Friday, April 14, 2017

How Geography Influences Settlements in Eastern and Central Pennsylvania

This past weekend marked the 88th annual meeting of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology. Individuals from The State Museum of Pennsylvania presented on a variety of topics ranging from using LiDAR to document archaeological and historic sites; attribute analysis of 18th century ceramics; examination of a contact period collection and an analysis of Washington Boro face effigy pottery.

This got me thinking - what is it about south central and eastern Pennsylvania that has drawn people here for thousands of years, a trend that is especially visible since the arrival of Europeans to the area. The answer lies in the geography of the region. Harrisburg is situated at the crossroads of the Susquehanna River and the Great Valley, which have been major trade routes since prehistoric times. This region of Pennsylvania is also situated just west of the fall line, which divides the Piedmont physiographic province from the Atlantic coastal plain. These geologic features have affected human settlement patterns throughout the past, and they continue to do so today.

The geologic feature known as the fall line acts as a natural barrier between the coastal plain and the regions to the west; It is most visible in rivers where waterfalls mark the location of this geographic feature throughout states along the East Coast. At these locations, fish migrating upstream to spawn are slowed and easily trapped in nets. The falls at Trenton on the Delaware and at Conowingo on the Susquehanna during the Late Archaic through Early Woodland periods were heavily occupied by Indians exploiting this resource. In addition, at the fall line, prehistoric settlements and historic cities would have served as a transitional point for goods being transported inland. The Great Valley Section of the Ridge and Valley Province has been an important north-south trade and migration route since before the arrival of Europeans.

The division between the Coastal Plain and Piedmont physiographic sections and an illustrated cross section of the fall line.
Source: (top) The National Atlas of the United States, (above) Encyclopedia Britannica

The Great Valley

Contact Period Settlements in Southeastern Pennsylvania
The Susquehanna River provides a passage to the west from settlements on the East Coast through the Appalachian Mountains. The Late Woodland (1550 AD-1000 BP) and Contact period sites (1780 AD – 1550 AD) located on the Lower Susquehanna River acted as a hub for trade between European settlements on the coastal plain, and regions controlled by native populations further inland. The Susquehannocks, a contact period tribe, used their strategic location in the Lower Susquehanna Valley (in the area between what is now called Harrisburg and Safe Harbor, PA) to control the fur trade in the region. The Iroquois Confederacy, who were competing with the Susquehannocks for the fur trade, realized the strategic significance of this location and in the 1670’s attacked and eliminated the Susquehannocks from the trade.

Indian paths of Pennsylvania overlaid on a digital shaded relief map of Pennsylvania
Source: Paul Wallace, Indian Paths of Pennsylvania overlaid on DCNR digital shaded relief map

The Effects of Geography on Modern Settlements
Many of the East Coast’s largest cities (historic and modern) are located along the fall line, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City and Washington D.C. to name a few–It’s no coincidence that these locations were used by prehistoric people prior to the arrival of Europeans. Most of the cities mentioned above still serve as ports. Baltimore and Philadelphia both played major roles on settlements in the Lower Susquehanna Valley.

Harrisburg which, as previously mentioned, is located at the crossroads of the Great Valley and the Susquehanna River still sits at a strategic location for the transportation of goods throughout the region. The path that existed in prehistoric times through the Great Valley followed a route that is very similar to the modern corridor for Interstate 81. There are many other considerations that have factored into human settlement patterns in the Lower Susquehanna Valley, but the area has proven to be a strategic trade location abundant with natural resources.

Prehistoric trade routes and modern interstates show the role that geography plays in navigation.
Source: (top) Encyclopedia of North American Indians, (above) Google Earth

A basic understanding of the natural forces that shape where we live adds context and helps us to understand the ways in which human habitation has been shaped by our natural environment throughout time. Archaeologists examine these landscapes to better understand settlement patterns of the past and predict future settlement patterns.  Although much has changed since Europeans landed on this continent, the geography remains much the same. As a result, modern populations are still being shaped by their surrounding landscape.

We hope you have enjoyed this discussion of our rich Pennsylvania landscape and the impact of land formation on settlement patterns.  We invite you to consider the geography of your community and consider its natural resources.  This is your heritage and embracing the cultural and environmental resources of our earth are an important part of Preserving the Past for the Future

Jennings, F. (1966). The Indian Trade of the Susquehanna Valley. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 110(6), 406-424. Retrieved from

Kent, B. C. (1984). Susquehanna's Indians (No. 6). Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission

Merritt, J. T. (2011). At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763. UNC Press Books.

