Friday, December 7, 2018

Fort Hunter Update

The radio stations are playing Christmas music, everyone is looking for the best deal on that perfect gift and we know the Christmas season has begun. Here in the Section of Archaeology the Christmas season has an added meaning; the Pennsylvania State Farm Show will begin soon, and preparations must be underway. 

Although we are in Farm Show preparation mode right now, the lab archaeologists and cherished volunteers have also been hard at work processing the artifacts found at Fort Hunter this past field season. Other posts to this blog have discussed what “processing artifacts” entails and the steps taken to curate artifacts for long term stability. In this blog we are going to take a brief look at where we are at in this process with the 2018 Fort Hunter field season artifacts.

As previously mentioned in this blog, a general rule of thumb for the time it will take to fully process artifacts in the lab is approximately seven days of lab work to each day of field work, depending on the quantity and types of artifacts found. Thankfully we have a group of dedicated and diligent volunteers who, as always, have cut down this processing time for us. We are expecting our lab processing time to be reduced a little more due to the high number of rain days we had during the Fort Hunter field season this year and we anticipate processing will be completed a little sooner this year.

Currently, nearly all the artifacts have been washed and labeled, leaving only a few trays of fire cracked rock left to go through these steps.

Artifacts being washed by volunteers

Rack with what is left of the Fort Hunter 2018 artifacts that need washed

Once the artifacts are washed and labeled it is up to the lab archaeologists to identify the artifacts, bag them for permanent curation, and inventory them. Artifact identification often requires research of the object to properly identify and to determine a suggested period of manufacture of use. We rely heavily on the expertise of staff and trusted published resources such as Ivor Noel Hume’s, A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America.

Artifacts being identified and bagged by lab archaeologist

 Much of the current work with the 2018 Fort Hunter artifacts is in this step of artifact identification and bagging. (For more information on how artifacts are processed in the state museum archaeology lab check out our previous blog, Behind the Scenes at The State Museum—Processing the Fort Hunter Collection What happens after the field work is done?).

 A little over half of the artifacts have been identified and bagged and an inventory is underway. In the past few years we have had artifact counts between 13,100 and 10,500 and with these artifacts counts it is normally early January when we get to this point, which makes us believe far fewer artifacts were collected this year. As we have not made it to the inventory step in our process we cannot say for certain if we have fewer artifacts.

 It is with the information we gather from the inventory that we can compare what has been collected this year to those of previous years. With the detailed artifact information recorded in the inventory database we can conduct analysis to identify patterns of types of artifacts found and where they are being found. With this data we can create distribution maps, which helps us to identify areas of interest and the potential location of the fort, our ultimate goal.

So here we are, moving right along with the curating the Fort Hunter artifacts, nearly halfway done and doing it a little more quickly than in previous years. As we process the artifacts, it becomes more clear what types of artifacts are present in the collection and this year we have a few more to help tell the story of the Fort Hunter Mansion and Park historic landscape.

Here is a glimpse at some of the more notable artifacts recovered this year:

Tin-glazed earthenware fragments, in production from the early seventeenth century through the mid-eighteenth century.

White salt-glazed scratch-blue stoneware fragments, in production from the mid to late-eighteenth century.

Gun lock spring fragment and lead musket balls, eighteenth century.

Kaolin pipe stems and pipe bowl fragments, dating to the mid-eighteenth century.

Straight pins, most likely dating to the eighteenth century.

Crucible fragments, our mystery, as the source for these artifacts is currently unknown based on historical documentation (For more information on crucibles found at Fort Hunter visit our previous blog To Be Ore Not To Be: Crucibles are the Answer).

 

Button with faded starburst pattern.


 
A full grooved stone axe discovered in situ, estimated to be around 4,000 years old.


We hope you have enjoyed this update on what is happening to the artifacts found at Fort Hunter during the 2018 field season and we wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season! See you at the 2019 Pennsylvania State Farm Show, January 5th-12th.


References:
Hume, Ivor Noel,

                1970       A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York.


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

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Ritual Feasting in Prehistoric Pennsylvania

In late November of previous years, we have explored the traditional feast of Thanksgiving through a discussion of early American tableware and the analysis of foodways in both prehistoric and historic contexts. To revisit the theme of feasts, this year we will focus on some of the earliest evidence of ritual feasting in the archaeological record from eastern Pennsylvania and the greater Middle Atlantic region.  



