-made clay pipe stem, and chipping debris from making stone tools.

Excavations in the side yard behind the Mansion’s kitchen addition

 In addition, other aspects of the shape, size, and composition of the side yard were discovered. While this doesn’t sound very exciting, these factors can help the archaeologists reconstruct the landscape over time. For instance, we know that portions of the property along both the Susquehanna River and Fishing Creek were affected by flooding over the years, especially by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. This flooding caused portions of the yard to slump into the river and destroyed some of the small outbuildings. Could it have taken portions of the fort too? We can also see where someone tried to shore up the bank along the creek side of the yard with a fill of rocks, concrete, slag, and garbage at some point and then attempted to shore it up again in later years. The more recent fill layer included a wrapper from a local bread company, foil food packaging, and plastic garbage as well as light bulbs, bricks, painting supplies, linoleum fragments, and even a pair of boots! It was surmised that, following Hurricane Agnes repairs to the house were necessary and when the work was completed, the debris was thrown in the yard along the washed-out bank.

Edge of yard above Fishing Creek showing distinct fill layers. Note the upper fill layer of bricks and garbage and the lower layer of concrete, rock, and slag.

This year’s excavations begin on September 5 and will again focus on the area of the side yard behind the kitchen addition. We will uncover some of our blocks from 2017 and will expand them south toward the back (south) foundation of the Mansion. This back addition was built in the 1870s during the Boas/Reily family occupation of the house. Based on oral tradition, the house is generally believed to have been built over top of the fort’s blockhouse, so the archaeologists will try to get as close to the house as they can. By doing this, we hope to find remains of the fort or palisade, as well as to determine construction techniques of the house foundation and recover additional artifacts related to both. In addition, the Native American occupation level appears to continue south and we hope to recover additional artifacts and discover features related to this occupation.

Excavation filled at the end of 2017 season and area at rear of the house to be excavated in 2018

 Come out and see what we find! This is an opportunity to learn about this important historic site and embrace our Commonwealth’s heritage. Artifacts will be on display and archaeologists will be on hand Monday-Friday, 9am-4:30pm (weather permitting) to answer questions about the site and how field archaeology is conducted. In addition to weekdays, excavation will take place on Fort Hunter Day on Sunday, September 16, 2018. Excavations will close for the year on October 5, 2018. 

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

Friday, August 17, 2018

Public Programs with the Section of Archaeology 2018

Here we are, summer is ending, school is starting for many across the state of Pennsylvania and our busiest time of year is just beginning. Each year the Section of Archaeology attends and hosts several public programs to spread the word about Pennsylvania’s archaeological history.
September 1st – 3rd
City Island, Harrisburg

The kick off public program is Labor Day weekend’s Kipona Festival. Kipona, meaning, “To be upon the sparkling water,” is held each year on City Island, surrounded by the Susquehanna River. Our booth will be located on the west side of the Island, behind the baseball field. Along with knowledgeable staff and volunteers available to answer questions, our booth will highlight the over 8,000-year-old Native American archaeological record excavated on the Island.  Artifacts on display from these excavations include numerous spear points, some of which have been carbon-14 dated along with a cache of 4,000-year-old axe blades and celts. As usual, we will also be exhibiting our ever-popular 20-foot dugout canoe. This replica is based on the real dugout on display in the Archaeology gallery of the State Museum. For those interested in experimental archaeology, the stone tools, called adzes, which we made and used to “dig” out the canoe will be available for examination. Finally, there will be a variety of free brochures with information on hand summarizing the archaeology of Pennsylvania. 

Section of Archaeology staff burning and scraping log to create the dugout canoe.

This year we will also be raffling off a chance to win a behind the scenes tour of the State Museum’s Section of Archaeology laboratory! Stop by our booth to take a “ride” in the dugout canoe, marvel at the more than 8,000-year-old artifacts from right beneath our feet on City Island and fill out a raffle ticket for your chance to win!  

The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Section of Archaeology booth at Kipona 2017.