Wallace, P. A. (1993). Indian Paths of Pennsylvania. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

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

Friday, March 31, 2017

88th Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology Annual Meeting

Spring has finally seemed to have sprung which in the world of archaeology means the annual spring conferences are in full swing. The Society for American Archaeology meetings are this weekend (March 29-April 2, 2017) in Vancouver, B.C. and we reported on our last blog on  the Mid-Atlantic meetings. Our focus this week is on the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology’s (SPA) annual meeting. Next weekend, April 7-9, 2017 the 88th annual SPA meeting, hosted by The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology will be held at the Radisson Hotel in Camp Hill, PA. This year’s theme, Patterning the Past: Current Contributions to Pennsylvania Archaeology promises to be informative and encompassing topics from prehistoric to historic site and artifact interpretations, technology in archaeology as well as artifact curation.

As usual, the meeting will begin Friday afternoon with the Pennsylvania Archaeology Council (PAC) symposium. This year’s theme is Public Outreach- Preserving the Past with New Technology. These papers cover a range of topics that discuss different forms of public outreach, the importance of public outreach and how technology is currently used for new platforms and formats in public outreach.  Sharing methods for engaging the public in archaeology and increasing their awareness in their archaeological heritage and site preservation is at the heart of this session.

The SPA annual meeting registration table is open on Friday at 12:00 pm, walk-ins are welcome! The program for the 2017 annual meeting includes presentations in three sessions from Saturday morning through Sunday morning. A poster session Saturday afternoon will highlight research by students at the undergraduate and graduate level.  Primitive games allow participants the opportunity to test their skills at firestarting, atlatl accuracy and the hammerstone toss. The annual dinner banquet Saturday night will feature  guest speaker Dr. Robert D. Wall, Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice at Towson University sharing research on the Barton Site  ( , followed by the awards ceremony and live auction. Cordier Auctions will conduct the fund raising auction which benefits the Society.   Also, the bookroom is open throughout the day on both Friday and Saturday.  Book titles include Ice Age People of Pennsylvania , Indian Paths of Pennsylvania, The Moravian Mission Diaries of David Zeisberger 1772–1781 and First Pennsylvanians.  If you are interested in archaeology or history, there are many titles of interest.

The annual awards ceremony recognizes individuals for a number of achievements in Pennsylvania archaeology including outstanding avocational archaeologists, most archaeological sites recorded in the past year, and for other significant contributions to Pennsylvania archaeology.  Student scholarships are also awarded from the Hatch Scholarship fund and the Kinsey fund.  The Lifetime Achievement award recognizes an individual who has been an active member of the archaeological community for at least 25 years and has made significant contributions to furthering both the Society and our archaeological heritage in Pennsylvania.(  The auction is a popular and exciting SPA tradition, so be sure to bring a few extra bucks to bid on books, archaeological field equipment, and gift baskets. Money raised will go to benefit the Society, Elmer Erb Permanent Fund and Kinsey Scholarship fund.

The program concludes on Sunday morning with another series of presentation session containing papers focused on the curation and research of archaeology collections.
Please join us for an educational and entertaining weekend. We hope to see you at the meeting!

For more information on the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology and the annual meeting please visit the website at:

The Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, Inc. was organized in 1929 to: Promote the study of the prehistoric and historic archaeological resources of Pennsylvania and neighboring states; Encourage scientific research and discourage exploration which is unscientific or irresponsible in intent or practice; Promote the conservation of archaeological sites, artifacts, and information; Encourage the establishment and maintenance of sources of archaeological information such as museums, societies, and educational programs; Promote the dissemination of archaeology by means of publications and forums; Foster the exchange of information between the professional and the avocational archaeologists. 

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

Recent Past, Present and Future Archaeology Events hosted and partnered by the State Museum of PA

A Day at the Museum
Over a thousand visitors attended Charter Day at The State Museum on Sunday, March 12. Janet Johnson, curator, and archaeology volunteers were on hand to lead children and the young-at-heart through the petroglyph drawing activity featured at this year’s Farm Show exhibit in the Nature Lab.