It is possible to infer from existing examples of egalitarian hunter-gather societies that the very first Pennsylvanians had rich ceremonial traditions to celebrate food abundance and to find security in social bonds during times of scarcity. Paleoindians arrived as early as 16,500 years ago following migratory herds of caribou, moose and elk in small family bands of 10 to 20 people.  The archaeological record does not lend itself easily to the interpretation of complex social dynamics in situations of low population density and poor site preservation. Ice age climate conditions swept away, rather than encapsulated Paleoindian sites near lowland waterways. Further, the most ideal locations for resource exploitation by the very first bands of humans in upland settings, continued to be revisited by many different groups over time. Very little soil deposition in these environments over time has greatly diminished the ability of today’s archaeologist to distinguish distinct patterns of activity among any two prehistoric cultural groups because there has not been much vertical or horizontal spatial separation between what these early groups left behind.  

With those limitations in mind, ritual feasting is a cross-cultural phenomenon and adaptative strategy found in both egalitarian and non-egalitarian societies to build relationships and relieve tension. However, archaeological conditions necessary to begin seeing patterns that could be considered feasting generally require higher population density and environmental conditions that favor stratigraphic site preservation.

Ethnographic studies also support the conclusion that surplus or alliance feasting as a form of social adaptation is not employed until cultural groups begin to organize on a transegalitarian level. Egalitarian societies of the past and present—like most prehistoric groups that lived in Pennsylvanian prior to European contact in the 16th century—live in social systems where all individuals have relatively the same status, with equal access to resources and few differences in wealth. There are a few distinct roles held by individuals in these societies, such as shaman or healer and headman or woman, and elders are often held in esteem, but these roles garner few tangible benefits and influence is limited within local family groups. As defined by the anthropologist Brian Hayden, transegalitarian social structures develop when groups begin to socially and politically organize themselves beyond extended family bonds of kinship. Charismatic leaders emerge and begin to exert influence beyond their local sphere, yet social organization remains decentralized. The political structures of cultural groups described as complex hunter-gatherers and early horticulturalists whom are organized on the order of macrobands—several usually-related extended family groups that live in seasonal camp sites— for most of the year or as tribes—cultural groups with defined leaders—can be described as transegalitarian. 



It is not until the Late Archaic, about 4300-6000 years ago that one could argue for the first evidence of macroband level ritual feasting in the region at a series of related sites, the Abbot Farm Complex on the New Jersey side of the Delaware river. Here, archaeological investigations uncovered occupations of over one hundred men, women and children representing several different family groups gathering together to exploit seasonal resources, trade and exchange resources and ideas, and likely hold religious ceremonies and feasts to celebrate life events such as births, coming of age, marriage and death.

Abbott Farm Complex, Louis Berger & Associates, Inc. (1996)


By the Late Archaic climatic conditions had stabilized into a relative warm and wet climate and so had the courses of the major river valleys. The Abbott Farm Complex is situated at the fall line, a unique ecological niche between the brackish estuary waters of the Delmarva coastal zone and freshwater riverine resources of the Delaware Valley. Rich in a diversity of natural resources and on a course of water easily navigated by dugout canoe, it was a favorable site for the gathering of large groups of people in both the spring, during fish spawning runs, and the fall, following bird migrations when tree nuts were ready for harvest. Food resources were readily available to support the large gatherings of people and it also served as a convenient junction for the trade and exchange of ideas and goods—a  crossroads between north and south, eastern coastal and western piedmont resources.
   
Seasonal Productivity of Wetlands and Upland Resources, Louis Berger & Associates, Inc. (1996)

Late Archaic settlement patterns at Abbott Farm demonstrate some of the first evidence of seasonal gathering into macrobands that could support large scale communal feasting due to food abundance. In both the Susquehanna and Delaware Valleys a similar widespread settlement pattern that began at Abbott Farm emerges regionally from about 4,300 to 2,700 years ago.  Conversely, environmental data would suggest this regional change in social structure was partially necessitated by greater food scarcity and instability rather than a higher resource carrying capacity as inherent at Abbott Farm. Called the Transitional Period or the Terminal Archaic, it is a time of transition between Archaic hunter-gatherer to more sedentary horticultural lifeways in Pennsylvania. This cultural period coincides with a climatic episode called the Sub-Boreal, when the weather was warm, but dryer than today. Food resources and distribution would have been less predictable due to increased drought conditions, flooding and erosion.   



