Friday, December 6, 2019

Dr. Verna Cowin - An Influential Woman in Pennsylvania Archaeology

Dr. Verna Cowin

This week in Pennsylvania Archaeology will highlight another influential woman in Pennsylvania archaeology.  Verna (Lunglhofer) Cowin was born February 12, 1931 in Altoona, PA.  She was raised in Bethlehem, PA where she graduated from Moravian College in 1952 with a degree in English.  Verna was a sporting young woman, she played field hockey and participated in archery tournaments on both local and state levels; winning many, including the Bethlehem City championship.  It was her interest in archery that would lead her to take lessons from the president of the Pennsylvania Archery Association who just happened to be Paul Cowin's father.  After she graduated from college and he returned from service in World War II, Verna and Paul married on June 14, 1952.

Shortly after their marriage, Verna and Paul relocated to Battle Creek Michigan where Verna taught in Penfield and Harper Creek schools.  She was also a member of the successful Michigan women's archery team.  As was customary at the time, Verna left the workforce when they had children, two daughters.  After moving back to Pennsylvania in 1962, she was a girl scout leader, served as the Butler neighborhood chair holding a position on the council, and joined the Butler chapter of the American Association of University Women who would award her Women of the Year in 1984. 

As the children grew older Verna felt that "she was getting bored" and that "she wasn't using her mind to full capacity," according to her husband Paul.  That is what prompted her to go back to school.  In 1971 she was enrolled in the Anthropology Department at the University of Pittsburgh as a graduate student.  In order to acquire some much-needed field experience she joined the crew of the first field season excavation of Meadowcroft Rockshelter under the direction of Dr. James Adovasio.  She went on to participate in several Carnegie Museum of Natural History excavations in 1972, including the Bonnie Brook Monongahela Village under the direction of Richard L. George and Dr. Donald W. Dragoo.  This early association with the Carnegie Museum would prove to be the beginning of 40 years of dedicated service to the museum's section of Anthropology.  During her return to the Meadowcroft excavation in 1976 she was appointed as director of research for the nearby Avella burial mound which she continued to excavate through 1978 with the intention of using the research for her dissertation.  She earned her masters degree in 1980 and her doctorate in 1985, although she did not use her Avella mound research as planned.  Verna was a woman who liked to be busy and if her studies and research were not enough, she also taught six anthropology courses between 1975 and 1981 for the University of Pittsburgh, as well as teaching an Introduction to Anthropology course for prisoners at the Western Pennsylvania Correctional Institution in 1976.  Later going on to direct field schools for Slippery Rock University and Westmorland Community College at Hanna's Town, as well as a Carnegie sponsored field school in Erie.

In 1980 she became the Region VII Archaeologist for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which allowed her to carry out archaeological surveys in south-central Pennsylvania.   It was when this program ended in 1982 that Verna became the head of excavations for the Pittsburg Plate Glass headquarters (PPG).  This was a large excavation for the new PPG headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh; and would prove significant for the understanding of Pittsburgh's history.  By digging deep, 17 feet below street level, Verna discovered thousands of artifacts, wells, privies, and house foundations from the 19th century proving that Pittsburgh's past was still intact, not destroyed by modern activities as was the thought at the time.  This discovery changed the way compliance archaeology was conducted in the city, requiring archaeologists to consider the depth of excavation in light of her findings.  The report of these excavations was the basis of her doctoral dissertation as well as her exhibit  at the Carnegie museum "Pieces of the Past: Archaeology in Pittsburgh" for which she was awarded the Award of Merit from Pittsburgh History and Landmarks foundation and the Award of Merit from the Association for State and Local History.

After defending her dissertation Verna was hired as Assistant Curator in charge of the Upper Ohio Valley Archaeology program at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The program was started in the 1950s by William J. Mayer-Oaks and Donald W. Dragoo.  She became an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department of the University of Pittsburgh in 1986, a position she held until 2001; and was promoted to Associate Curator at the Carnegie Museum in 1988.  Verna was extensively published; 38 publications, 9 reports and 34 papers delivered at local and national conferences.  Dr. James Adovasio stressed "that her Cultural Resource reports reflected significant research contributions to Western Pennsylvania prehistoric and historic archaeology, not just gray literature".

Verna and her husband Paul were pillars of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology. She served as a board member of that organization from 1997-2003, as associate editor of Pennsylvania Archaeologist from 1981-1999, and Paul served as treasurer from 2001-2010.  In 2009, they were awarded the Lifetime Achievement award from the Society of Pennsylvania Archaeology for Exemplary service to Pennsylvania Archaeology.  She also served as editor and president of the Eastern States Archaeological Federation (ESAF) from 1992-1995.  Traditionally the incoming president of ESAF has to drink beer from the Canadian-American Friendship cup.  Verna did not disappoint quaffing the entire contents without hesitation, compelling subsequent presidents to hear shouts upon their turn of "drink it without stopping like Verna did".

