Thursday, December 31, 2015

We are the Section of Archaeology

Staff Directory

Dr. Kurt Carr, Senior Curator –
-          Contact for research, internships and public outreach inquiries
Janet Johnson, Curator –
-          Contact for intern, volunteer, CRM, loan, research and public outreach inquiries
Jim Herbstritt, Historic Preservation Specialist –
Liz Wagner, Curator –
Dave Burke, Curator –
Kim Sebestyen, Curator –
Melanie Mayhew, Curator –
Andrea Carr, Lab Contractor–
Callie Holmes, Lab Contractor –

The Section of Archaeology staff preparing for the Kipona Festival on City Island in Harrisburg
Photo: PHMC/The State Museum of PA

About Us

The Section of Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania curates the largest collection in the museum and is responsible for multiple functions within the PHMC.  Developing and maintaining exhibits in the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology is a primary function, but our role as the state repository for cultural resource projects is substantial.  Our office is responsible for curating approximately 8 million artifacts representing over 14,000 years of Pennsylvania’s archaeological heritage. The curation and preservation of Native American  and historic period artifacts and their associated records from archaeological sites across the Commonwealth is an essential function requiring collaboration with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO)and state, federal and private developers. Prior to construction, a review process conducted by PHMC  archaeologists will identify the impact of water & sewer lines, highway expansion, bridge replacements and private or commercial development receiving state or federal funding. A variety of preservation methods are employed to mitigate the impact of these projects on our cultural heritage.  If an archaeological site can’t be avoided during construction, then an archaeological investigation is conducted. It is through this process that many significant and unique objects of our archaeological heritage are recovered.  Artifacts resulting from these projects represent the bulk of our collection.  These significant collections are available for scholarly examination, and researchers are encouraged to contact the Section of Archaeology for information about using the collections.

Projectile points from the Dutt collection (Chester County) which have been sorted into different types based on form
Photo: PHMC/The State Museum of PA

 Our role as Pennsylvania’s repository for archaeological survey records and collections is part of the environmental review process conducted by the SHPO; additionally, our facility curates archaeological collections of significance from Pennsylvania that have been donated by private collectors. The Section of Archaeology is also responsible for developing and updating the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology exhibits at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.   These exhibits present the pre-history of Pennsylvania from approximately 14,000 years ago through the historic period with collections representing military and industrial era sites in Pennsylvania. 
Loans to non-profit organizations are facilitated through the section and have provided opportunities for communities to view the archaeological heritage of their community at the local level.   The PHMC has a renewable loan policy that enables proper monitoring of loan agreements and artifacts.  Local community awareness and appreciation for the archaeological record are greatly enhanced by these displays.

An exhibit of artifacts on loan to the Red Rose Transit Authority in Lancaster from The State Museum’s archaeology collection
Photo: Red Rose Transit Authority

Curation of these irreplaceable objects is provided in a secure curation facility. A climate controlled environment ensures the long term preservation of Pennsylvania’s archaeological heritage. Humidity, temperature and sub-standard artifact housing pose threats to the long term preservation of artifacts; often, the effects of poor storage conditions are apparent only after irreversible damage has been done. It is the responsibility of the curators to ensure collections and records are properly housed so that they may be made available for future generations of researchers and for the benefit of all.

Compact storage units are used to make the most of the 34,278 cubic foot curation facility
Photo: PHMC/The State Museum of PA

We continue to make our collections more accessible to researchers and to raise awareness of the importance of archaeology in Pennsylvania. The staff is involved with public outreach programs such as The Pennsylvania Farm Show, presentations at professional conferences or community venues, research and publication.

Publications by the museum’s archaeology staff include the recently released book, First Pennsylvanians: The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania by Kurt Carr and Roger Moeller, available now from the PA Heritage Foundation bookstore and articles on Shenks Ferry culture in PA Archaeologist and The Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology by Jeffrey Graybill and PHMC archaeologist Jim Herbstritt, available from the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology and the Middle Atlantic Archaeological Conference. Listed below are the articles on Shenks Ferry culture and their corresponding journals.

