Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Analyzing Dietary Remains of the Past

With the theme of Thanksgiving in mind our thoughts this week turn to diets. Nothing to do with dieting, rather we’d like to look at what people have eaten for the past few thousands of years. Most people immediately think about deer, elk or bear for meat, some may think of corn or grains. The diet of native peoples was very diverse and complex and changed over time in conjunction with changes in the environment. You might wonder how archaeologists are able to recreate a picture of the foods consumed by native peoples thousands of years ago.

Paleoethnobotany is the science which looks at the relationship between humans and plants. How humans impact the development of plants and the level of labor required to process these plants and seeds. What is preserved? How do we recover these remains of the past? With assistance this week from a guest blogger Roger Moeller, PhD, we will learn about the floatation process.

The flotation process is very simple. The best flotation tub is a square, galvanized, handled, wash tub (12 gal Dovertm) with the bottom replaced by 1/16” hardware cloth. Standing in flowing water with the tub submerged to within 3" of the rim, slowly pour soil into the tub while agitating the tub in a circular pattern. When the all the fine-grained soil has passed through the screen, skim the floating materials with a tea strainer and place them onto a drying pan. When all the floating material has been skimmed, lift the tub out of the water and pour the heavy portion onto the same or separate drying pan. When the materials have dried, sort them into seeds, bones, lithics, charcoal, and other categories. Each different item is identified and quantified. This sounds very simple, but it is not.

flotation in progress using local water source

Unfortunately all of these good intentions and hard work are more than likely to produce at best inconsistent truisms if the samples are too small, not intensively or systematically collected, or culturally biased. The keys to the flotation trap are that random samples produce random results, small samples produce small results, and culturally biased samples produce meaningless results. Stratigraphy must be followed, and holistic studies are the only way to create a complete data set. Flotation is of undeniable importance in determining the qualitative nature of data present. Without it, data interpretation is severely handicapped or, even worse, misleading.

Excavations at one site prior to the use of flotation recovered only a small quantity of bone. The assumption was made that the acidic soil had long since destroyed all but the large, heavy bones. Flotation showed a variety of small mammals, fish, birds, amphibians, and a much wider distribution of mussels which had only been inferred previously. Even though they may represent only a small fraction of the total bone recovered by weight, the species they represent played a role in aboriginal subsistence and must be taken into account.

sorting float material back at the lab

There is also the smaller debitage (byproducts of stone tool manufacture) which is indicative of close retouch or reworking of artifacts. Missing these data would distort the range of manufacturing and maintenance tasks undertaken. The identification of seed remains provides the necessary data for determining diet, seasonality, eco-niches exploited, reasons for the encampments, and possible techniques for food preparation and preservation. Without flotation very few seeds would ever be recovered during excavation.

The discarded soil matrix as well as control samples from seemingly non-cultural zones should be analyzed as closely as the cultural samples. What seems intuitively obvious in the field when the context was positive should be quantified and described for those contexts of unknown integrity. What is not found can be as important as what is found. The recent contaminants (background noise) can yield data crucial to interpreting the occupation. One's interpretation can be biased by the nature of the flotation sampling regime. To understand what should be done, one must start by defining a meaningful cultural context, proceed with the appropriate equipment, conduct an intensive analysis of all materials found in the dried flotation samples, and interpret everything within a holistic framework.

Everything present means something in relation to everything else. Flotation sampling should be thought of in the same light as soil coring. There must be a precise level by level record of the soil strata which can be examined for color, texture, nature of inclusions, and cultural materials. Many samples are taken since there is no reason to assume that the strata or contexts are identical everywhere on the site. The precise location of the sample is mapped to facilitate its correlation with other observations, artifacts, and ecofacts to aid in the analysis and interpretation of the site.

flotation material sorted and bagged by artifact type

Flotation is by far the most economical and efficient technique yet devised for the large scale recovery of small scale remains from archaeological deposits. At one site all the thousands of carbonized seeds, most of the identifiable bones, and a small percentage of the thousands of artifacts examined, counted, and classified were the result of flotation.

Dr. Moeller has addressed some of the key issues in the floatation process. As he points out paramount to the success of this type of analysis is the need for controlled collection and floatation from every level of a site and across a broad scope. This level of analysis is time consuming and often costly, but the benefits have far outweighed the costs in terms of identifying the food sources of Native peoples. Archaeologists are enhancing this data set every time an excavation is conducted utilizing floatation. We often have written about “painting a picture of our past” this is the type of data that strengthens our analysis and interpretation.