Dr. Verna Cowin technically retired in 2001 but maintained her office at Carnegie Museum as a Research Associate.  She passed January 3, 2013 and her beloved husband Paul joined her March 24, 2013.  They are sorely missed by the archaeological community. 

We hope you have enjoyed this review of another significant woman in Pennsylvania archaeology.  Archaeology and Anthropology have embraced the role of women in the sciences and we encourage our young readers to consider pursuing the sciences as a career. Preserving our past for the future is important for all of us in understanding social change, settlement patterns and cultural adaptation to name a few as our world ever changes.

Richardson, James B.
2013 In Memoriam: Verna L. Cowin and Paul F. Cowin. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 83(2):65-71

Dr. Verna L. Lunglhofer Cowin. (2013, January 5) The Butler Eagle, Butler, Pennsylvania

A List of Select Publications:
Cowin, V.L., Cannel Coal Pendants: Types and Distribution, North American Archaeologist, vol. 20, 3: pp. 239-262., First Published Jul 1, 1999

Cowin, V. L. (1989). Let's Hear It for the Tinman: John Dunlap. Western Pennsylvania History: 1918-2018, 72(2), 96-101.

Cowin, Verna. "The Middle Archaic in the Upper Ohio Valley." Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 7 (1991): 43-52.

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

Friday, November 22, 2019

Annual Workshops in Archaeology 2019: The Recap

Overview of Workshop

It’s been a few weeks since our last post, and in that time the Annual Workshops in Archaeology program at The State Museum of Pennsylvania has come and gone. Nearly 100 attendees enjoyed a full day of thought-provoking power-point presentations covering a variety of aspects of Monongahela Indian archaeology, culminating in a follow-up question and answer session, with light refreshments to end the evening. As always, the flint knapping demonstration was a perennial favorite of the program, and the crowd gathered also showed great interest in the site recording tutorial and artifact ID station.

Artifact ID station

Site Recording Tutorial

In conjunction with the Workshop program, a corresponding information pamphlet on the Monongahela was developed and has been released. This full color brochure outlines the culture history periods of the Monongahela, highlights iconic artifacts recovered from archaeological sites, and presents ongoing avenues of research relating to their origins, subsistence strategies and social organization, as well as factors that lead to their eventual demise. 

Monongahela Brochure

While it’s always nice to see a sizable number of familiar faces returning to the program every fall, we’re equally delighted to learn that roughly a third of those in attendance were first timers. Reaching as broad an audience as possible continues to be an important goal of the Workshops. Finally, we would like to extend a sincere thank you, first to the presenters, but also the staff and volunteers who all had a role in making this year’s program a success.  Plans for next year’s Workshops are already in the early stages – stay tuned!

SPA card 

One additional piece of literature worth sharing this week is, with support from the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, a newly printed rack card emphasizing the importance of both registering archaeological sites with the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey, or P.A.S.S., as well as the merits of donating well documented artifact collections to The State Museum of Pennsylvania. It’s worth a moment to read and we encourage you to share it with others. Help us preserve the past for the future!

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

Friday, November 8, 2019

Have We Found the Fort at Fort Hunter?

Another season of excavation at Fort Hunter is finished, but this turned out to be quite an exciting year! Thousands of 18th century artifacts have been found over the last decade of work at the site, but this year brought the first evidence of a possible structural feature relating to the fort or even to a period associated with the first European inhabitants of this area.

Excavation was renewed in three test units opened in 2018 near the porch at the northwest corner of the mansion. Many 18th century artifacts were recovered from this area last year and we found an unusual, thick layer of charcoal that we called Feature 172. (A feature is evidence of a human activity that is left in the ground, such as a garbage pit or fire hearth.) A second feature, Feature 173, was a dark stain that had been found in Unit N60 W45 in 2018. This feature also produced primarily 18th century artifacts and was thought to have been completely excavated in 2018. At the beginning of the 2019 season, the goal was to complete excavation of the remaining prehistoric soils (called the B-horizon) in these units and to move on to another part of the site in a continued search for the fort.

