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 .