Friday, February 14, 2014

York County: Preservation Successes

This week’s journey by county through the archaeology of Pennsylvania takes us to south central Pennsylvania and York County. This county is predominately situated in the Piedmont Upland section of the Piedmont Physiographic zone with a small section of the Piedmont Lowland section transecting the northern part of the county. The region is characterized by northeast-southwest trending uplands of rounded hills dissected by relatively narrow valleys. The eastern border of the county is formed by the Susquehanna River and the western border is essentially the Great Valley section.  All streams drain into the Susquehanna River and the major tributaries are the Conewago, the Cordorus and Muddy Creek.

York County has a rich and complicated history. It was first occupied by Europeans in the late 1600’s. It was claimed by both the Maryland and Pennsylvania colonies. This actually resulted in an armed conflict, Cresap’s War, and only officially ended with the drawing of the Mason-Dixon Line. During the Revolutionary War, the City of York served as our nation’s capital while Philadelphia was occupied by the British. The archaeological record of these events has been documented at several sites.

The County has been occupied by Native Americans for at least 11,000 years based on three sites dating to the Paleoindian period that are recorded in the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey files. After this period, the density of sites by time period is similar to other counties with the Late Archaic, Transitional, Early Woodland and Late Woodland periods being the most common occupations. The density of sites (at 1 site per 2.08 square miles) is about average for the Commonwealth which is 1.99/sq. mile. The sites are concentrated in the northern half of the county, especially along the Conewago Creek and along the Susquehanna River. However, as is common in the Piedmont physiographic zone, over half of the sites are in upland settings and not associated with major streams i.e. streams greater than second order.

The region contains a variety of lithic (stone) material types that were useful to Native Americans and this is reflected in the stone tools found on archaeological sites. The most commonly used lithic material is quartz. This is not surprising as it is a common bedrock in the county especially south and east of the City of York. The use of this material was documented in an early survey conducted in compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 in Springettsbury Township were a number of quarry reduction sites were archaeologically investigated. For a number of reasons, quartz is a difficult lithic material for archaeologists to analyze but they were able to outline the process of making tools at these sites.

The second most common lithic material type used by Native American is metarhyolite. This material does not outcrop in the county but is found in large quantities to the west, in Adams and Franklin counties. Metarhyolite was especially popular for stone tool production during the Transitional period when it was traded throughout the Middle Atlantic region. Many of the sites in York County producing metarhyolite are secondary reductions sites. As Native Americans moved away from the metarhyolite quarries, towards the Susquehanna River for example, they gradually removed the low quality material from blocks collected at the quarry, reducing the weight and converting the raw block into more portable pieces. They also began to shape tools and tool blanks. Typically during the Transitional period, they worked this material into large (15 cm. long) bifaces that was used in the trade network.

diagnostic projectile points from 36Yo378

Over 300 archaeological surveys have been conducted in the county and these have documented an archaeological heritage that otherwise would have been lost. For example, an archaeological investigation involving a housing development along Conewago Creek produced a multicomponent site that dated from Middle Archaic to Late woodland times. Unfortunately, plowing and erosion had adversely affected the integrity of this site and it was not considered eligible to the National Register of Historic Places.

projectile point assemblage from 36Yo377

One particularly interesting and productive survey was performed at the Defense Distribution Center along the Susquehanna River in the northern part of the county. The project was located on a large, flat, Pleistocene terrace, with well drained soils. This would have been an ideal location for a prehistoric occupation but the existing military facility and the Capital City Airport had long ago covered or destroyed most of the evidence. Archaeological testing identified a small piece of what was probably a much larger site. The site (36Yo337) produced a wide variety of tools, projectile points, pottery and subsurface features such as cooking hearths, storage pits and post molds. The most common lithic material was metarhyolite. The site seems to have been intensively occupied from Late Archaic through Late Woodland times at least seasonally. The most common projectile points and pottery suggest that it was most frequently occupied during the Early/Middle Woodland period. A radiocarbon date of 2300+80 BP supports this time of occupation.

As we have reported in previous blog publications, (but are worth repeating here) three of the most significant sites in York County are the Upper Leibhart site (aka Oscar Leibhart - 36Yo9), the Lower Leibhart site (aka Byrd Leibhart - 36Yo170), and Camp Security. These are all now in public hands and are preserved in perpetuity. The Leibhart sites date to the latter half of the 1600’s and represent the last stockaded Susquehannock villages prior to their move to Maryland and return to the region under the control of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Upper Leibhart site is owned by the Archaeological Conservancy and the Lower is owned by York County Parks. They are planning on developing an interpretive center for this site and others in the area. Camp Security represents the only existing American prisoner of war camp dating to the Revolutionary War. This is also now publically owned and preserved for future generations. The people of York County should be applauded for their successful preservation of some of the Commonwealth’s most significant cultural resources.

We hope you have found this journey through the archaeological heritage of York County interesting. Understanding and exploring our archaeological heritage is crucial to our understanding of human behavior and our ability to change and adapt over time - just as the peoples of York County have done for thousands of years.

This is the last blog in our county series. Next week we will summarize what has been learned through this journey across the Commonwealth. In two weeks we will begin a new blog theme.  Please consider leaving a comment on our blog if there is a particular subject you would like us to discuss or events you would like us to share.  Our goal, as always, is to enrich our understanding of the past so we can preserve it for the future. 


Rue, David J. and Melissa Diamanti 
Final Report Phase II Archaeological Survey of Site 36Yo377, Defense Distribution Center, New Cumberland, York County, PA - manuscript on file with the Section of Archaeology, State Museum of PA

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

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