Overhead view of excavations near the porch at the northwest corner of the mansion house (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

2019 Opening photo, showing the B-horizon (orange-tan), sewer pipe trench, and top of Feature 173 (dark stain to left and right of the exposed sewer pipe) (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

The archaeologists began removing the B-horizon in levels; however, it soon became obvious that these levels, which should only have produced prehistoric Indian artifacts, were instead producing a mixture of prehistoric and historic artifacts. A reassessment of the situation led to the conclusion that this soil had been disturbed, and it was renamed Feature 192. Although it was thought that Feature 173 had been completely excavated last year from along the east wall, removal of the Feature 192 soils revealed that Feature 173 was still visible and even appeared to be growing larger and spreading west along the floor of the unit. Large rocks, bone fragments, chunks of charcoal, and historic ceramics began to emerge.

Top of Feature 173 exposed in N60 W45. Note bone fragments and ceramics (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

Many interesting historic artifacts were uncovered in Feature 173, including mid-18th century ceramics, musket balls, cut animal bones, a horseshoe, copper fragments, straight pins, and a clasp knife. Tiny fish bones, flakes of spalled-off ceramic glaze, and a number of white seed beads (of the type that would have been traded with the Indians) were recovered straight off the feature floor. These objects were so small they would have fallen through the screening material and been lost before anyone knew they were there. Two dozen beads were eventually recovered from the feature.

Three white seed beads on the floor of Feature 173 (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

In another part of the feature, a swipe of the trowel cut across the top of what at first appeared to be a small mound of pebbles lying in the dirt. Closer inspection revealed that the pebbles were actually a pile of small caliber lead shot! From their position lying in a pile, it is likely they were once enclosed by a leather bag or shot pouch, which would have rotted away and left the lead contents intact.

Pile of lead shot lying in the floor of the feature (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

At this point, the time allotted for our field work was up. However, due to the excitement over our finds we decided to stick it out another week and attempt to complete the excavation of Feature 173 in Unit N60 W45. By this time, the feature had resolved itself into a square shape with a possible corner in the northeast corner of the unit. Three additional layers of rock and soil were removed from the unit and Feature 173 was beginning to appear in Unit N60 W50, just to the west of N60 W45. Very large pieces of charcoal were found throughout the feature, some of which were collected as samples, and two large pieces of furnace slag from metalsmithing were recovered.

Unit N60 W45 showing Feature 173 possible structure corner (darker soil in floor) (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

The most interesting finds of the season were made that last week (at least according to this archaeologist!). A large fragment of a Delft bowl base was recovered from the second level of the feature, as well as a strike-a-lite, more trade beads, a thimble with pins, and a beautiful pair of pewter and green glass cuff buttons. I must admit that my mind screamed "Emeralds!" when I first caught sight of them. But just as amazing is that they are still connected by a tiny brass loop after 250 years in the ground.

Pewter and green glass cuff buttons (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

Unfortunately, due to time restraints we had to pack up and leave the site before getting to the bottom of Feature 173. It is still unclear exactly what this feature represents since we did not get it completely finished. One theory is that it may be part of the defensive ditch that was described as encircling the blockhouse. Another more likely possibility is that it is a cellar of a structure, either related to the fort or to an earlier period.

The presence of furnace slag, metal objects, large amounts of charcoal, crucible fragments, and a whetstone also point toward the possibility of a blacksmithing operation somewhere in the area. Research indicates the presence of both a blacksmith and gunsmith on the property in the 18th century, but the location of the operation is not known. The small amount of burnt soil and slag and metal do not seem to indicate this is the primary location of a smithy, but who knows what next year will bring.

It's going to be very difficult to wait an entire 11 months to get back out to the site. Next year, we hope to uncover the entirety of Feature 173 in the surrounding units to determine its size and shape. Hopefully even more amazing finds will be made, and we can get an answer to the function and age of this feature. Meanwhile, there is still work to complete in the lab, including having the charcoal samples and slag analyzed and possibly x-raying of rusty iron items. This analysis may be able to give us more information on the types of wood being burnt and chemical composition of the slag, as well as letting us see the objects beneath the rust to aide in accurately identifying these artifacts.

For additional information on blacksmithing and early trade at Fort Hunter, please see our blog from May 11, 2018 ("To Be Ore Not To Be: Crucibles are the Answer") or November 20, 2015 ("New Perspectives on an Old Subject: Trade and Native American Relations at Fort Hunter").

The end of October and the end of our field season at Fort Hunter also marks the end of Archaeology Month in Pennsylvania. We hope you had an opportunity to visit an archaeology program in your community to learn about our rich heritage in Pennsylvania. If you didn't have an opportunity to do so, there is still time! The annual Workshops in Archaeology Program is Saturday at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Registration is available at the door and our presenters are excited to share their knowledge and research of the Monongahela culture.  This series of lectures provides an overview of the Monongahela culture, highlighting changes that occurred over time and discussion of their disappearance from the archaeological record. We hope you can join us November 9th, 2019 - registration desk opens at 8:30 am.

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