Photographer Credit: Don Giles

You’ll have an opportunity to meet archaeology staff at future museum events this summer during the popular Nature Lab series on Wednesday afternoons from late June to early August. Check the State Museum Events Calendar for more details.

March 16-19th, 2017
Virginia Beach Resort and Conference Center
2800 Shore Drive
Virginia Beach, Virginia

It is not too late to attend. Walk-in registrants are welcome through this Saturday, March 18th at 4pm.
Kurt Carr and member volunteers at the MAAC Registration Table. Photographer Credit: Judy Hawthorn

Conference activities kicked off on Thursday with a conservation and gallery tour of the Mariners’ Museum and Park, Newport News, Virginia, and a Coastal Plain Woodland Pottery Workshop in the afternoon. 
Marcey Creek pottery featured during yesterday’s Coastal Plain Pottery Workshop, Photographer Credit: Judy Hawthorn

Today, regular paper sessions begin featuring Paleoindian research; Ethnoecological approaches; Conservation practices; Climate Change, Natural Hazards and Archaeological Sites; Fairfax Co., VA Archaeology; Prehistoric Archaeology; Montpelier;  and a honorarium session for Dr. Douglas W. Sanford. Kurt Carr, Senior Curator at the State Museum will be reprising his dissertation work at the Thunderbird site as the final morning contributor to the Paleoindian session at 9:40am. Additional activities include the Student Committee Coffee Hour, “Afternoon Knapping”- Experimental Archaeology with Jack Cresson, and the evenings Plenary Session- Augmented reality: how we transformed a reality show into a unique teaching and learning opportunity,  with Dr. Bill Schindler, who will discuss his experience with the National Geographic series, The Great Human Race.

Lucy Harrington, Mercyhurst University presenting during the Paleoindian Session this morning. Photographer Credit: Judy Hawthorn.

Saturday’s paper and workshop sessions continue with topics ranging from Historic Sites; Archaeological Survey; the Biggs Ford Site; Connecting museum collections in news ways with the public audience in the digital age; Current Research at St. Mary’s College of Maryland; Gender Identity in the Archaeological Record; Sherwood Forest Plantation, Stafford Co., VA; Domestic Archaeology in an Early Industrial Context; Public Sites and Parks; to a honorarium session for Leverette Gregory.  The poster session will run Saturday afternoon and the evening  General Business Meeting  is capped with the festive Student Committee Mixer at 7:30pm and Reception at 8:30pm.
The conference ends with concurrent Sunday morning sessions—the Indigo Hotel Site; the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center; and Specialized Analysis of Historic Sites and Artifacts.  

Follow the provided link to read the complete program and speaker abstracts.

The Society for Pennsylvania 88th Annual Meeting will be featured in our next blog, however, we don’t want those interested to miss their chance to pre-register for the event online or call to reserve a hotel room. Click here for a program listing of the SPA session contributors and presentation titles.

The Pennsylvania Archaeology Council (PAC) Symposium and
The Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology (SPA) 88th Annual Meeting
April 7-9th, hosted this year by Section of Archaeology
Radisson Hotel Harrisburg
1150 Camp Hill Bypass
Camp Hill, PA 17011
(717) 763-7117

This year’s PAC symposium, Public outreach- Preserving the Past with New Technologies, was organized by Bernard Means. The Annual meeting presentations begin Saturday morning and will feature the research of several of our staff curators—Melanie Mayhew, Kurt Carr, Kimberley Sebestyen, and Janet Johnson—as well as SPA members and professional archaeologists from across the Commonwealth. Other highlights from the weekend meeting include the banquet speaker, Dr. Robert D. Wall, Towson University, presentation of Paleo to Susquehannock in the Upper Potomac Valley: The Barton Site, and the ever popular Primitive Games to be held late Saturday afternoon on the hotel grounds. The games are an opportunity to test your flint and steel fire making skills, your spear throwing accuracy with an atlatl, or how far you can toss a hammerstone to name a few of the friendly competitions you can participate in as a meeting attendee. Cordier Auctions has agreed to conduct our ever popular fund raising auction on Saturday evening which is sure to hold many a treasure. We hope to see you there!

Atlatl spear throwing, Fort Hunter Indian Day 2013

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