Friday, May 28, 2010

Temple University Archaeological Field School at the Nesquehoning site, Carbon County

As you may remember from our blog last June, we reported on our joint field investigation with Temple University at the Nesquehoning site (36Cr142). The site is located in Lehigh Gorge State Park and was being looted by local pot-hunters. We conducted a week long investigation to determine the extent of the destruction and to promote site preservation with local avocational archaeologists. It was determined that the upper levels, dating to the Transitional Period, had been destroyed but the Middle and Early Archaic levels were largely preserved and there was also a potential for a Paleoindian occupation. Dr. R. Michael Stewart, professor of anthropology at Temple University and graduate student, Jeremy Koch, decided to organize a field school to conduct additional investigations at the site in 2010.

Mr. Koch continued working at the site throughout the summer and fall of 2009, assisted by several avocational archaeologists, notably Dell Beck and Tom Davies. During this time, they were able to get a pretty good handle on the geomorphology. For a site of this stratigraphic complexity, this is an incredibly important aspect of the research and a necessity prior to the actual excavation. One of the most spectacular findings was a carbon 14 date associated with a cluster of jasper flakes recovered from just above the cobbles. Dr. Stewart and Gary Stinchcomb (graduate student, Baylor University) personally funded an AMS (Accelerated Mass Spectrometry) date which assessed at 9940+50 BP. This places the site within the Paleoindian Period and increases its significance in terms of both its research potential and its need for protection.

The field school began on May 17th and is being co-directed by Dr. Stewart and Mr. Koch. The first week was hampered by rain but by the end of the second they were excavating the upper portions of the undisturbed prehistoric strata. They have established a 15 foot by 15 foot unit for excavation. The location of this unit was chosen because it is adjacent to the unit from last year that produced the jasper flakes below the Early Archaic levels and the carbon 14 date. In addition, this block is largely intact and has not been heavily looted. The block is divided into nine 5 foot by 5 foot squares and these will be excavated by two person teams over the next four weeks. The goal is to get to the bottom, six feet in depth and encompassing seven cultural occupations, within this time frame. This is a formidable task, considering their methodology. All artifacts and features will be three dimensionally mapped. One large fire-cracked-rock feature seems to be evident already and there will probably be more. Mapping these features and the surrounding artifacts is incredibly important to their interpretation but very time consuming. The size of this block should provide a good window into the various occupations of the site and allow for behavioral interpretations.

The Nesquehoning site is incredibly important for a variety of reasons. It is stratified and potentially covers the Paleoindian through Transitional Periods. Many of these occupations are confined to single soil horizons and therefore clearly separated from one another. Buried and undisturbed Paleoindian, Early Archaic and especially Middle Archaic occupations are very rare in the Northeast and their excavation, using precise techniques will certainly enhance our understanding of these time periods. Many of the sites that have been excavated from this period were relatively small excavations conducted prior to state and federal construction projects. A long term excavation at Nesquehoning could result in thousands of square feet of Paleoindian and Archaic living floors. This is unprecedented in the Northeast. Finally, the few large excavations that have been conducted on sites from this time period have been conducted on the main stem of the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers. This site is well up the Lehigh River and will offer a different ecological look at these adaptations.
Mr. Koch is working on his doctorate and will focus on the evolution of lithic technology at this site.

We will publish an update on the excavations once the 2010 field school is completed at the end of June.
Our intern this summer, Amanda Phatdouang, crossing the cable bridge to get to the Nesquehoning site - the most Indiana Jones-like entrance to any site we know of .

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

Friday, May 21, 2010

Prehistoric Fish Hooks

It’s late May, and the fishing season here in Pennsylvania and elsewhere is in full swing. It’s also convenient inspiration for the featured artifact in this week’s entry, the carved bone fish hook.

Perhaps the most essential tool in an angler’s kit, the fishing hook has been around for centuries. A limited search through the State Museum’s holdings reveal numerous examples of carved bone hooks from prehistoric sites in at least a half a dozen counties across the state including Greene, Centre and Fayette, among others.

In the technology section of the State Museum’s Anthropology and Archaeology gallery, a portion of the animial products exhibit showcases the progression of the carving process involved in fashioning a deer phalange, or toe, into a hook suitable for fishing. The five specimens on display and seen here were all excavated from the Schultz site (36La7) in Lancaster County.
In rare instances where a high degree of organic preservation has taken place, fragments of cordage used to make fishing nets have been recovered, such as those from Sheep Rockshelter in Huntington County, which unfortunately is now submerged under Raystown Lake, itself a destination for modern sport fishing enthusiasts.

While fish stories both new and old abound, it’s no fish tale to say these surviving artifacts and others, like the more commonly found chipped stone net sinker, speak to the longstanding and influential role riverine and aquatic resources have played in shaping subsistence strategies, settlement patterns, and more broadly, aspects of cultural identity.

