Friday, August 21, 2009

Woodland Period Cremation Cache from Union County, Pennsylvania

The Cache
A cremation cache (Feature 2) was discovered in 2003 by Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission archaeologists during subsurface testing at site 36UN10, for the proposed Union County Business Park located north of Allenwood, Pennsylvania. The contents of this cache included eight ovate-shaped bifaces of gray colored tabular chalcedony, a hellgrammite point/knife of gray banded rhyolite, a two-hole gorget of gray siltstone and a faceted sphere of graphite. Fragments from two of the eight chalcedony bifaces were cross-mended and along with the others show evidence of heat fracturing from the cremation process.

Chalcedoncy blades and Hellgrammite Point

The thick mass of charcoal encapsulating the cache had traces of co-mingled calcine bone, ash and burnt soil which we believe to be the remains of non-organic cremated residue. Some of the cultural objects were inadvertently displaced by the backhoe operator, therefore, we are unsure of their original positions within the cremation pit. Careful investigation by PHMC archaeologists, however, concluded that the cache must have rested on the pit floor since in situ remnants of the cremated mass was found there.

Other Pit Features
A short distance southeast from the cremation pit, another pit (Feature 3) was excavated that contained charred fragments of sheeted bark, possibly the remnants of material used as pit lining. The contents of Feature 3 include a small Lamoka-like point, burned sandstone fragments, sandstone cobble hammerstone and chert, jasper, silicified siltstone and rhyolite debitage. A third but smaller pit (Feature 4) having no bark lining but a similar artifact assemblage was also found.

Gorgets and Graphite Sphere

Stratigraphy, Artifacts and another Cultural Context
The overall diversity of diagnostic artifacts recovered from the site suggests that 36UN10 was occupied by Native Americans from the Late Archaic through the Middle Woodland Periods (Range of Appropriate Dates here). However, the tightly compressed site stratigraphy displays little separation in the soil between different cultural groups as the land was reused again and again over a span of 2500 years.

Lamoka points/knives; Susquehanna Broad points/knives; Fishtail points/knives; steatite bowl fragments and Marcey Creek steatite tempered pottery make up the diagnostic artifact assemblages from these strata. The 1992 Phase III archaeological data recovery project of Louis Berger & Associates on the river terrace south of Allenwood (36UN82) documented a similar stratigraphic sequence of human occupation for the West Branch Valley (Wall 2000). There, archaeological investigations revealed a clearer picture in comparison to the mixed Archaic through Woodland sequence at 36UN10.

Examples of artifacts from Strat. 2/2a: top Early Woodland Period, middle Transitional Period, bottom Late Archaic Period

Carbon-14 analysis of the carbonized material found in the intrusive, yet isolated Woodland pits, Features 2, 3 and 4 described above, was employed to demonstrate a distinct chronological separation of the cremation activity found on 36UN10 from the earlier Archaic components also present on the site.

Cremation Chronology
A sample of charcoal directly associated with the cache submitted to the University of Arizona Radiocarbon laboratory returned a date of 1680+/- 40 radiocarbon years B.P., (before present). Utilizing two sigma ranges the corrected dates are 246 AD: 434 AD. Partially preserved charred remains of bark lining in pit (Feature 3) was discovered nearby and likely belongs with the Woodland cremation component at 36UN10. A sample of bark from this pit, also dated by the University of Arizona, yielded a corrected date range of 128 AD: 384 AD.

The overlapping of the two dates would indicate that the features are contemporary and date to the Middle Woodland Period, thus demonstrating that burial ceremonialism continued after the Early Woodland Period ended in the Susquehanna Valley. The presence of a Hellgrammite point/knife with the 36UN10 cremation would imply that the long held notion of Hellgrammite point/knife types being a regional manifestation of the Early Woodland needs to be rigorously tested with more investigations at other comparable sites in the valley. In contrast to the cremation feature found at 36Un10, other mortuary sites of the Susquehanna Valley are radiocarbon dated to the earlier part of the Woodland period (1,000-500 BC.). Artifact assemblages from such sites tend to include Meadowood blades, stone tube pipes, gorgets, copper ornaments and rarely, bird and boatstones (Kent 1994).

Kent, Barry C.
1994 Discovering Pennsylvania’s Archaeological Heritage. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Wall, Robert D.
2000 A Buried Lamoka Occupation in Stratified Contexts West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 70(1):1-44.

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

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