There is a marked shift in settlement patterns not unlike the Abbott Farm model that demonstrates a focus on creating food surplus in the spring and fall. Bands continued to follow an annual cycle, gathering resources in lowland and uplands settings on a seasonal round. However, camps were larger and occupied for longer periods of time by groups as large as 10 to 12 families in the spring during fish migrations as well as bird migrations and nut harvests in the fall.  At floodplainsites, massive fire cracked rock features, either concentrated in large clusters up to 10 feet in diameter or scattered over large areas near the water’s edge are the likely by-products of mass roasting pits and stone-boiling on a large scale. This is a marked increase in resource procurement activities from Archaic settlements in similar locations. The introduction of seed plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex (chenopodium, little barley, knotweed, and lambs quarter) in addition to squash, which first appears during the Late Archaic, also denotes further investment of time, energy and longer occupation of sites.  At least some band members would have to remain near garden plots to plant, tend and harvest in the late spring through the summer months.

Another change during the Transitional Period is movement of and preference for South Mountain metarhyolite from Adams County, jasper from the Hardyston formation in Lehigh County and the Bald Eagle formation in Centre County, argillite from New Jersey, and steatite from the border of Lancaster and Chester Counties throughout the Northeast as toolstone. Distinct broadspear projectile point forms and later fishtail projectile points, made almost exclusively from these lithic sources are widely adopted in the region. This demonstrates larger spheres of interactions and expanding social networks during the Transitional Period in the Susquehanna and Delaware Valleys than during the Archaic. The earliest evidence of burial ceremonialism related to Pennsylvania broadspear and fishtail cultural complexes are also found in New York and New Jersey in the form of cremation burials with grave goods. Burial ceremonialism connotes a belief in an afterlife, potential recognition of special status for individuals and the need to distinguish family and band members from non-family band members. As social spheres increase the need to distinguish those that belong to a group from others also increases. Special status burials also demonstrate influence of certain individuals beyond their death, and potentially beyond kinship relationships.



The first non-perishable portable vessels made of steatite or soapstone are also diagnostic of this period. As an object, they perhaps best epitomize the cultural changes that are occurring during this time. They were utilized at sites hundreds of miles from their quarry source and ranged greatly in size. Some are large and likely used in direct cooking methods to more efficiently process foods than indirect boiling methods used with baskets made of bark, cordage or animal skins.  While smaller vessels, some with decorative motifs as seen in this example from the Zimmermann site (36Pi14), may have had a ceremonial purpose, could have been used in ritual feasts to delineate band affiliations, and/or played important roles as part of elaborate gift exchanges systems between bands at these seasonal gatherings. 



Large seasonal settlements in the spring and fall demonstrating intensive food-surplus production, the regional movement and preference for select toolstone and projectile point technology, and the adoption of steatite vessels for both cooking and non-utilitarian functions are all social adaptations that were likely reinforced and perpetuated by the ritual act of alliance feasting.  To organize the food and resource surplus needed to create these feasts, charismatic leaders would have begun to emerge at this time. Beyond the social needs of building community through shared religious practice, intermarriage and celebration or commemoration of major life events, feasting played an important role to promote trade and exchange networks between families for goods and lithic resources that may be outside of smaller bands winter and summer seasonal rounds and provide greater food security in unfavorable or unpredictable conditions during the Transitional Period.



We hope you and yours have many opportunities to gather with loved ones and feast this holiday season. We’d like to thank our many volunteers whom expand our microband of staff members into a macroband capable of exchanging information with the greater community and preserve our past for our future.

References and Further Reading:
Carr, Kurt W., and Roger W. Moeller
2015    First Pennsylvanians: The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania.
            Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Hayden, Brian
1996       “Feasting in prehistoric and traditional societies”. In P. Wiessner and W. Schiefenhovel (eds.): Food and the status quest. Berghahn Books. Providence: 127-147.
2009       The proof is in the pudding: Feasting and the origins of domestication. Current Anthropology 50(5):597-601.

Hayden Brian, and S. Villeneuve
2011       A century of feasting studies. Annual Review of Anthropology 40(1):433-449.


Hirst, K. Kris
2018       Feasting: The Archaeology and History of Celebrating Food. ThoughtCo. October 1, 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/feasting-archaeology-and-history-170940.

Louis Berger and Associates
1996       Area D Site (28Me1-D) Data Recovery. Trenton Complex Archaeology, Report 9.

Wholey, Heather

2016       Trans-egalitarian Society in the Transitional Archaic. Society for American Archaeology 81st Annual Meeting, Orlando, FL. Foragers in Middle Atlantic Prehistory.

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

Friday, November 9, 2018

Revisiting Susquehannock Culture History

2018 Workshops in Archaeology, John Smith’s Susquehannocks: The Archaeological context of a Native Culture

We would like to thank all the attendees, speakers, volunteers, and staff that made the 2018 Workshops in Archaeology a bounding success.  The subject of this year’s program was John Smith’s Susquehannocks: The Archaeological context of a Native Culture; and it was one of our most successful events having an overall attendance of 190 people. 


