Friday, November 22, 2013

Workshops in Archaeology Review


If you are a frequent follower of This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology, you would know that this past Saturday, the Section of Archaeology of the State Museum of Pennsylvania hosted its annual Workshops in Archaeology program. The theme of this year’s program was the Archaeology of a Troubled Nation 1775-1865. This all day event was comprised of a series of PowerPoint lecture presentations. Based on the Evaluation Questionnaire, this year’s program proved to be informative and entertaining for all whom attended.


Noel Strattan and Tom Held of the Bureau for Historic Preservation were on hand to guide people through the inner workings of the Cultural Resource Geographic Information System, or CRGIS web portal. Doug McLearen and Kira Heinrich, also of the BHP, were available to identify all manner of historic and prehistoric artifacts that might have been puzzling their discoverers.


The program was fortunate to also include Civil War reenactor John Heckman. John showcased the uniform and equipment of a common Pennsylvania soldier and fielded questions from the inquisitive.



Steve Nissley, an expert flint knapper, set up a lithic tool production workshop outside of the Auditorium. Steve’s demonstration is always well received and much appreciated, as seen here by some of our younger participants.




The morning began with opening remarks delivered by the Director of the State Museum of Pennsylvania, David Dunn, followed by four PowerPoint lectures focused on 18th century aspects of the workshop’s theme.


Wade Catts of John Milner & Associates relayed his experience using a type of remote sensing technology called ground penetrating radar, or GPR, to aid in the search for the remains of the Continental Powder Works and gun factory at French Creek, Chester County. The complex had played an active role in the American Revolution but was ultimately destroyed during the conflict. Wade explained how East Pikeland Township has taken an active role in preserving this unique piece of American history by securing a grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program.



Janet Johnson, Curator in The State Museum of Pennsylvania’ Section of Archaeology spoke about the recent discovery, subsequent local and state coordination, and ongoing conservation efforts to stabilize  a Revolutionary War relic known as a Cheval de Frise. A large number of these were placed in the Delaware River to thwart the advances of the British Navy during its attack on Philadelphia. Once this impressive 30 ft. long iron tipped “river spike” is preserved and exhibited, it will serve as an effective vehicle to connect people with the events of the American Revolution that took place in and around Philadelphia.


David Orr of Temple University discussed the work conducted work at Valley Forage National Historic Park. He explained how archaeological features recently discovered can transcend the well recited national historic mythologies of hardship and endurance of the winter of 1777-1778. Isolated trash pits, discrete cooking areas, and orderly arraignment of where the soldiers’ huts once stood illustrated the less well known stories of industriousness, effective leadership and disciplined training. These findings are now contributing to a greater depth of understanding of this critical point in the formation of our new nation.


Steve Warfel, retired Senior Curator of Archaeology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, presented details of Ephrata Cloister’s use as a Revolutionary War hospital during 1777 – 1778. Through his extensive excavations of now extant dormitory and prayer buildings on the National Historic Landmark property, Steve has been able to tease apart military and medicinal artifacts of the hospital period from those more domestic in nature associated with religious community members. Thorough primary document research combined with a long term archaeology program have created a more accurate portrait of the past and corrected some secondary source romanticized histories of the Cloister.

Following a break for lunch, the four lectures presented in the afternoon continued with 19th Century aspects of the Workshop’s theme.


Walter Rybka, Senior Captain of the Flagship Niagara, walked the audience through an hour by hour timeline of the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, a brief yet powerful conflict on Pennsylvania’s Great Lake. He also outlined the history of a series of reconstructions made of the war vessel, including his time and experiences as Captain of the current ship. Today, the Niagara is a high caliber combination living history museum and sailing ambassador of the Commonwealth.


Mary Ann Levine of Franklin and Marshal College shared her findings from excavations at the Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith site, located in the historic district of Lancaster City, Pennsylvania. A curious modification to a cistern coupled with oral histories and documentation of Stevens as a prominent abolitionist suggest this site might have been a place of refuge along the Underground Railroad. The nature of the function of such sites makes their positive identification a rare occurrence.


John Roby of Indiana University of Pennsylvania offered his listeners the notion of how a nuanced social context has the potential to lead to a refined interpretation of archaeological remains.  Ideas concerning social justice and resistance through conscientious consumerism were introduced through the example of the Free Sugar Movement of the mid – 19th Century. This social lens was then applied to the archaeology of a multi-generational maple sugar production farm owned by an African American family in Susquehanna County.


Ben Resnick from GAI Consultants discussed the accidental discovery, analysis and re-burial with military honors of a civil war soldier who had been killed during the first hours of the battle of Gettysburg.  Using battle records he was able to lay out the proceedings of the morning in the area known as the ‘railroad cut’, where the remains had been found.  Forensic archaeology then made it possible to surmise a plausible end to this brave soldier’s life. Current research has narrowed the personal identification of this individual to one of about 30 candidates, and future research using DNA may be able to establish his identity.  As for now he has been reburied with high honors as “Unknown Civil War Remains”.


 Following the final presentation, Judd Kratzer remarked on how each of the projects featured during the program had contributed to our greater understanding of the conflicts represented in the time period under discussion through archaeology field work and analysis of material culture. There was also a brief question and answer period to afford attendees the opportunity to pose specific comments or questions to the presenters.The day’s events concluded with a casual wine and cheese reception in the Archaeology gallery.


We would be remiss if we did not mention and thank our dedicated group of volunteers who helped in all manner of ways, both in front of and behind the scenes. We would not be able bring this event together without your assistance. A special thanks to Judy Hawthorn who took pictures all day long of the event.

Already looking ahead to next year, the Workshops in Archaeology program is scheduled for Saturday November 8th, 2014. The theme will be the Paleo-Indian time period and Ice Age peoples’ adaptations to a changing climate and environment.

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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