Fort Hunter
September 5th-October 5th
Mondays-Fridays (9am-4pm)

Shortly after the end of Kipona each year, the Section of Archaeology gears up and heads to Fort Hunter Mansion and Park for our month-long excavation. This year we will be heading out to begin setting up and opening our excavation units during the first week of September with true excavations starting the following week on September 10th. As in past years, we will be excavating in the backyard behind the mansion, looking for physical evidence of the French and Indian War period fort that was supposedly built somewhere in what is now the Fort Hunter Mansion and Park. Our excavations are open for the public to visit and to speak with the archaeologists and volunteers about what we have found and what we are looking for. Unless it rains, we will be excavating from 9:00 am to 4:15 pm Monday through Friday until October 5th. We will also be working Sunday, September 16th on Fort Hunter Day. This is an annual fall celebration and craft fair sponsored by the Park. For more information on the Fort Hunter Day visit the Fort Hunter Mansion and Park website calendar of events here:

Guests listening to staff discuss what is going on in the excavations at Fort Hunter Day 2017

Also available at Fort Hunter during Fort Hunter Day and our weekly excavations are brochures and pamphlets on Pennsylvania archaeology as well as the new archaeology month poster and our registration pamphlet for the Section of Archaeology’s annual Workshops in Archaeology.

2018 Annual Workshops in Archaeology
Saturday, October 27, 2018
The State Museum of Pennsylvania
300 North Street Harrisburg, PA

October is archaeology month and as we wrap up our Fort Hunter excavations during the first week in October, we move straight into preparations for our annual Workshops in Archaeology program. We will be holding the Workshops program, on Saturday October 27, just a few days after International Archaeology Day, October 20,  (for more information on International Archaeology Day check out the website at:

International Archaeology Day Poster, available for download on the website.

The Workshops in Archaeology is a program designed to provide the public with an overview of archaeological discoveries across the Commonwealth. This year’s theme is John Smith’s Susquehannock’s: The Archaeological Context of a Native Culture and encompasses presentations from experts in the field, an ongoing flint knapping demonstration by master flint knapper Steve Nissly, and artifact identification and site recordation by the State Historic Preservation Office staff.

 SHPO staff member educating Workshops participant in recording sites.

 Brief summary of this year’s Workshops theme:
John Smith’s Susquehannocks:
The Archaeological Context
of a Native Culture
For more than 200 years, between 1550 and 1763, much of the Susquehanna River Valley was home to the Susquehannock Indian Tribe. This was a matrilineal society, different from many Indian societies, tracing kinship through the female line. They were dependent on maize agriculture, along with other domesticated foods, wild plants and animals. They lived in some of the largest Indian towns in Pennsylvania, containing one thousand or more people. Their impact on the Colonial period America was far-reaching, especially in the fur trade during the 1600s. Capt. John Smith, founding father of the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, was the first European to describe the Susquehannocks in detail. During his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he stopped at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, where he made contact with sixty Susquehannocks and stated that they “are the strangest people of all those countries, both in language and attire.” At the height of the fur trade during the mid-1600s, competition with Iroquoian groups, namely the Seneca and Mohawk, led to upheaval and discord. By the late 1600s, conflict between these Indian tribes, as well as with Europeans, led to the Susquehannocks dispersal and eventual disappearance from the Susquehanna Valley in the late 1700s. The story of the rise and fall of the Susquehannocks was the fate of many Indian tribes in the eastern United States.

We welcome archaeology and history enthusiasts to this informative program that will provide insights into this fascinating period in our nation’s history. Admission to The State Museum of Pennsylvania is included with registration.

Flint knapping demonstration by Steve Nissly at 2013 Workshops in Archaeology.

So come out and join us this fall to celebrate the rich archaeological heritage from all around us. We look forward to seeing you at one of our informative programs: the Kipona Festival, our excavations at Fort Hunter and the Workshops in Archaeology where you can learn more about how you can help preserve our past for the future.

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