As always there was flint knapping demonstrations provided by Steve Nissly, an expert flintknapper that not only displayed some of his more impressive pieces but also demonstrated his technique.  This year in keeping with the Late Woodland culture period of the Susquehannock Indians, Steve demonstrated the technique used in producing triangular shaped projectile points (arrowheads).






Doug McLearen, Chief, State Historic Preservation Office and Dr. Patricia Gibble, Historic archaeologist and retired college Professor and consultant identified artifacts for participants which facilitated site recording.



Noël Strattan and Hannah Harvey from the State Historic Preservation Office were on hand to demonstrate site recordation in the Cultural Resources Geographic Information System (CRGIS).  It is essential to know where sites are in order to protect and preserve our archaeological heritage.

In addition to these staples of our program we were pleased to welcome 9 speakers to this year’s program.  All professionals with an expertise in Susquehannock archaeology and history.


The program began with Beth Hagar, Director of State Museum of Pennsylvania, providing opening remarks with a brief presentation of recent accomplishments and events at the museum.  Followed by opening remarks by Dr. Paul Raber, Director of Archaeological Services Heberling Associates, Inc.



It seemed only right to begin the day with Dr. Barry Kent, Pennsylvania State Archaeologist (retired).  He is also the author of Susquehanna’s Indians, the preeminent volume on the archaeology and history of the Susquehannock Indians.  Dr. Kent provided the culture history of this native group from their origins through the last historic record at the horrific Conestoga Indian Town massacre in 1763.

Next up was one of our former interns, Jasmine Gollup, M.A., TRC Environmental Corp.  She presented her research in the Upper Susquehanna Valley tracing the origins of the Susquehannock or Proto-Susquehannock, acknowledging some of the caveats encountered during her investigations.

After a short break, with more doughnuts and fruit than you can imagine.  James Herbstritt, The State Museum of Pennsylvania, discussed the ethnogenesis of the Susquehannocks as they moved through Pennsylvania following the North and West branches of the Susquehanna River.  By analyzing changes in ceramic assemblages from many Susquehannock and Proto-Susquehannock sites and associated carbon 14 dates he developed a chronological sequence of the Susquehannocks.



The last paper of the morning was presented by Andrew Wyatt, M.A., Senior Archaeologist, AECOM.  Andrew shared the results of the data recovery excavations at the Lemoyne site, an early seventeenth century, palisaded, Susquehannock village.  Significant in providing dietary evidence not previously recovered on many of the previously excavated village sites which has enriched our understand of Native foodways.



Presentations resumed after lunch with Dr. Robert Wall, Towson University, discussing the chronology of the Susquehannock.  Looking at community patterns of several sites excavated in the last few decades, this time in the Upper Potomac River Valley he demonstrated the existence of a brief occupation which existed for about twenty years, which ended about 1620.



The first depiction of a Susquehannock is from John Smith’s journal and map of 1608 where he notes that they are “a giant like people”.  Dr. Marshall Becker, West Chester University compared both male and female skeletal remains of Susquehannocks recovered in West Virginia with remains of contemporary natives from nearby tribes. His research suggests that the women were of average height, but the men were indeed taller.

Dr. Lisa Lauria stepped away from the taxonomical approach and touched on the cultural anthropological method.  She discussed the social context of ceramics and how it changed as brass and copper kettles replaced the handmade ceramic vessels.  Lisa suggested that changes in pottery decoration and size reflected social change and adaptation of the people.

After another brief break, Dr. Timothy Shannon, Gettysburg College, explored the historical accounts of the Susquehannocks interactions with colonials in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Dr. Shannon’s research of treaty agreements, journals and colonial government records traced the transfer of power from the once powerful Susquehannocks to the Iroquois after the Iroquois attack of 1674.

The final paper of the day was delivered by Jackie Kramer, Outdoor Recreation Planner, National Park Service.  She talked about the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail which is the country’s first national water trail extending from Havre de Grace, Maryland to Cooperstown, New York and its role in telling the story of the native people that lived in the lower Susquehanna River valley.

The presenters gathered for a question and answer session with the audience which allows for further discussion and questions from the audience. This exchange often introduces additional dialogue that presenters are unable to share in their presentations due to time constraints.  Participants had one last opportunity to share thoughts and interests at a lovely reception in the museum’s Susquehanna room. 