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

Monday, May 17, 2010

Gardens to Our Past

Despite the recent cool weather, many of us have turned to our gardens this spring. Gardening has played an essential role in societies for thousands of years. From the development of agriculture during the Woodland Culture time period to the recent surge in backyard vegetable gardens the desire to cultivate and grow foods has been necessary for survival. Gardening has also evolved to include domesticated trees and flowers, leading to the development of formal gardens. These gardens are present at such significant historic sites as Pennsbury Manor, home of William Penn and Graeme Park, residence of Provincial Governor Sir William Kieth. Archaeology conducted at both sites has aided in recreating the colonial gardens of these 17th and 18th century residents.

Archaeologists view historic landscapes, which include gardens, as cultural artifacts which can yield much information about the societies that produced them. Recent investigations at Old Economy Village, a Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission site, revealed important information for future interpretation at this historic site.

Old Economy Village was the home of the nineteenth century Christian communal group, the Harmony Society. Established in 1824, under the leadership of George Rapp, Economy was known worldwide for its piety and industrial prosperity. Members of the society followed Rapp from Germany seeking religious and economic freedoms. A central philosophy of the society was the expectation of Christ’s return in the Millennium and their desire for a “divine economy”. Both of these concepts are reflected in the layout of Old Economy Village and the gardens established by the society. The Harmonists were recognized for their successes in manufacturing, particularly in the production of wools, cotton and silk.

The formal garden, referred to as the Great House Garden, was created by George Rapp as early as 1824 and designed in four sections. These sections consisted of vineyards, a Grotto (a stone structure for meditation and retreat), fruit trees, flower beds and the central area for a pond and pavilion with fountain. Symbolic elements incorporated in the design by Rapp reflect the millennial ideals of this community. Elements include the orientation to cardinal compass points, the central pond or fountain, circular paths and the vineyard mount. Fountains and water have always played a significant role in church traditions and the role of water in Baptism. Influenced by German traditions and religious imagery the gardens were viewed as an expression of both social and economic position by visitors to Old Economy.

Rapp’s original garden has been restored and altered several times since its creation, but key elements were always retained. Extensive research of historic documentation and the recent archaeology have provided valuable information for restoration of the garden. Archaeologists were able to identify planting methods for vineyards, concentric planting patterns for the gardens as well as historic paths.

Archaeology was able to determine that the vineyard had undergone at least four planting schemes. The original pattern of concentric beds was changed to a radiating pattern sometime between 1858 and 1891. In 1922 the vineyard was replanted and slightly reconfigured from the radiating pattern and one more replanting occurred in the mid-twentieth century. Posts and vines were replaced as necessary, either in existing holes or in new ones. The archaeological remains of these planting holes, trellis posts and planting beds survive to mark these episodes.

Archaeology is able to paint a picture into the past that we often can not find in written documentation. It also allows us to connect to our heritage in even the simplest of pleasures, gardening. So the next time you put your shovel in the ground or you turn on the fountain in your garden, think about the role that gardens have played in your heritage.

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

Friday, May 7, 2010

Forensic Science at Susquehanna High School

Students screening and excavating 36Da235

This week staff from the Section of Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, part of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, assisted with a simulated archaeology excavation. Ms. Evans, a teacher at Susquehanna Township High School, Harrisburg, is teaching a lesson on Forensic Anthropology in her three Forensic Science classes.

The 100 square meter excavation site is an open, dirt covered, area outside the high school building. Prior to the arrival of students the area is “seeded” by Ms. Evans with artifacts which would indicate a crime scene. The planted or “seeded” artifacts included deer bone, car parts and various personal effects. Students were unaware of where these artifacts were buried and it was their task to excavate the evidence. This was an opportunity to expose students to proper archaeological excavation methods and the process of recording evidence from a crime scene.

MaryPat Evans instructing students on proper excavation technique

The skeletal remains were placed in the site with related “artifacts”, that when uncovered and mapped, will “tell the story” of what happened in the deaths of two deer. Forensics students used archaeological techniques, methods and theory in their investigation into the deaths of the two deer. The deer skeletal remains are being “recycled” from the classes’ labs on Forensic Entomology at the high school and were donated by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Approximately 100 high school 11th and 12th grade students worked at the death scene under the supervision of Ms. Evans and staff archaeologists. Forensic Science students first set up a measurement grid for the excavation. Archaeologists record their findings based on the location of artifacts within defined units. Students then walked across the surface of the site identifying the location of bones and related artifacts (potential evidence) which could be observed on the surface. Students then mapped these surface artifacts, carefully measuring and recording their location. The goal of this activity was to decide the best locations to excavate. Based on this surface collection strategy, student teams picked the square meter of the excavation in which they wanted to search for more evidence. They returned on Friday with trowel in hand to uncover the bones buried in the ground.

On the second day of the investigation, the Forensics Science students worked in teams to excavate a single unit at the site. Under the supervision of State Museum archaeologists, the investigators mapped, bagged and labeled the artifacts found on the surface of their unit. Units are 1 square meter areas on the 100 square meter site. The units have been named using an alphanumeric system. Once the surface artifacts were removed, the investigators used trowels, brushes and dust pans to remove the soil. After uncovering the buried artifacts, investigators were instructed to map the location of the artifacts using tape measures and record this measurement on graph paper. Toward the end of the day, investigators observed a pattern starting to emerge that would "tell the story" of what happened at 36Da235.

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