Friday, March 9, 2012

Blair County-Seventh in the Series

Travel this week with our team of archaeologists here at The State Museum of Pennsylvania to Blair County. Blair County is located in south central Pennsylvania and is just 534 sq. miles, but it packs a lot into this acreage. Situated on the eastern side of the Allegheny Ridge; this ridge is the eastern continental divide between the east coast and the central plains. The ridge acts as the watershed boundary between the Ohio River to the west and the Susquehanna River to the east. Blair County has a topographic setting which is primarily mountainous with steep slopes and a high plateau between two broad valleys. Soils are generally limestone and shale in the valleys with sandstone and conglomerates on the ridges. High-quality cherts, and quartzite were utilized by Native peoples in tool making as evidenced in archaeological sites. The geology of this region provides for many natural resources and was an important key to the growth of Blair County during the industrial era. This rural area is positioned almost in the center of the state which allowed for access to both railroading and canal routes during its early development.

Blair has a relatively low number of sites recorded in the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey files at only 112 sites, one site every 4.73 sq.miles. The majority of sites date to the Late Archaic and Late Woodland period. The availability of lithic materials for tool manufacture brought Native peoples to the region for procurement of raw materials and permitted short term seasonal camps. Of note is the lack of Late Woodland village sites recorded for Blair County. Only four sites, all located on the Frankstown branch, are recorded with evidence of prehistoric pottery. The rugged terrain continued to influence historic settlement patterns as farming on steep slopes in poor soils was difficult. This steep terrain may have been what drew Native peoples to at least one ridge top site excavated by Archaeological & Historical Consultants, Inc. as part of an access road project for the Walter Business Park in Greenfield Township.

Excavation area of 36Bl106.

Projectile point in situ during controlled excavation at 36Bl106

Archaeologists excavating at 36Bl106

Excavations at 36Bl106 provided evidence of a multi-component site dating from the Early Archaic period (10,000 to 8,000 years ago) thru the Transitional period(4300 to 2100 years ago) with varying levels of occupation. The site setting in an elevated location near a spring and above the confluence of a stream attracted these early groups. Evidence recovered suggested a site focused on tool production from blanks, bifaces and cores brought to the site as well as resharpening of existing tools. Specialized analysis including microwear analysis revealed evidence of butchering and hide-scraping. Twenty-five percent of the artifacts analyzed showed evidence of hide scraping, with indicators that both wet and dry hides were being scraped. Analysis of protein residues on stone tools indicated rabbit, deer and rat residue. Hafting of stone tools with small mammal gut has been suggested to explain the presence of rat proteins. This research and analysis provided archaeologists with an increased understanding of settlement patterns in these upland settings and provided a significant contribution to the archaeological record.

If you would like to view an exhibit of some of the artifacts from 36Bl106, they are currently on loan from the State Museum to the Claysburg Area Public Library.

A projectile point from 36Bl106 on loan to Claysburg Library

The natural resources that attracted Native peoples to Blair County also contributed to the settlement of Scotch Irish and German immigrants to the region. The mining of lead ore in Sinking Valley was an important function of Fort Roberdeau during the Revolutionary War. In 1778-1779 General Daniel Roberdeau built a fort to protect miners from hostile Indians and to aid in the mining of lead deposits. The lead ore was used to supply raw material for the Continental Army’s bullets. Archaeology was conducted here in 1939 under the direction of the National Youth Administration (NYA) using federal relief monies allocated under President Roosevelt’s New Deal . This program provided employment and training to the nation’s youth at a time of record unemployment.

NYA excavations at the site of Fort Roberdeau.

The Blair County Historical Society approached the NYA office in Blair County with the goal of recovering “relics” for a museum they hoped to build as a tourist destination.

Newspaper clipping of proposed reconstruction in 1940.

The archaeology at Fort Roberdeau was the largest excavation conducted by the NYA and provided the archaeological evidence for future reconstruction of the fort. By mid-November of 1939, an area measuring 100 feet by 100 feet was excavated to a depth of 14 inches, limestone bedrock was encountered. The archaeology revealed significant limestone deposits existed below the surface, thus the fort’s construction was unusual because stockade walls were largely built of logs placed horizontally, as opposed to the then preferred practice of driving vertical logs into the ground.

Excavations at the site of Fort Roberdeau.

Accounts of the excavations reported the uncovering of the foundation of a brick powder magazine, two storage buildings, as well as may utensils and artifacts. The reconstruction and museum were put on hold as funds were shifted and training focused on preparing youth for World War II. The fort  became a Bicentennial Project in 1973, revived by the Blair County Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, dedicated on July 5, 1976.

We hope that these glimpses into the archaeology of our Commonwealth will inspire you to take an interest in your local archaeological heritage. Preservation of these archaeological resources is essential to our understanding of the archaeological past.  Looting of archaeological resources robs all of us of our heritage and destroys archaeological sites, preventing archaeologists from conducting controlled excavations and recovering evidence of the past.

Diamanti, Melissa, David J. Rue and Conran A. Hay
 2008   Phase III Archaeological Data Recovery Site 36Bl106, Walter Business Park Access         Road. S.R. 3013, Section 004 and S.R. 3006, Section 002. Report prepared for Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, District 9-0, and the Federal Highway Administration. Archeological & Historical Consultants, Inc.

Means, Bernard M.
 2010 New Deal Archaeology. Paper presented at Eastern States Archaeological Federation meeting in      Williamsburg, Virginia.

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

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