Graybill, Jeffrey R. and James T. Herbstritt
2013 Shenks Ferry Radiocarbon Dates, The Quarry Site (36La1100), and Village Site Ecology. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 83(2):16-28
2014 The Luray Phase, Mohr (36LA39), and the Protohistoric Period. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 30:25-39
      2014 Shenks Ferry Tradition Ceramic Seriation. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 84(1):27-45 

Visitors to the Section of Archaeology’s Farm Show exhibit.
Photo: PHMC/The State Museum of PA

Contacting Us

In addition to roles with exhibits and the SHPO, our staff may receive multiple inquiries from researchers, educators or the general public during a single week. The archaeology department does its best to answer questions in a timely manner. If we are not able to assist with an inquiry, the staff will refer the question to an individual whom we think may be better able to assist.
Frequently, questions concern artifact identification. Our staff is most capable of answering questions about artifacts found in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic region. At minimum, a good quality photograph with a scale should be included in the inquiry, but remember, identification via photograph is not always possible. If scheduling allows, our staff is willing to identify artifacts in person at our offices in downtown Harrisburg.

A copper adze that was brought to the archaeology staff for identification- there are no other items like this in our collections, making it an especially intriguing artifact.
Photo: PHMC/The State Museum of PA

Other common questions come from individuals wishing to use the archaeology collections for research. Many journal articles, master’s theses, and Ph.D. dissertations have been produced from research conducted using the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s historic and prehistoric archaeology collections.  Listed below are just a few of the many publications.

Esarey, Duane
2013 Another Kind of Beads: A Forgotten Industry of the North American Colonial Period. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Published in American Archaeology, Vol.18, No.1 spring 2014

Lauria, Lisa
2004 Mythical Giants of the Chesapeake: An Evaluation of the Archaeological Construction of “Susquehannock”. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 20:21-28

Mitchell, Seth
2011 Understanding the occupational history of the Monongahela Johnston Village Site Through Total Artifact Design. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Orr, David G
2003 Samuel Malkin in Philadelphia: A remarkable Slipware Assemblage. Ceramics in America 2003 pp. 252-255 (

Occasionally, our staff will receive a request for public outreach. In October of this year, a request of this nature sent two staff members to the Upper Adams Middle School in Biglerville, PA to speak to 7th grade students studying ancient history. For occasions such as these, our staff uses a display board, a photographic slideshow and an assortment of prehistoric and historic artifacts to provide students with an overview of what it means to be an archaeologist and why archaeology matters. These experiences can be extremely rewarding for both the students and the staff. Public outreach plays an important role in meeting the educational goals of the museum.

Archaeology Curators Liz Wagner and Melanie Mayhew display artifacts for students of ancient history
Photo: Brenda Robinson

In addition to special requests for public outreach, archaeologists at the state museum participate in special programming at The State Museum. During the summer of 2015, staff members were on hand every Thursday afternoon in the Nature Lab on the third floor of the State Museum to offer insight and answer questions on a broad range of archaeology subjects including prehistoric tool making, clay pottery and the ongoing research of prehistoric stone axes, among other topics.

These are just a few of the many functions served by the archaeology curators at the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

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

Friday, December 18, 2015

Behind the Scenes at The State Museum – Mapping the archaeological record at Fort Hunter

To continue our discussion about Fort Hunter data collection, processing and usage we will take a look at one of the most important factors in understanding and preserving an archaeological site. This factor, as is commonly stated in the real estate industry is, “location, location, location”. In order for archaeologists to understand the landscape of an archaeological site we must know where everything is in location to one another both horizontally and vertically. The reason it is so important to record the location of artifacts, features and structures, is that once they are removed from the ground there is no way put them back in their exact place again. In addition, maps depicting the exact location of different types of artifacts are necessary to identify artifact patterning and activity areas. The excavation methods employed by trained archaeologists insure that the entire archaeological record of a site is properly recorded during excavation as archaeology is a destructive science.
In order to preserve this locational information, sites such as Fort Hunter, are excavated based on a grid set from our datum (a known fixed point). This allows archaeologists to go back to a site, whether it is from year to year or twenty years from now, and re-establish the grid. With good documentation and a re-established grid, archaeologists can determine what areas had been previously excavated. The grid also provides the horizontal locational information of artifacts and features that have been removed from that area. At Fort Hunter our grid is in 5 by 5 foot square increments, which is termed as a unit. We name our units using the northing and easting (for example N90E10) of the southwest corner of a square. This designation allows us to easily reference that unit and keep track of the artifacts or features.