 


For those that attended it was a great day full of good information about the people that once inhabited this part of Pennsylvania.  If you were unable to attend, there is always next year. These presentations are also a preview of a soon to be published title; Contact and Cultural Identity, Recent Studies of the Susquehannocks edited by Paul Raber. This publication will be available in the fall of 2019 through Penn State University Press. The 2019 Pennsylvania Farm Show is just around the corner and this year’s exhibit will follow the theme of the workshops highlighting the archaeology and history of the Susquehannocks.   Stay tuned to TWIPA for information regarding the 2019 Workshops in Archaeology as well as other upcoming events.  


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

Friday, October 26, 2018

Workshops in Archaeology 2018 at the State Museum of Pennsylvania

Last Call!

Registration for this year’s Workshops in Archaeology program is proving to be one of our largest presentations to the public since the 1990’s! Through current and ongoing research, archaeologists and historians from the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions will trace the path of the Susquehannocks from their ancestral homelands in northern Pennsylvania to their violent disappearance in the lower Susquehanna Valley in 1763. Please join us at the State Museum of Pennsylvania on October 27th to learn about this most fascinating topic.



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

Friday, October 12, 2018

Fort Hunter Wrap-up and Archaeology Month Events

3rd in the 'berg at Fort Hunter 2018

The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Section of Archaeology wrapped up its annual public archaeology excavation this past Friday, October the 5th. Despite this year’s overall soggy season, the program continues to be successful in providing an opportunity for the public to observe an archaeological dig up close, and to learn more about the historic and prehistoric inhabitants that called what is now Fort Hunter Mansion and Park home.

These students are shovel-ready!

Middle school and High school students, college undergraduates as well as home-schooled individuals were introduced to modern survey methods used to establish the site’s grid coordinate system, excavation techniques using traditional hand tools such as spade shovels and mason’s trowels, and the basics of artifact identification while screening soil.

Learning what to look for in the screen

Casual visitors to the park, not wishing to get their hands dirty, were treated to a detailed history of the property as known from the historical record and, how we have come to understand the site archaeologically.

Attentive crowd during Fort Hunter Day 

Avid followers of TWIPA will recall that our last post contained somewhat of a cliff-hanger concerning a linear feature that had been identified in two excavation units adjacent to the rear of the 1860’s addition to the mansion. Tantalizing fragments of French and Indian War period ceramics such as delft tin-glazed earthenware and scratch blue salt-glazed stoneware, and a few pieces of lead swan shot stoked imaginations that the feature might be associated with the fort’s stockade, or perhaps a ditch dug around the fort to enhance its defenses. Such a recommendation had been noted in the historical record in the form a letter:

PA Archives, Vol. III, page 488 – G. Price to Gov. Denny, Fort Hunter, ye 22nd July, 1758
“I was left in the Garrison of Fort Hunter, and received Orders from Genl Forbes to repair it, and sent and Engineer to inspect into the condition, who found necessary to Stockade it, for which purpose I was to get the Country People; and accordingly apply’d to the several Justices of the Peace for the Townships of Paxton and Donegal, which latter I never had any answer from, but was inform’d by Parson Elder, of Paxton, whose word is the same wth that of the Justices, as they act in conjunction in such affairs that till harvest be over the Country People can do nothing; therefore thought propper to acquaint you of this, as a duty incumbent, also that I am relieved, and that should be the work of the fort be Pospon’d till harvest be over, ‘twill be yet three weeks before they begin.
P.S. – the Stockades are cut.”


Continued excavation of the suspect feature ultimately revealed itself to be the trench for a clay sewer pipe, likely dating to the second quarter of the 20th century with the arrival of modern plumbing to the mansion. A pipe dream indeed, much to the crew’s dismay. One silver lining of the deflating discovery late in the dig, is that it at least spares us the next eleven months of speculation about the feature’s origin.

trench feature visible in cross-section and clay sewer pipe

With the field season quickly drawing to a close, final levels were completed in the excavation block and then each profile, or wall, of the individual units was photographed and carefully hand mapped on graph paper to scale in order to record their stratigraphic sequence.

measuring and mapping profiles in unit with pvc drain pipe


The site was then “put to bed” by lining the walls and floors of each unit in the excavation block with heavy black plastic and weighted down with stone. The Fort Hunter ground crew has it all backfilled  for the safety of the park visitors during the rest of the year. 

overview of 2018 excavation block, looking West

The saying goes “you just can’t find good help these days”. In our case we have found good help, in the form of our dedicated volunteers. We can’t emphasize enough, the amount of work completed would not have been possible, nor as enjoyable without you, and we thank all of you for your enthusiasm and hard work!

