Friday, January 18, 2013

Lancaster County

This week we return to our journey by county of the archaeology of Pennsylvania and 2013 starts us off in a county rich in archaeological heritage, Lancaster.  The Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey (PASS) files document over fifteen-hundred recorded sites; a rate of 1 per every 0.63 miles. Situated in the Piedmont physiographic Province, the Susquehanna River provides drainage in this rolling terrain.  The rich alluvial soil deposits of Lancaster County, in particular those in the area of Washington Boro, combined with a relatively long growing season of 150 to 173 days resulted in one of the most productive agricultural regions in North America. Lithic resources include steatite quarries in the eastern portion of the county which native peoples used to create stone vessels around 3,000 years ago, the earliest form of durable cooking containers. This material was widely traded, appearing all across Pennsylvania.   Ninety-five percent of the sites recorded fall into the prehistoric site category.  This high percentage is clearly an indicator of the utilization of these rich resources by peoples from the Paleoindian period (10,000 to 16,000 years ago) through European colonization.

Forests of oak, chestnut, and hickory provided an abundant supply of nuts for hunters and gatherers, as well as vegetation to support animals including elk, bear and deer. The Susquehanna River was a valuable resource for transportation as well as for fish and freshwater mussels. The images carved into rock islands in the Susquehanna River known as petroglyphs are testament to the significant role that the river and wildlife that traveled through the area, meant to these early occupants.   Evidence of usage by native peoples has been recovered at numerous excavation sites in refuse pits filled with dietary remains of fish and animal bones, as well as nuts, seeds and mussel shell. As native peoples transitioned from hunters and gatherers to an agriculture based society, this area provided an ideal environmental setting that would eventually support large numbers of people during the Late Woodland period (450-1,100 years ago).

The Shenks Ferry Culture (750-500 years ago) is the first Late Woodland culture group to appear in the archaeological record.  Excavations conducted at various sites have illustrated similar attributes of an agricultural society living initially in small hamlets and eventually moving into stockaded villages. Archaeologists continue to research and analyze data from excavations associated with this culture group in an attempt to better understand their origins and why they disappear from the archaeological record when the Susquehannock culture appears.

The Susquehannock Indians were highly organized agriculturalists that begin to appear about 1575 A.D. living in longhouses surrounded by stockade walls. Captain John Smith encountered the Susquehannocks in 1608 at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. Smith describes them as “giants” but also describes “hatchets, knives and pieces of iron and brasse” indicating they were already involved in a European trade network.  Artifacts recovered from Susquehannock sites further demonstrate this trade and exchange with Europeans in the form of brass kettles, glass beads, iron knives and axes. European fur trade was “big business” for the Susquehannocks and other native groups to the north.  The struggle to control this trade resulted in various attacks and in 1663 a Jesuit missionary recorded the defeat of Seneca Indians at a fort above the Conewago Falls. Barry Kent speculates in his publication, Susquehanna’s Indians that this battle occurred at the location of the village site identified as Strickler (36La3).  Unfortunately, this was not the only attack on the Susquehannocks and the combination of disease and conflict from other native groups and colonists would eventually decimate their population.  An attack in 1763 by a group of men known as the Paxtang Boys, resulted in the killing of the last of the Susquehannocks living in Lancaster County.

By the early 18th century, Lancaster County was being colonized by immigrants moving from Philadelphia north and west.  German immigrants were drawn to the rich soils for agriculture and the red clay for producing traditional redware pottery. Having been produced as early as 1690 in Philadelphia, redware pottery appears at most historic archaeological sites.  Archaeologists often look to ceramics as an important tool in dating archaeological deposits; however redware continues to be produced in Lancaster County today, thus making it an ineffective marker for dating sites.

Archaeology conducted at Ephrata Cloister, a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission property in Lancaster County, provided an opportunity to examine an eighteenth-century religious communal society. The biblical name “Ephrata” was selected for the community because it signified a place of suffering.  Members of this community took vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience.  Personal possessions were not permitted. Archaeologists recovered redware vessel fragments on which initials had been scratched into the clay, marking it as personal property. Sometimes the archaeological record is able to identify and correct the historic record, as was the case with these redware sherds.

The city of Lancaster was the largest American inland town by 1760 and retained that slot until Pittsburgh surpassed it in the 1810’s. Lancaster also served as the capital of Pennsylvania from 1799 to 1812.  Its access to the Susquehanna River  and relatively close proximity to the supply ports in Philadelphia and Baltimore, led to important roles in both the French & Indian War and the Revolutionary War.  Early industries in Lancaster included gun manufacturing; additionally uniforms and gunpowder were also produced here and supplied to troops during the Revolutionary War.  With the development of the canal systems and eventually the railroad, Lancaster’s geographic location and environmental setting positioned it for long term growth and development.

Recording of archaeological sites is often the result of development projects and we can attribute many of the recorded sites to either private development or municipal improvements. A recently submitted collection was the result of improvements to the Queen Street Station and construction of a parking garage for the Red Rose Transit Authority.  Excavations conducted by URS Corporation provided an opportunity to examine an urban setting that spanned from a log house in the 1740’s through the twentieth century.  Archaeologists discovered a stone lined well from the 1740’s, a redware kiln from the 1760’s-1770’s; and a brass foundry dating from 1777-1833.  The establishment of small craft industries was important in the development of colonial America and this heritage of skilled craftsmen played an important role for Pennsylvania during the Industrial Revolution.

We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the archaeological heritage of Lancaster County, for it is merely a glimpse.  Hopefully it will inspire you to seek such publications as Susquehanna’s Indians, Petroglyphs in the Susquehanna River near Safe Harbor, Pennsylvania, or any of the numerous journal articles on archaeology conducted in Lancaster County and published in Pennsylvania Archaeologist.  Understanding and exploring our archaeological heritage is pivotal to our understanding of human behavior and our ability to change and adapt over time- just as the peoples of Lancaster County have done for thousands of years.


Cadzow, Donald A.
Petroglyphs in the Susquehanna River near Safe Harbor, Pennsylvania. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, 1934,2001.

Cress, George; et al.
Phase IB/II and Data Recovery Archaeological Excavation at Site 36La1494, Queen Street Station Phase II(RRTA) North Queen Street and East Chestnut Street, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. URS Corporation,  September 2010. Unpublished Manuscript in the Section of Archaeology

Kent, Barry C.
Susquehanna’s Indians, Anthropological Series Number 6, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, 1993.

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

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