Overview of Fort Hunter excavations with stakes and string line indicating the grid, Fort Hunter 2007

Once a grid is established, we begin excavating units in levels in either arbitrary levels of a predetermined measurement (for example 3 inches or 5 centimeters etc.) or based on soil layers, which are indicated by changes in soil color and texture. The layers are often given an alpha designation based on the soil type. Identifying the same types of soil throughout the grid allows us to see how the soil layers slope and change over the landscape. These anomalies can indicate different geologic/climatic processes as well as point to the activities of people on the landscape. Within these natural layers, we then excavate in arbitrary levels. These levels and layers are measured below the set datum elevation, which provides the vertical location information of the artifacts found within that level.

As mentioned in our last blog, “…unique catalog numbers are assigned to each provenience.” The provenience mentioned here is the locational identity of the artifacts based on the horizontal and vertical measurements discussed above. It is with the locational information and the well-developed catalog that we are able to know how the artifacts and features are related to one another.
Now that we have explained how we use the grid, we can look at how we layout the grid, take measurements and how we manipulate the data in the lab. The basic idea of establishing a grid is to create accurate 90 degree angle squares and in order to do this archaeologists use a transit, tape measures and some basic geometry. A transit is an instrument that sights straight lines and different angles. The transit is also used with a stadia rod to measure the depth of a level.

Staff member using transit, just beginning to set up grid, Fort Hunter 2010

Today we use a newer technology called a total station. A total station is an electronic transit which can also sight straight lines and angles as well as use a laser and prism to collect precise horizontal and vertical measurements of a point on our grid. Using the Top Con Data Collector (handheld attachment to the total station), we are able to easily store and look up point information while in the field and also download and convert the data into a spreadsheet format.

Staff member using Top Con total station, Fort Hunter 2014

Staff member holding prism to take measurements using total station, Fort Hunter 2014

Example of collected data in spreadsheet format

With the data collected, we are able to then create useful maps, which allow us to analyze the relationship between features, structures and artifacts. It is also possible to use unit and artifact data to create distribution maps. Common programs used to create such maps include Golden Software’s Surfer and Autodesk’s AutoCAD.

Example of a feature map, showing relationship of several different features

Example of an artifact distribution map

Example of a profile map

With today’s technology, and the detailed information we collect, there are many different mapping options including those above as well as the ability of creating 3-D images. Knowing the relationship of artifacts and features on the landscape provides the foundation that archaeologists use to develop explanations for how past humans were living on and using the landscape. Creating these maps provides a useful visual comparison of how features, artifacts and structures are placed on the landscape. Finally, maps also provide a great way to interpret an archaeological site and how we present different ideas of the past to others.  

We wanted to take a moment to remember a longtime volunteer, Sheila Dunn. Sheila was a dedicated volunteer who put a lot of time and effort into collecting data and creating Fort Hunter maps for us. Using her training and past experience in watershed surveys she was always ready and willing to help out in any way and put in great effort to create some of our first maps of the Fort Hunter excavations. Thank you, Sheila.  

Sheila Dunn

We hope to see you all in the new year at the 100th anniversary of the Pennsylvania Farm Show running from January 9-January 16, 2016. Look for us in a new location this year directly off of the Maclay Street entrance near the children’s carousel. From all of us in the Section of Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania - Have a happy and safe holiday!

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

Friday, December 4, 2015

Behind the Scenes at The State Museum—Processing the Fort Hunter Collection What happens after the field work is done?

Our last blog about Fort Hunter highlighted the ongoing archival research staff archaeologists’ conduct to inform how we interpret the results of each year’s excavation which aids in directing our plans for future investigations.  Over the next few postings we are going to continue to discuss what happens with Fort Hunter artifacts and excavation documents between field seasons.
For every day of investigation at a well-defined archaeological site, roughly seven days are required to fully process and conserve the artifacts and archive the associated field documentation. This is a general rule of thumb that many professional archaeologist use to estimate time in preparing budgets for archaeological investigations. The laboratory time needed varies to a degree depending on quantities and types of artifacts, the extent of field records, and the numbers of people working with the collection, but on average the ratio of 1:7—length of field season to laboratory processing time—holds true.

 Artifacts laid out on trays to clean and label, Fort Hunter 2015

The 2015 Fort Hunter field season was conducted for a span of 25 days, with over 12,000 artifacts recovered, 133 proveniences documented (excavation unit levels dug and subsurface features identified, etc.), and 470 digital photographs taken. Based on the ratio of 1:7, the estimated time for a single person to fully process the collection would be around 175 days or about seven months working five days a week. This estimate projects an April completion date of the following year to fully inventory, curate and archive collected artifacts and documents for any given fall season. Luckily we have two staff members in the archaeology lab and a rotation of several dedicated volunteers who greatly assist with the cleaning and labeling of artifacts.  Working together we are able to generally complete the lab processing of Fort Hunter annual collections by early January, while juggling other projects and responsibilities.