Looking forward to more Archaeology Month events happening soon, Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village is hosting Archaeology Day tomorrow, Oct. 13th from 11AM to 5PM. Be sure to check their website for details.

Thursday, October 25th from 10AM to 1PM the Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia will host a workshop on historic ceramic identification and its importance to archaeologists. More information can be found by clicking here.

And finally, just two weeks away, The State Museum of Pennsylvania will host the 2018 Annual Workshops in Archaeology series on Saturday, October 27 from 8:30AM to 6PM. This year’s topic, the culture history of the Susquehannock Indians from an archaeological context, will be explored in detail by nine 30-minute presentations throughout the day followed by a question and discussion forum, and concluding with light refreshments. Additional programming includes a flint knapping demonstration, artifact identification, and instruction on recording sites with the State Historic Preservation Office’s Cultural Resource Geographic Information System. 
Early registration discount ends Oct. 19th. Program abstracts and registration form can be found here

We hope to see you there!

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

Friday, September 28, 2018

Rain drops keep falling on my head, but that doesn’t mean we won’t continue at Fort Hunter

The 2018 field season at Fort Hunter Mansion & Park is coming to a close soon and it has been a wet one! Last year we marveled at not having a single rain day, this year is quite the opposite. It has been a terrific year for visitors, the press, social media and just general interest in our excavation. Fort Hunter Day was one of those rare beautiful days when everyone was eager to get outside and enjoy the sunshine as demonstrated by the more than 3,000 visitors at the site.   We welcome everyone to visit and observe our excavation but especially, to ask questions.

Some of our visitors have been following us and our progress every September and early October since 2006 so they know the routine.  Others are visiting for the first time and are new to the archaeological process. Most of our visitors stand off to the side, a little unsure whether to come closer. Once they see that we’re just harmless, crazy archaeologists, the exchanges between visitors and staff demonstrate that there is an increasing interest in archaeology and our heritage in central Pennsylvania.

As with any job, once you have done something for a while you take for granted the process and begin to overlook some of the minutia of the task. You complete the process without really thinking about how or why you do things a certain way.  For an individual who has never visited an archaeological site or had an opportunity to observe the process, it can be confusing and perhaps a bit overwhelming. This is the challenge of public archaeology; make it understandable and relative to the general public.  So, some of the questions that our visitors ask may seem insignificant to us but are obviously important to their understanding of archaeology.  This blog will address some of the questions we’ve received and hopefully some of our followers have had these or similar questions of their own that will be answered.

PHMC archaeologist Janet Johnson speaks with visitors to the site during Fort Hunter Day.
(Photo: PHMC, Section of Archaeology)

Probably the most common question- what are you looking for?

Our immediate response is something to the effect of “We’re archaeologists with The State Museum of Pennsylvania and are looking for evidence of the French & Indian War period fort that stood here between 1755 and 1763.” It’s true we began this project in 2006 with hopes of finding a stockade trench and a blockhouse described in historic documents. However, while this was and is our ideal, the search goes far beyond the French and Indian War period.  Fort Hunter Mansion and Park has been used for thousands of years and we are literally peeling back the soil to discover the lives of the Indians, colonists, industrialist, farmer and businessman who left their trace.

Why are you digging here?

The initial area of excavation was prompted by ground penetrating radar that indicated areas of ground disturbance that seemed most promising. The discovery of a feature interpreted as the bake oven in 2006 was facilitated by that technology. Subsequent investigations were based on soil changes and trenching that provided a window into activity areas for which we later explored.  Our investigation is also guided by the archaeological evidence recovered in previous excavations, the artifacts and features. Artifacts are the tangible evidence of the past- their presence in undisturbed soils, as identified stratigraphically, is priceless.  So when asked, “Why don’t you dig down on the bank, closer to the river and Fishing Creek?” the answer is all about the stratigraphy and that undisturbed soil.

As stated earlier, lots of people have lived on this piece of ground and all of them have dug in the dirt, had campfires, disturbed soils and left their “mark” or presence on the landscape. It is all this activity that is challenging to sort through and identify the intact soils and the undisturbed stratigraphy. This year, we have uncovered an undisturbed living floor that dates to the Woodland period, 1000- 2900 years ago.  Significant not only for its integrity as an intact soil package but also for the picture of the past provided. Envision Indians sitting around a campfire cooking fish or game recently caught while they sharpen their projectile points (arrowheads) and polish a stone axe.  Our evidence of this picture comes in the form of lithic flakes, fire-cracked rock, broken pottery and a stone axe- tangible evidence of the past.