Paleoethnobotanists have identified the presence of squash much earlier in the archaeological record than previously thought. This evidence needs to be tested against other data to ensure its accuracy, but archaeologists are excited by this increased interest in floatation and the merits of research. As we sit down to our Thanksgiving meal, let’s take a moment to reflect on the role of prehistory on the development of the plants, nuts and seeds we enjoy today.

Keep checking back with us over the next few weeks as we continue to develop our Farm Show exhibit on Native American foodways in Pennsylvania, and mark your calendars for the week of January 7th to visit the exhibit at thePennsylvania Farm Show Building.

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Future of the Past is Now: 3D artifact scanning

Guest blogger Dr. Bernard Means

Our guest blogger is Dr. Bernard K. Means, of Virginia Commonwealth University.  Dr. Means is a repeat "guest blogger" and we welcome his overview of  new technology available for research and preservation of archaeological collections. 

Figure 1
         Clinton King of Virginia Commonwealth University

On November 4, 2011, the Virtual Curation Unit for Recording Archaeology Materials Systematically (V.C.U.-R.A.M.S.) arrived at The State Museum of Pennsylvania to create 3D topological models of artifacts in the museum’s collections. The team consisted of myself as project director and Clinton King, our digital curator (Figure 1). Clinton is also an undergraduate student in anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University. We had with us our NextEngine 3D object scanner. The V.C.U.-R.A.M.S. project is currently funded by the Department of Defense’s Legacy Program and was developed in cooperation with John Haynes, archaeologist for Marine Corps Base Quantico. The Legacy Program’s overall goal is to test innovative approaches and technologies to foster preservation of cultural resources on their bases across the world. Our specific task with our virtual archaeology curation project is to test the possibilities and limitations of 3D artifact scanning as a way to preserve critical cultural resources and make the digital models we create accessible to a larger audience of scholars and the interested public.

We selected The State Museum of Pennsylvania as a place to test our 3D artifact scanner because we knew that the archaeology division holds a vast array of archaeological objects, some of which are over 10,000 years old. From my own experience, I also know that archaeology division personnel really know their collection well, are very open to having research conducted on these collections, and are very helpful in providing access. My thanks to Janet, Kurt, Dave, and Liz for their help with getting the materials we needed for scanning.

figure 2

Scanning of archaeological objects is a time-consuming process, so we selected a wide range of items to test the scanning process. We selected four items to scan: a snake skeleton still (largely) in its original soil matrix; a Monongahela pot; a Paleoindian point; and, a decorated sherd. The snake skeleton in soil matrix was recovered in 1941 from the Martin site, a Monongahela village once located in Fayette County, Pennsylvania—and now under the waters of the Youghiogheny Reservoir (Figure 2). The skeleton was recovered from above a burial. The skeleton was chosen for scanning because it represented a unique object—both bone and soil—and because it will eventually begin to break down. In fact, some vertebrae have fallen out of the soil matrix. One of the potential strengths of 3D scanning is the ability to preserve objects that are or eventually will decay. We also scanned a Monongahela pot from the Martin site which had been mended in 1941—and the mend is beginning to separate today.

figure 3

The Paleoindian point is from a site in Perry County, Pennsylvania. This point is important because it was recovered from between two radiocarbon-dated layers at the Wallis Site (36Pe16), part of the 11 & 15 Highway Project (Figure 3). Scanning of this point will allow scholars throughout the world study the object, without having to come to The State Museum to do so. With this and other objects, we can also potentially create resin models that could be used for study or educational purposes.

figure 4

Finally, we also scanned a sherd recovered from the Sugar Run Village site, located in Warren County, Pennsylvania (Figure 4). This sherd is associated with the Hopewell occupation of the site and was recovered by Seneca Indians in 1941, laboring as relief workers for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Clinton was able to process this sherd’s digital model, as well as the other three objects Friday night, and we were able to set up two laptops that allowed attendees at the Workshops in Archaeology at The State Museum on November 5 to manipulate these artifact digital models in multiple dimensions and see all facets of the objects—without having to endanger the real objects themselves (Figure 5). 3D digital scanning certainly is another great tool for making precious and fragile artifacts accessible to all citizens of Pennsylvania.

figure 5

More details about our project can be found at:

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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Recap of Archaeology Workshops 2011

We are delighted to report on the success of the return of our Workshops in Archaeology program. This past Saturday we hosted just over a hundred people from all avenues who just want to learn more about archaeology. Members of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, Pennsylvania Heritage Society members, students, and the general public turned out to learn more at about the Prehistory of Pennsylvania.

