Friday, March 1, 2013

McKean County

This week our journey by county through the archaeology of Pennsylvania takes us to northern Pennsylvania and McKean County. This county is mainly situated in the Deep Valleys Section of the Appalachian Plateaus Province. A small section of the High Plateaus Section extends into the southwest corner of the county.  The majority of the county is drained by the headwaters of the Allegheny River. Major tributaries include Potato, Tunungwant and Oswago creeks. The region is characterized by steep-sided stream valleys and high, level ridge tops.  Most of the county is upland in nature and this is reflected in site locations with 75% of the sites located out of the stream valleys.

The main lithic resources are local chert and Onondaga chert from western New York.  Although some Onondaga chert was the result of trade or people actually traveling to the quarries approximately 100 miles to the north to replenish their supply, much of this material was transported from western New York by glaciers. Onondaga pebbles are common in local stream beds where it was collected by Native American flint knappers. These pebbles were not easily held in the hand for flaking and they were shaped into tools by a technique called bipolar reduction. This is a very distinctive process that was commonly used in areas where raw material for stone tools was in short supply. It involves placing a pebble core on a relatively flat rock known as an anvil stone and striking the pebble on the top. This produces a flake that is battered on both ends. After repeated blows, an indention or pit is worn into the anvil stone. Bipolar cores and anvil stones are found in northwestern Pennsylvania and also in coastal regions such as on the Delmarva Peninsula where bedrock lithic sources are also in short supply.

bipolar reduction

The county has a very low density of archaeological sites and very few have been tested. The rugged terrain is probably the main reason. The glaciers washed away much of the good soil so farming is not common. In addition, the lack of plowed fields makes it more difficult to find archaeological sites. Approximately 70 Phase I surveys have been conducted in the county but few discovered any sites especially those of the prehistoric period. Approximately 40% of the sites date to the historic period and 87% of these relate to the oil and gas industry that was very common during the late 19th century. A pipeline survey of the northern counties discovered sites in five counties but none in McKean. Many of these surveys were conducted by archaeologists working for the Allegheny National Forest. In one case, over 10,000 acres were surveyed resulting in the discovery of approximately 40 historic period sites but only one from the prehistoric period. In most cases, the sites were avoided or were considered not eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and no further work was conducted. The low population density of McKean County (44.4 per sq. mile as opposed to 283.9per sq. miles across all of Pennsylvania) may be a factor in discovering these sites but this region seems to have had a low population density in prehistory as well.
In addition to the low density of sites, the prehistoric database is particularly poor. Only 18 of the 95 recorded sites produced diagnostic artifacts. There were no sites that produced diagnostic artifacts from the Paleoindian, Middle Archaic or Transitional periods. Interestingly, 31% of the sites are recorded as rockshelters. Rockshelters have been termed prehistoric motels. They were not necessarily used by large groups of people for long periods of time, but they were frequently used by small hunting parties exploiting upland settings or by groups moving between river valleys. Working in the Ridge and Valley Province, Paul Raber (2007) has suggested that during the Late Woodland period, trade and intertribal communication was important. There was an increase in movement between tribal groups and rockshelters were more frequently used. This is reflected in that 60% of the Late Woodland sites are in rockshelters.

Due to the rugged nature of the county, historic settlement was slow. In addition, the elevations are high (1200-2000 feet above sea level) and the growing season is somewhat shorter.  Early industries consisted of lumber and oil. Lumber was rafted down the Allegheny River and oil was being shipped to Baltimore as early as 1810. The oil business began to boom in the 1870’s and population increased five-fold during this time.

We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the archaeological heritage of McKean County. 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 McKean County have done for thousands of years.


Raber, Paul A.
2007    Moving People and Resources Across Pennsylvania’s Prehistoric Landscape: Investigations at 36Ju104. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 77(1): 1-29.

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

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