This drawing depicts indigenous people sitting by a camp fire.
(Drawing: Jonathan Frazier)


Another frequently asked question “What are those colored pins in the ground- the red and blue things?”  The soil markers designate stratigraphy- soil layers- within our excavation unit. Red pins define natural soil changes while the blue pins designate incremental soil levels of .25/10ths or 3 inches. Archaeology is a destructive process and it is only through careful excavation that we can examine the soils and identify anomalies we refer to as features. Features are activities that leave evidence in the soil- a cooking hearth is a feature identified by charcoal flecks and fire cracked and reddened rocks. 

The red pins define a natural soil change in the wall of this excavation unit
(photo: PHMC, Section of Archaeology)

What happens to the dirt that you dig out?

Dirt is screened through quarter inch mesh to identify artifacts that may have not been recovered during excavation. This process can be time consuming but is so very important to ensure that we don’t overlook artifacts or indicators of activities. The backdirt piles (sifted soil piles under the screen) are eventually used by the grounds crew at Fort Hunter to fill in the excavation units.

Staff and volunteers screen dirt through 1/4" wire mesh at Fort Hunter.
(Photo: PHMC, Section of Archaeology)

What happens when you stop digging for this year?

The units (5x5 square) that we have opened are covered over with a heavy black plastic. The grounds crew at Fort Hunter will use soil from the back dirt pile to fill in the open units and the black plastic is a marker for us should we wish to return to a unit the following year.

Where do the artifacts go?

The artifacts go to the archaeology lab of the State Museum for processing which involves washing, labeling, and identification.  Research and analysis of all the artifacts is conducted over the winter and spring prior to permanent curation. Conservation treatment is preserved on the most fragile or corroded of the artifacts. Specialized treatment aids in the preservation of these artifacts and ensures stability for many years to come.

What do you do if it rains?

This record-breaking year of wet weather has taken a toll on excavations and a frequent question has to do with how we deal with bad weather. We are able to continue excavations if the rain is light, but any periods longer than a few minutes create a muddy mess that is more likely to damage features. We screen the soil in our buckets, bag any artifacts and cover the units with plastic to preserve the exposed floor. The next day we bail out water from the top of the plastic and then carefully remove the plastic to see if we were successful in our endeavors to save the units from damage.  

Water from overnight rain sits atop the black plastic used to cover excavation units.
(Photo: PHMC, Section of Archaeology)

What have you found? What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found here?

We have found many artifacts that represent the activities of Fort Hunter and several of them provide interesting stories of the residents of this site.  No one object tells the story of Fort Hunter so there is not an easy answer as to the most interesting or important artifact. This year’s recovery of a stone axe will be a highlight since these are rare discoveries during excavation.  The volume of musket balls and swan shot are of particular interest and further analysis will look for density of these materials this year as compared to other years and locations.

A full grooved stone axe recovered during 2018 excavations at Fort Hunter.
(Photo: Don Giles)

This historic reference to supplies issued in December of 1755 references Swan Shot and the delivery of twenty-five pounds to the site. There are spent (used) and unused shot present in the excavations adjacent to the summer kitchen at the rear of the mansion.
“Decemr 9 [1755], By Thomas Forster Esqr & Thos McKee, at Hunter’s Fort,                                                                                                                                              12 ½ lb. Powder and 25 lb Swan Shot


An intriguing feature has appeared in the excavation block that has created a lot of questions and speculation by our team. A linear ditch or trench approximately a foot wide was exposed that runs through at least two of the units. The depth of this feature is being investigated and careful screening of the artifacts conducted. Unfortunately no artifacts have been recovered in this feature that provide a solid date of its construction or indicate its purpose.  Reference to the ditch at Hunter’s is made in the following;

PA Archives, Vol. III, page 442 – Engineer Rich’d Dudgeon to Gov. Denny, Carlisle , 7th July, 1758
“Pursuant to an Order Received from Genl Forbes, the 5th Inst., I have been to Inspect the State of Fort Hunter, & am of Opinion that Stockading of it, & Opening & Deepning the Ditch, according to the Scheme left with the Commanding Officer there, will be  Genls Order, is to see the Work Executed, by imploying the Country People. But as it’s apprehended he may meet with difficultys in calling this assistance, I am desired by the Genl to signify this to you.”

Further investigation of the linear feature is necessary to understand it’s use and time period of construction, but for now we are happy to explore the possibility that this may be a portion of the ditch referenced above.