Profile of Calver Island from Susquehanna Turnpike Bridge Replacement Project

Presenters for the program included Pat Miller, PhD. sharing information relative to The Late Archaic/Transitional Period. During this period hunter-gatherers adapted to environmental change and increasing population density by developing new technological, social, and economic strategies. Recently there have been several major contributions from sites excavated along the Ohio River and along the Susquehanna River including the Turnpike bridge replacement project. Dr. Miller was involved in these archaeological investigations and their subsequent analyses.

  Steve Nissly discusses the products of  his flint knapping demonstation with Workshop participants

 Workshop participants selected four sessions from a total of eight presentations. A behind the scenes tour of the Section of Archaeology which includes the processing laboratory was also offered. Steve Nissly provided an excellent demonstration on flint knapping that was very popular. Numerous individuals brought in their artifact collections for identification by Doug McLearen and Steve Warfel. This was an excellent opportunity for avocationals to share their site information and associated collections with Noel Strattan and Tom Held from the Bureau for Historic Preservation. Noel and Tom assisted participants in recording site information in the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey and the Cultural Resources Geographic Information System (CRGIS). Dr. Bernard Means demonstrated three-dimensional scanning of artifacts from both the collections at The State Museum and from the Consol Site (36Wm100). Bernard will share the results of this technology in a future blog

Noel Strattan demonstrates the CRGIS program to Workshop participants.

Tom Held shares site recording information

The closing comments delivered by Dr. Dean Snow, Professor of Anthropology, Penn State University were an opportunity for reflection of our understanding of past cultural behavior and the direction for archaeological research in the future. Presenters and participants engaged in discussions of the day in an informal reception held in the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology.
Dr. Dean Snow delivers the closing comments for the day.

This is one of many public outreach programs that our department provides for the general populist. They are always well received and incredibly rewarding venues, but they require a lot of planning and assistance. We would be remiss in not recognizing the many contributors to the success of our program. The dedicated volunteers of The Section of Archaeology provided assistance with mailing registration forms, preparing registration packets, registering participants, organizing and furnishing the refreshments for breaks, and numerous tasks that could not be done without them. Andi, Toni, Sheila, Harmony, Melanie, Ande, Cassie and all did a terrific job! Many thanks to the following businesses Navarro & Wright, URS and TEC,Inc. for their donations which provided printing and refreshments for the Workshops. Thanks to the Pennsylvania Archaeological Council, Mark McConaughy, for his assistance in organizing the funding for this program. Staff of The State Museum provided facilities support and our wonderful security staff patiently waited for us to clear out after a long day on Saturday.

Reception following the programs in the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology

We are making lists and taking notes for Archaeology Workshops 2012 and are already planning speakers and presentations for next year. If you couldn’t join us this year, please keep watch on our blog for this program in November 2012.

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

Friday, November 4, 2011

Workshops in Archaeology

The Archaeology Section of the State Museum of Pennsylvania invites you to attend the newly revived Annual Workshops in Archaeology tomorrow Saturday, November 5th.

Designed for avocational archaeologists and the public at large, this year’s program features a review of Native American Archaeology in the Commonwealth. Recent excavations have contributed to the archaeological community’s understanding of Native peoples in Pennsylvania from our earliest inhabitants 16,000 years ago to European colonization during the Contact Period.

Presentations will include highlights from investigations along the Susquehanna River such as the Routes 11 and 15 project around Liverpool, the Susquehanna Turnpike Bridge project, and the Leymone Susquehannock village site. There will also be a flint knapping demonstration and an artifact identification session.

Closing comments by Dean Snow, PhD., professor of Anthropology, Penn State University on the value of archaeology and the contribution of archaeology to everyday life in Pennsylvania will be followed by a reception in the Anthropology and Archaeology Gallery of the State Museum.

Click here for the program brochure including a detailed description of class sessions. Registration: $25.00 at the door.

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