Friday, August 17, 2012

Fayette County

Our travel through the archaeology of Pennsylvania takes us to Fayette County this week in the southwest corner of the state.  A relatively high number, 543, archaeological sites have been recorded in this county in the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey (PASS) files.  Eighty percent of the recorded sites are prehistoric, with the majority occurring in upland settings.  Archaeological evidence in this region supports dates for human occupation as early as the Paleoindian Period (16,500-10,000 years ago). The Paleoindian landscape was primarily composed of pine and hemlock forests which supported large fauna such as deer, caribou, elk and bear.  Gradual warming allowed these forests to change and regenerate into a mixed hardwood forest of oak-hickory hemlock-beech assemblage. The change in forest composition improved the support capability for smaller fauna and new flora, which could sustain an increase in occupation.  Increases in population and the transition from hunters and gatherers to an agricultural society through time are evident in the archaeological record.

The Martin site 36Fa87

The first systematic archaeological investigations in Fayette County took place in late summer and early fall 1941 at two Monongahela villages: the Martin (36FA87) and Phillips (36FA22) sites.  Local citizen outcry over the threat to destroy archaeological sites by the construction of the Youghiogheny Reservoir prompted the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (precursor to today’s Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission) to sponsor salvage excavations at the Martin site.  The PHC also supported salvage excavations at the Phillips site, whose destruction was also impending as part of construction of proposed highway development.  Francis Cresson, a Harvard Ph.D. student, was chosen to lead the investigations and Edgar E. Augustine supervised the small field crew.  Augustine was well experienced in the investigation of Monongahela villages, as he led the Works Progress Administration crew from 1935 to 1940 in adjacent Somerset County (for details, see

 Monongahela ceramic vessels from Martin and Phillips sites

Neither Martin nor Phillips was completely excavated. However, the Martin site is currently under the waters of the Youghiogheny River, it cannot be studied.  The highway that threatened the Phillips site was never built, but the site was later destroyed by a strip mine. Fortunately, extensive collections of field records, correspondence, photographs, and archaeological material were preserved from both sites.  These are held by the Division of Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.  Both sites have been the subject of recent study, including a re-examination of the mortuary data at the Martin site (Goodman 2011), and general re-analysis and historical study of the Martin and Phillips sites (Means 2008, 2010).  Using curated organic carbonized remains, radiocarbon dates were obtained from the Phillips site, suggesting that this circular village dated to the early fifteenth century A.D. Artifacts from both sites have been actively incorporated into a project for creating dynamic three-dimensional digital models of key artifacts from throughout the eastern United States  Systematic research and scanning of these collections demonstrates the value of curated collections for archaeologists and aids in our understanding of the archaeological past.

 3-D animation courtesy B. Means

        Recent investigations into Monongahela villages were conducted at site 36Fa368, Gray’s Landing, in connection with the construction of a new lock and dam on the Monongahela River. Archaeological and Historical Consultants (A & HC) under contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted archaeological investigations there in 1988.  The study documented a Late Prehistoric period (ca. AD 1050-1630) hamlet of the Monongahela Culture occupied repeatedly, probably during the latter part of this period. This site type represents a variation on the better-known stockaded Monongahela villages, usually situated on hilltops and river terraces. The site contains several house patterns, numerous domestic features, and burials, in addition to a variety of other Monongahela artifacts. The analysis of the assemblage and the features suggests repeated occupation during the late fall and early spring by small groups engaged primarily in fishing and other riverine related activities. Comparison with the evidence from other Monongahela hamlets, indicated that the Monongahela settlement pattern included settlement types other than the typical circular stockaded villages. Seasonal movement to small camps on the river, and probably elsewhere, were performed for the purpose of exploiting specific seasonal food resources.

Evidence of these Monongahela villages disappeared from the landscape by the time settlers began to arrive in the 1750’s.  Christopher Gist surveyed the area for the Ohio Company, a Virginia based Land Company.  The French occupied the western frontier and controlled the trade route south into the Louisiana Territory, which was then under French control.  Approximately 160 Provincial troops led by Lt. Col. George Washington arrived at Great Meadows, Wharton Township on May 24, 1754.  Washington had been ordered to the region by Governor Dinwiddie to support troops tasked with erecting a fort at the forks of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, present day Pittsburgh.  The French however, drove British forces out before Washington arrived and began construction of Fort Duquesne, forcing the British to relocate their fort.  Washington had his own skirmish near Great Meadows with a small force of French which resulted in the death of Sieur de Jumonville, referred to by historians as “the Jumonville Incident”.  Some have championed the notion that this skirmish was the opening “battle” of the French & Indian War. Great Meadows, as referred to as Fort Necessity  ,  served as a supply base and camp for the Washington’s troops which had been reinforced and numbered to around four hundred.  After the British troops were forced out of their previous position along the Monongahela, Washington was instructed to build a road to support movement of heavy artillery and to erect a fort at the mouth of Redstone Creek, present day Brownsville. Troops were working on the western side of the road to Redstone when word was received that a large group of French and Indians were advancing from Fort Duquesne.  Washington’s forces quickly returned to Great Meadows camp and hastily fortified their position with a circular stockade. On July 3, 1754 an attack by French forces ended with the surrender of  Fort Necessity by the British and its subsequent burning by French troops.

Fort Necessity excavation plan view

Archaeology conducted at Fort Necessity by the National Park Service exposed portions of the stockade, preserved by water.  It was determined that the stockade was built from white oak, split in two, with the split, or flat side facing out.  Logs ranged in size from 7 to 13 inches in diameter, ends were cut with axes prior to placement in a stockade trench.  Excavations also provided information on how the fort was destroyed by the French.  The archaeology indicated that about three-fourths of the stockade posts had been pulled out and stacked against the remaining section of stockade before the fort was set afire.  Some logs were burned in separate piles, possible to destroy other supplies and prevent British forces from returning to the fort to salvage them.  Most significantly, archaeology revealed the physical construction of the fort and stockade line which was not recorded in historic documentation and permitted accurate reconstruction for the benefit of future generations.

          Special thanks this week to Dr. Bernard K. Means who contributed with the images and text for the Martin and Phillips sites. We hope you have enjoyed this trip down to Fayette County and will take an interest in recording and preserving the archaeological sites in your community.  These resources are Pennsylvania’s heritage and for all of us it is our window into the past.  Help us to protect and preserve these archaeological resources which are crucial to our understanding of the past.

Goodman, Taryn
2011    Bare Bones: An Analysis of Mortuary Data from the Martin Site, Fayette County, Pennsylvania.  Quarterly Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Virginia 66:162-168.

Harrington, J.C.
1957     New Light on Washington’s Fort Necessity; A Report on the Archaeological Explorations at Fort Necessity National Battlefield Site. Eastern National Park and Monument Association, Richmond, Va.

Means, Bernard K.
2008    Resurrecting a Forgotten Monongahela Tradition Village, the Phillips (36Fa22) Site.  Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 24:1-12.

2010  Two Archaeological Sites in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania Archaeologist 80 (1):1-16.

Raber, Paul A.
1990    Archaeological Investigations at 36Fa368: Implications for the Study of Monongahela Settlement Patterns.   Paper presented at Eastern States Archaeological Federation, 1990

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

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