Friday, February 15, 2013

Luzerne County

This week our archaeological journey takes us to Luzerne County located in the Ridge and Valley Province and Appalachian Plateau of northeastern Pennsylvania. It contains two principal waterways, the Susquehanna and Lehigh, and these include numerous smaller watersheds that drain the county’s mountain and valley terrain. Bordered by eight other counties, Luzerne is situated within three physiographic sections of the Commonwealth where its geology is comprised essentially of Pennsylvanian, Mississippian and Devonian formations that are 290-405 million years old. For the most part, the rocks from these formations consist of sandstone, shale and beds of anthracite coal. Hence, the principal economic base of the county was coal based, wherein many deep shaft mines went into production during the 19th and lasted through much of the 20th century. Unfortunately, along with the economic boon that coal mining brought to the region many miner’s lives were lost from mine fires, “cave-ins” and other related misfortunes.  The Knox Mine Disaster of 1959 essentially put an end to the coal mining industry in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Earlier in the 18th century Luzerne County was the home of numerous Shawnee, Nanticoke and Delaware Indian towns. Some of these towns have since been eradicated by urban sprawl and the mining of topsoil in the main Wyoming Valley from Nanticoke to West Pittston. Assarughney, a former Delaware village was one of the larger Indian towns in Luzerne County, and it was located near the mouth of the Lackawanna River (Donehoo 1928). Other Indian towns were established at Wapwallopen, Naticoke , Plymouth, Wilkes Barre and at other locations along the Susquehanna River. Connecting  these towns were overland trails and pathways that followed overland  from one place to another. Smaller trails and pathways connected  the Wyoming Valley to places on the Delaware such as the 18th Century Moravian settlements at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Great Warrior Path that linked the Athens area in Bradford County to the Forks of the Susquehanna at Sunbury, Northumberland County (Wallace 1965) was another heavily traveled Indian path and played an important role in the American Revolution.

vista of the Wyoming Valley from Campbell's Ledge Overlook - photo courtesy Jim Herbstritt

Late in the 18th century, Luzerne county was the scene of the Battle of Wyoming where British, Tories and Indians massacred nearly 300 settlers at present Wyoming, Pennsylvania. Leading up the massacre was the indiscriminate “squatting” of land along the Susquehanna by Connecticut and Pennsylvania settlers. A monument marking the grave site can be seen in the town of Wyoming  to honor the victims of this tragic act.

Luzerne County was originally part of Northumberland County but in 1786 it became its own entity. According to the U. S. Census Bureau,  more than 320,000 people presently reside in Luzerne making it the only county in the United States whose Polish ancestry exceeds any other reported ethnic group. The largest community is Wilkes Barre with a plurality population of  over 41,000 people. Frances Slocum State Park, Lehigh Gorge State Park, Nescopeck State Park and Ricketts Glen State Park located in various regions of the county serve to preserve the natural beauty of this part of “Penns Woods.”

A review of the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey (P.A.S.S) files for Luzerne County reports a site density of one site for every 2.89 square miles. There are nearly as many historic period sites as there are prehistoric period sites and taken collectively, span the range from the Paleoindian period through the 20th century. As well, there are nearly as many riverine related site settings as there are upland related site settings and these nearly equally represent all cultural periods.

Not surprising, given their proximity to the Susquehanna River, many of the prehistoric sites have chert and rhyolite as the principal lithic materials. All of the rhyolite and much of the chert is found in bedded geological contexts from locations as far away as Adams County and as close as the forks of the Susquehanna at Sunbury, Pennsylvania. Late Archaic period lithic tools appear to be consistently made from local pebble cherts that were available in the river gravels all along the Susquehanna river and certain if its tributaries. Such tools made from jasper likely made their way into the county prehistorically from the Easton area where it is a principal lithic material used throughout prehistory.

The general prehistory of the Wyoming Valley is characterized by archaeological camp and village site occupations representing all of the cultural periods that occur throughout the Susquehanna valley. According to the PASS files for Luzerne County Late Woodland period sites are followed by Late Archaic period sites in terms of site density.  Transitional period broad spear and Early Woodland fishtail sites follow next in site density with Middle Archaic, Middle Woodland, Early Archaic and Paleoindian sites diminishing in that order of frequency.

A large number of prehistoric tools in the Steuben  Jenkins collection from the Wyoming Valley was acquired by the State Museum in 1923. Comprised of projectile points, preforms, ground stone objects that include celts, axes, pestles and pottery, the collection is representative of the kinds of artifacts found on archaeological sites in this section of the Upper Susquehanna.

sample of artifacts from the Steuben Jenkins collection and associated documentation (1923)

For  sure, some archaeological sites in the Wyoming valley have been destroyed by major flood events, such as caused by Hurricane Agnes and as a direct consequence that information is lost forever. For the most part, earthen levees built along the river’s edge by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now protect much of the valley from flooding during most periods of high water. River bank surveys, before and subsequent to many of these flood events, and predictive site modeling, have been proven to be useful tools for soils scientists, geomorphologists, and ultimately archaeologists in identifying and evaluating archaeological resources within major watersheds such as the Susquehanna. One of these Wyoming Valley projects was completed in 1989-1990 by R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates, Inc. (Goodwin and Shaffer 1991).
The Wyoming Valley Flood Protection Project covered 10 segments along the main trunk of the Susquehanna and at several other locations along two of its tributaries, Lackawanna River and Mill Creek. The primary purpose of the project was to delineate existing site boundaries, obtain information to assess their cultural importance and to provide new information on previously unreported archaeological resources prior to raising the height of the levee and floodwall and undertaking new construction of levees at Exeter and West Pittston and other nearby locations. This archaeological study generated important information on six prehistoric and historic period sites that were inhabited during the Late Archaic, Transitional, Early and Late Woodland and Historic periods.

deep excavation at the Cremard Site (36Lu58), c.1989 - photo courtesy of Jim Herbstritt

Members of the Frances Dorrance Chapter, Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology have been conducting archaeological excavations at the Cremard (36LU58) and Conrail sites (36LU169) located near Duryea, Pennsylvania for a number of years. Located on a high alluvial terrace that is owned by the Coxton rail yard, the Conrail Site is one of the most important multi-component stratified archaeological resources in the Upper Susquehanna Valley. Through the ongoing efforts of the chapter’s members, under the careful supervision of Al Pesotine, the Conrail site is yielding a prehistoric sequence of cultural occupations dating from the Early Archaic through the late 19th century. For more information on the Frances Dorrance Chapter and the Conrail site’s interesting archaeology see their web site at:

We hope you have enjoyed this journey to another part of Pennsylvania’s ARCHAEOLOGY! Please visit us next time when we will be featuring Lycoming County in the heart of the West Branch.

Donehoo, George P.
1928       A History of the Indian Villages and Place Names in Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania Historical Commission.  Harrisburg.
Goodwin, R. Christopher and Gary D. Shaffer
1991       Phase II Archaeological Investigations within the Wyoming Valley Local Flood Protection Study Area, Susquehanna River Valley, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Report submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District.
Wallace, Paul A. W.
1965       Indian Paths of Pennsylvania.  The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

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

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