The lighter colored soil running across the units near the top of the photo indicates a yet unexplored linear feature. (Photo: PHMC, Section of Archaeology)

We only have a week left for the 2018 field season; our last day is October 5th .  With a forecast of a dry weekend we can only hope that the trend will continue into next week and we’ll be able to explore these questions and others before the plastic goes on and we let the site rest until next September. We hope you will find the time to visit us and observe the process of discovering the archaeological heritage of Fort Hunter Mansion & Park, Dauphin County. We encourage you to continue to check the blog for updates on the analysis of the artifacts and data throughout the winter months as we explore the story of this important site.

One last question that visitors ask- What are your jobs or tasks when you go back to the office?

The analysis and processing of the artifacts is only a portion of our jobs as we curate over 9 million artifacts from across the Commonwealth. We also conduct a major outreach program at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January. There is an exhibit to design, brochure to develop and print and labels to prepare for artifacts on display during this event. Our most immediate attention will focus on preparing for the Workshops in Archaeology program on October 27th. This one day event will focus on the Susquehannock Indians who lived along the river and interacted with Captain John Smith in the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. The story of their tribe as seen from an archaeological perspective and through their artifacts is fascinating.  We invite you to check out the registration information and program information for 2018 Workshops in Archaeology.

It’s not raining today and we have school groups scheduled so it’s time to dig! Hopefully you’ll stop by to see our progress and ask a few of your own questions. 

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

Friday, September 14, 2018

A report by our summer intern on her experience in the Section of Archaeology


This week’s blog comes to you from our college intern this past summer. Working two to three days a week, she processed a huge amount of data and gained practical experience in the analysis of lithic artifacts. She was a quick learner and we enjoyed her stay.

My name is Alaina Helm. I am a sophomore at Oberlin College, and planning to major in Archaeological Studies and Geology. Over the summer, I volunteered with the State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology. I have been fascinated with anthropology and archaeology for as long as I can remember, dragging my family through natural history museums whenever the opportunity arose. As the spring semester drew to a close, I wanted to do something productive and educational over the summer, so I contacted the museum, where I was welcomed and given the wonderful opportunity to learn about the cataloging, processing, and analysis of archaeological artifacts.

Alaina Helm and Dr. Kurt Carr examining lithic material from Kings Quarry (36Lh2)

Most of my time at the museum was spent analyzing stone or lithic artifacts systematically surface collected in three-meter squares from a jasper quarry site in Lehigh County called Kings Quarry (36Lh2). The artifacts were mainly the chips from the making of stone tools rather than the tools themselves. While at first glance the lithics may appear to be regular rocks, at closer inspection you can identify signs of production or how they were made. Evidence of reduction with differing types of percussion instruments such as hammerstones or antler batons reflect all stages of tool making – from the harvesting of raw material from the quarry to the retouching of edges on already formed tools.

 Closely examining a piece of flaked jasper

Under the Direction of Dr. Kurt Carr, I learned to recognize types of percussion and predict the stage of production of a given artifact. After first sorting through a group of artifacts to sort out pieces showing signs of utilization or containing an intact striking platform, I would go through each artifact with an intact platform to determine if they were entire or proximal (broken). I could then determine what type of bulb of percussion was present, the angle of the platform, whether the platform had been ground or flaked, number of flake scars, amount of cortex material, and amount of thermal alteration. After recording each of those pieces of information, I would then make a judgement as to what stage of production likely created the piece and record that too. Sorting through over 7000 pieces, I was able to garner a comparison over different parts of the site to determine if certain types of production activities were occurring in specific areas.  I used an excel spread sheet to record all my data which enabled me to produce analytical graphs for each excavation unit.  These graphs allowed the areas to be compared to each other to determine the location of different types of reduction activities. One of our initial conclusions is that almost 90% of the tools and utilized flakes came two excavation units and these were correlated with a previously discovered fluted point. This suggests a Paleoindian occupation.

A pie chart showing each type of lithic material from Kings Quarry (36Lh2)


 I also spent some time helping to wash and process artifacts in the lab towards the beginning of the summer, a fundamental process for curation. Towards the end of the summer, I also worked on inventorying a collection of artifacts related to the Sheep Rock Shelter (36Hu1) recently donated to the museum.

Alaina showing off a piece of flaked jasper she analyzed


Prior to working with the Section of Archaeology I had very little experience studying and identifying lithic materials. Working with the state museum staff, I learned to identify the different aspects of knapping and the tool making techniques. Sorting through what sometimes felt like mountains of jasper, I learned to identify reduction methods utilized by Pennsylvania natives long ago. Although the summer has ended, and the next semester will begin shortly, only a portion of the surface collection was analyzed. I hope that in the future, analysis of the collection can be completed, and if I get the chance whenever I am next home in Pennsylvania, I would enjoy resuming the project.

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