Friday, March 2, 2012

Berks County

A high density of sites but few excavations of stratified sites or large villages.


This week we travel to the eastern part of the Commonwealth in the Delaware drainage basin to Berks County. The county contains a wide variety of resources that were useful to both historic and prehistoric peoples. It is located at the intersection of three physiographic zones; the Great Valley, the Piedmont and the Reading Prong. The main drainage is the Schuylkill River and the largest streams are the Tulpehocken and Maiden Creek. Interestingly, the county is connected to the Susquehanna drainage basin by the Little Swatara Creek. During the historic period, this was the route for a canal to connect the Schuylkill and Susquehanna drainages and it was undoubtedly used during the prehistoric period.

Johanna Furnace

Berks County has a very high density of sites (1 site per 0.95 square miles) and there are 842 sites recorded in the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey files. They include sites dating from the Paleoindian period through the 20th century. One of the most important historic archaeological sites is 19th century Johanna Furnace. The Hay Creek Valley Historical Association has been conducting archaeological investigations at the furnace for nearly two decades. This work has been very important in contributing to our understanding of an iron workers community but also in reconstructing many of its buildings.

Archaeology at Johanna Furnace

However, Berks is a rural county and over 87% of the sites have a prehistoric component. Many archaeological surveys have been conducted and the State Museum has a pretty good representative sample of artifacts from these sites. Considering the size of the Schuylkill River and the connections to the Susquehanna drainage, it is surprising that there are few if any stratified sites or large Late Woodland villages that have been excavated and reported.

Although few large scale excavations have been conducted, the archaeology of Berks County is interesting from several aspects. Berks County has two major lithic sources within its boundaries; jasper and quartzite, both found in the Hardyston Formation. There are eleven jasper quarries located in the eastern portion of the county and at least four quartzite quarries on the ridge to the north and south of the City of Reading. The japer quarries are mostly small (less than two acres in size) and not nearly as large as the Vera Cruz and Macungie quarries located nearby in Lehigh County. We have discussed these jasper quarries in earlier blogs. Considering the Paleoindian preference for jasper, it is interesting that there are only three Paleoindian sites recorded for the county.

The main quartzite quarries are the Robesonia quarries and the Longswamp quarries. These are situated on the north slope of the ridge bordering the Great Valley. The quartzite quarries are very different from the jasper quarries. The good quality material is exposed on the surface over large areas usually ten acres or more in size. The prehistoric miners did not need to dig quarry pits to extract the material as was done with the jasper. They simply flaked the exposed bedrock and large boulders. Unfortunately, the huge quantity of flakes, broken bifaces and cores from these sites has attracted a lot of attention. This has resulted in extensive looting and the near destruction of these important sites. When will people learn that these artifacts are part of our collective heritage and should be shared by all and not squandered by a few or worse, sold on the open market such as on e-bay?

The quarries are situated on slopes and likely were not convenient places for the production of tools. There are several sites in close proximity to the quarries (known as secondary reduction stations) that are closer to water and hence provide better camping conditions. One of these, the Deturk site (36BK0002) was examined by John Witthoft in the 1950s. This site is now destroyed but it contained large quantities of flakes representing early stage biface and projectile point production. Some archaeologists consider quartzite a relatively rough material for making stone tools. Although, usually broken, this site has produced some very finely made bifaces that were produced using an antler or wooden hammer.

Quartzite Biface

In contrast, some early stage bifaces from the Deturk site looked like Lower Paleolithic hand axes leading Witthoft to suggested that the simple technology indicated that these were very early in the Archaic period and possibly dated to Paleoindian times. He named this the De Turk Complex. This was an incorrect assumption that was made at several quarry sites and archaeologists today are aware that a simple technology does not necessarily mean the artifact has great antiquity.


Biface Fragments from De Turk Site
Approximately 190 archaeological survey projects have been conducted in Berks County in preparation for state or federal construction projects. The Commonwealth Archaeology Program conducted investigations at several sites in the county. The largest survey was conducted prior to the Blue Marsh Lake dam project located on the Tulpehocken Creek. The project was led by Pandora Snethkamp and Carol Ebright of the State University of New York at Binghamton (Snethkamp and Ebright 1982). This project was significant for several reasons. First, this investigation added to our understanding of Late Archaic settlement patterns and the evolution of cultural adaptations from the Late Archaic through the Transitional time period. Second, the work included an intensive survey of the Robesonia quartzite quarries resulting in a better understanding of how the material was extracted at the quarries and the reduction sequence used to make Late Archaic projectile points. The field work included the systematic surface collection of ten sites and three of these were test excavated. They were able to define different types of sites used during the Late Archaic based on the horizontal distribution of artifacts. The investigation also included the intensive analysis of private collections from 305 sites. It was concluded from this study that there was cultural continuity between the Late Archaic and the Transitional periods and that the Transitional period simply represents the addition of new technologies grafted onto the Late Archaic adaptation. This is not a profound idea today but, 30 years ago it indeed was.

The second significant contribution of this project was the impact on archaeological surveys. The National Historic Preservation Act was passed in 1966 and required federal agencies to consider the affects of their construction projects on significant archaeological sites. Up through the 1970’s, these surveys focused on finding large villages and ignored upland areas and smaller sites. These were sometimes called windshield surveys because the archaeologists conducting the surveys frequently didn’t even get out of their cars. As we now recognize, the villages represent but a small part of the cultural adaptation so a large number of sites and data were being ignored and lost. In the Middle Atlantic region, this project changed the way in which we conduct surveys by demonstrating the contribution that upland sites can make to our understanding of changing cultural adaptations.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the archaeology of Berks County and that it inspires you to learn more about the archaeology of your county. These resources are Pennsylvania’s heritage and for all of us it is our window into the past. Please help us preserve these important resources by reporting and recording your archaeological finds while we all Preserve our Past for the Future.


Snethkamp, Pandora E. Carol A. Ebright and Jeffery B. Serena

1982 The Blue Marsh Lake Project: Archaeological Studies of the Late Archaic in the Pennsylvania Piedmont. National Park Service, Philadelphia.


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

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