 Volunteer rinsing historic artifacts washed with a Sonicor industrial cleaner

As with any collection that is processed in the lab, the initial steps are to organize and record the provenience information from field bags through the preparation of a digital inventory; and stabilize the artifacts through washing, dry brushing or other conservation techniques as needed.

Excerpt from 2015 Bag Inventory

The bag inventory is then used to assign unique catalog numbers to all proveniences represented in the artifact collection. Cleaned artifacts that are at least a square inch in diameter and are material types that can be safely treated with a reversible acryloid basecoat (e.g. - most historic and prehistoric ceramics; prehistoric stone tools; historic glass and brick) are labeled with their site number— a trinomial abbreviation developed by the Smithsonian which includes the state, county, and site information—and their designated catalog number in archival ink. Labels are then sealed with a clear topcoat to ensure longevity for long-term curation.

Staff Member basecoating terracotta pots and redware pottery sherds, Fort Hunter 2015

Fort Hunter’s site number is (36Da159). When ordered alphabetically, Pennsylvania falls 36th within the 50 States; Da is the abbreviation for Dauphin County; and Fort Hunter is the 159th site recorded in the Commonwealth’s archaeological site survey file in this county. (Click the provided link for more information about the Pennsylvania Archaeological site survey (PASS) for Dauphin County.)

 Volunteer labeling medicine bottle from tray of glass artifacts, Fort Hunter 2015

It may seem excessive to label the copious amounts of bottle glass, brick and other materials that are recovered from Fort Hunter every year, but it is well worth the time investment. The most valuable aspect of each artifact recovered is where it was located in relation to other artifacts and features on the site. This is often referred to as an artifact’s context, and is what ultimately allows archaeologist to interpret past human behaviors. Labeling artifacts with this coding system allows us to quickly know where they were recovered from, and is a safe guard against losing this information when objects are frequently pulled out of storage for further analysis.

Excerpt of Final Artifact Inventory, Fort Hunter 2014

The final steps in the artifact curation process are to add a description of each artifact or group of like artifacts into the digital inventory by catalog number, and bag and box them carefully to insure their preservation for long-term curation. This is all done in a systematic manner so that any given artifact can be easily accessed and utilized by future researchers. Maintaining a complete inventory and well organized collection for Fort Hunter year to year is particularly important because we continue to learn new information with each field season. Our interpretations continue to expand and refine as we delve further into the historic record through archival research and as our field investigations contribute further insights into material culture practices that both validate the existing historic record and broaden its scope of perspective.

Staff Member pulling artifacts from collections storage to compare findings from a previous Fort Hunter investigation year

The State Museum’s Section of Archaeology is the principal repository for archaeological collections in Pennsylvania and maintains over 7 million artifacts and associated documents. Fort Hunter field documentation and digital photographs are also archived in the Section’s county files and on a secure server with backup contact sheets and logs. These documents are constantly referenced to draft reports and articles; to create maps; to relay information in public and professional forums through presentations, exhibits, blog postings and other media outlets; and to plan further investigations. Each piece, from the artifacts recovered to field records and photographic documentation, fits together to reconstruct the story of Fort Hunter’s past. When the field work is done, we rely on sound conservation practices and accurate digital records to preserve access to Pennsylvania’s rich archaeological record for generations to come.

Staff Member searching county files for project documents

Our next blog will delve deeper into an important aspect of reconstructing and preserving archaeological contexts at Fort Hunter through digital mapping.

Special thanks to all the 2015 volunteers and interns that have greatly contributed to Archaeology Month programs this fall and post-excavation processing of the Fort Hunter collection. Thank you for preserving our past for our future—Andi B.; Jerry B.; Mary C.; Toni and Andy D.; Phil F.; Erin, Kaela and Keara F.; John G.; Keenan H.; Jonathan K.; Ruth K.; Linda L.; Brad M.; Seth M.; Fred M.; Paul R.; Wendy S.; Chriss S.; Wes S.; Clydene, Stephanie and Steve S.; Andy S.; Merikay W.  

If you are interested in learning more about archaeology methods and Pennsylvania Prehistory check out First Pennsylvanians: The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania available for purchase online and at The State Museum gift shop. 

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