Friday, August 2, 2013

Snyder County: Chert quarries and projectile point typologies

This week’s journey by county through the archaeology of Pennsylvania takes us to central Pennsylvania and Snyder County. This county is situated in the Appalachian Mountain and Susquehanna Lowland sections of the Ridge and Valley Physiographic Province. The region is characterized by long linear ridges and valleys. Drained by the Susquehanna River which forms its eastern boundary, the county is situated at the confluence of the West and the North branches of the Susquehanna. The major tributaries are Middle Creek and Penns Creek.  

The county was first occupied by Europeans in the 1740s. By the 1750’s Native Americans were becoming distressed with the intrusion of settlers into the region and disillusioned with the Colonial government’s attitude toward the treaties it had signed. In 1754, they conducted a series of raids in the Penns Creek valley that became known as the Penns Creek Massacre. This was one of the events that led to the French and Indian War. Fort Hunter in Dauphin County was originally established as a safe-haven for the local settlers.

The density of sites (at 1 site per 1.12 square miles) is high compared to other counties. Most of the sites were recorded by amateur archaeologists. The county is heavily developed along the Susquehanna River but much of the county remains rural. This has protected archaeological resources from urban sprawl. The sites are not evenly distributed across the county and the vast majority are located along the two major tributaries and the along the Susquehanna River.

Chert is by far the most common lithic material for stone tool production. The second most common is metarhyolite which was either traded or brought from the extensive deposits in South Mountain, over 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the south. Although there are jasper quarries just outside of State College (70 miles or 110 kilometers) in the Penns Creek drainage, jasper artifacts are not common.

Shriver chert sampling for geochemical analysis

Shriver chert is part of the Onondaga/Old Port geologic formation that dates to the Devonian Period and is found in a narrow band that extends across the county from east to west. A major quarry is located near Selinsgrove.  As part of a federal highway improvement project, Shriver chert was the focus a of multi-disciplinary research study that examined chert quarries, areas of heavy usage, and areas of lower intensity utilization. Twenty chert outcrops were identified but only three of these were actually mined by Native Americans. The remainder were of poor quality. The distribution of where Shriver chert artifacts were found in central Pennsylvania was also mapped. A second part of this study involved investigating various methods of chert sourcing – locating where specific artifacts were quarried. The geologists at A.D. Marble were able to identify a variety of microscopic and geochemical methods for distinguishing Shriver chert from other chert types but none of these techniques were able to identify specific sources (quarries) within the Shriver formation. It was concluded that simple thin section analysis may be the most effective method for identifying cherts in this region but many more samples need to be analyzed from this formation (or any chert formation) in order to pinpoint more specific quarries.

Penns Creek assemblage from Bressler

Several important archaeological surveys have been conducted in the county. One of the earliest was by James Bressler who examined a series of sites along Penns Creek (Bressler 1960). This drainage begins at Penns Cave in Centre County and enters the Susquehanna River at the Isle of Que. Therefore, it was probably a major avenue of travel. In addition, he noted that chert quarries also likely played a role in attracting Native Americans to the region. Although he noted Late Woodland camps all along the creek, Bressler felt that the major sites were Archaic in age.

Excavation block at 36Sn220

Test Unit 3, Feature 1 at 36Sn220

One of the most significant excavations conducted in the county was the testing of site 36Sn220 by Patricia Miller, an archaeologist at KCI Technologies. This projected was part of the widening of U.S. Route 11/15 that stretches for 35 miles from Clark’s Ferry to Shamokin Dam. The site is situated on the lower (T1) terrace of the Susquehanna River and extends for approximately 245 meters. It is well stratified and cultural occupations are buried to a depth of approximately one meter. These date from Late Archaic through Late Woodland times. The site was excavated in 10 cm levels within natural soil stratigraphy. Although the site produced several interesting features and examples of Late Archaic and Transitional technological characteristics, the most significant conclusions involved projectile point types and trade and exchange.

Regionally known as the “Coe axiom”, archaeologists in the past believed that each projectile point type represented a different culture and usually a different time period. This was based on the observation that individual levels or occupations at stratified sites were characterized by one type. For example, the Late Archaic period in the Susquehanna Valley is characterized by a variety of stemmed projectile points such as Popular Island, Lackawaxen or Bare Island types. The following Transitional period is characterized by broadspears, such as Susquehanna, Perkiomen and Lehigh types. As an extension of the Coe Axiom, archaeologists frequently used projectile points to date sites. Absolute dating methods such as carbon-14 cannot be used at most sites and archaeologists were using projectile points as stand-ins (proxies).

Transitional projectile point assemblage following the "Coe axiom"

revised Transitional Period projectile point assemblage that includes stemmed points 

 In the 1990’s this concept was questioned as individual occupations were found that yielded multiple projectile point types. For example, at several sites, stemmed points were found with broad spears but it was speculated that animal borrows, root action, flooding or a combination of these activities were the cause of this mixing of projectile points from different time periods. At 36Sn220, Miller found stemmed points in both Late Archaic and Transitional period occupations and she did not feel it was due to mixing. She hypothesized that broadspears and stemmed projectile points were used by the same peoples. Based on subsequent excavations, broadspears seem to have been used only during the Transitional period but stemmed projectile points were used over a long period of time during both the Late Archaic and Transitional periods. Since Miller’s investigation, several other sites have been excavated where stemmed projectile points were used over a long period of time. Archaeologists are now more careful when using projectile points to date sites, making their research more challenging as a result.

We hope you have enjoyed this journey through the archaeological heritage of Snyder County and that you will seek additional reading in the references provided below.  Understanding and exploring our archaeological heritage is crucial to our understanding of human behavior and our ability to change and adapt over time - just as the peoples of Snyder County have done for thousands of years.


A.D. Marble & Company
2003    Archaeological and Geological Study of Shriver Chert in Snyder and Union counties, Pennsylvania: Alternative Mitigation for the Troxell Site (36Sn91) S.R. 0522, Section 043, Bridge Replacement Project, Franklin Township, Snyder county, Pennsylvania, ER# 97-6002-109. Prepared for Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Engineering District 3-0.

Bressler, James P.
1960    The Penns Creek Archaic Workshops. Pennsylvania Archaeologist, 30(1):25-29.

Miller, Patricia E.

1998    Lithic Projectile Point technology and Raw Material Use in the Susquehanna River Valley. In The Archaic Period in Pennsylvania, Edited by Paul A. Raber, Patricia E. Miller and Sarah M. Neusius. pp 91-120.

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

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