Friday, August 29, 2014

A knife by any other name is a knife

This week in Pennsylvania Archaeology we feature the word “knife” for the letter “K” in our alphabetical series blog. To be certain, one of the most important technological achievements of our ancestors was the invention of cutting tools! Whether of stone, metal or any number of other materials, cutting tools were a major contribution to one’s ability to accomplish things from butchering animals to carefully performing 21st century surgery.

If we were able to return to the ancient stone-age of 2 million years ago we might likely witness crude cutting tools with knife-like edges being made and used by proto-humans to dismember animals at small butchering sites located in the region of Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania, Africa. Two million years later, through the efforts of Louis and Mary Leakey, a husband and wife team who studied these stone tools led to the discovery of one of the oldest stone tool chronologies. We also know that Stone Age cutting tools have a wide distribution whereas examples have been found on sites in the fossilized lake beds of Tanzania to the frozen tundra of the sub-Arctic and in many other parts of the world. There is little doubt that the knife, in its various forms, was an important part of the prehistoric “cutting” tool kit as it turns up wherever archaeological contexts containing human activity are discovered.

The teshoa, (Shoshone woman’s knife)  a cutting tool made from stone was a common form used by Native American groups throughout the western hemisphere. Teshoas were simple tools made from large primary flakes that were chipped from a block of stone - typically a quartzite or siltstone cobble. Seventy five to ninety percent of the marginal surface on a teshoa provided a useful cutting edge. Because they were easy to manufacture, teshoas were very much a preferred cutting tool to many cultures and they are among some of the most common tool types found on prehistoric archaeological sites. Using the definition of teshoa as being produced on a primary or secondary flake, they are common on Woodland sites but none earlier than 4000 years ago.

Made of stone and later iron/steel, ulus were similar to teshoas. Ulus were principally used by cultures of the Artic and Sub-Artic regions of the northern hemisphere. Other examples of ulus were also part of the Archaic tool kit of the Laurentian cultures once present in northeastern North America. This form of stone knife has been found as far south as the Upper Susquehanna Valley and demonstrates the far reaching influence of the Archaic Period Laurentian culture.  Ulus are usually ground and heavily polished whereas teshoas are simply chipped with no further modifications.

As an exceptional tool for cutting all kinds of things apart the knife has changed little since its beginning. Recognized for their simple design, stone age blade knives and flake knives, exhibit a keen sharp edge. In fact, some of the debris left over from blade core and flake core reduction was used as cutting tools in an otherwise unmodified state. Metal eventually came into play as a medium for knife production. As early as 6500 B.P. copper was worked into fixed blade knives. Arrival of the Bronze Age around 4,800 B.P. followed by the Iron Age around 3500 B.P.., produced yet more durable material for the knife maker. Steel, the ultimate product of iron with its added carbon, strengthened the metal and rendered knives more durable and hence, more useful as primary cutting tools. As early as 2300 B.P..,Wootz, better known as Damascus steel, was manufactured in India and the Sri Lanka regions of southern Asia. Its overall durability as a cutting medium held a better edge than the earlier metals employed in knife making.

Ironically, Stone Age technology came full circle in the late 20th century by way of specially made obsidian scalpels used for certain surgical procedures. In 1970 expert flint knapper, Don Crabtree made obsidian knives for his own impending surgery. Since then, surgeons have adopted the use of obsidian scalpels for other invasive procedures requiring very sharp instrumentation. In fact, obsidian scalpels have enjoyed great success in cosmetic surgery since they are much sharper than the standard cutting edge present on steel scalpels which result in a less precise incision, more scarring and slower healing.

 To provide the reader with a better understanding of the visual diversity in the age of knife technology we are showcasing the following examples from the archaeological collections repository of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

(Top) Oldowan hand axe and (Bottom) Neolithic Period knife of flint. Egypt. Arthur Smith collection.

The Sheep Rock Shelter biface knife is a magnificent example of prehistoric  technology. Manufactured from a high grade chert and set in a highly sculpted handle of bone, the knife is a classic expression of the flint knapping skill.

Teshoas made from fine grained siltstone found at the Piney Island site in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Simple tools made from flaked river cobbles.

Inuit ulu knife.  Steel, copper and ivory composite. 

Inuit ulu of ground slate. Point Barrow Alaska 

Machete from the Philippine Islands. Steel and wood composite. Masterpool Edged Weapons Collection.

Iron knives arranged in approximate chronological order from earliest (top) to latest (bottom) from Native American sites of the Susquehanna Valley (from Kent 1984; Figure 64.)

Obsidian blade cores and blades from central Mexico sites. Cores on left, blades on right. Note the channel scars remaining from the knapper extricating prismatic shaped blades. 

We hope that you have enjoyed this brief journey into the past and the next time you pick up a knife to slice an apple or trim some twine, you’ll think of the many thousands of years that it took to develop the knife forms we commonly use today. We hope you’ll revisit our blog next time for more on “This Week In Pennsylvania Archaeology”.

A reminder that this weekend, August 29 thru September 1, is the annual Kipona Festival in Harrisburg. We look forward to sharing artifact information from the excavations that took place on City Island from 1993 to 2005. Archaeologists from The State Museum along with a few of our dedicated volunteers will be on hand to answer your questions and provide information about the artifact exhibits. Bring your camera and hop into our replica dugout canoe- a Kodak moment just waiting to happen!

Eyman, Frances
1968       The Teshoa, A Shoshonean Woman’s Knife: A Study of American Indian Chopper Industries. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 34(3-4):9-52.
Kent, Barry C.
1984       Susquehanna’s Indians. Anthropological Series No.6. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.               
Ritchie, William A.
1965       The Archaeology of New York State. Natural History Press. Garden City, New York.

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Summer Internship in Archaeology

This week our blog will focus on one of two summer interns in the Section of Archaeology, State Museum of Pennsylvania. Hannah Wagner is a rising senior at Dickinson College who participated in the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Keystone Internship program.  Interns provide valuable assistance to the curatorial activities including identification, analysis and research or artifacts as well as collections management.  We wish Hannah the best as she completes her program at Dickinson and prepares for graduate studies.

rehousing Ephrata Cloister (36La981) artifact collection (photo courtesy of Carl Sander Socolow, Dickinson College)

I have been interested in archaeology for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I had a particular interest in ancient Egypt, and I remember getting all kinds of books and learning materials about mummies for my tenth birthday. Looking back, this was probably not so normal for a ten year old! But as I grew older my interests developed, and I realized that I could actually turn this fascination into a career. And so, this fall I will be starting my senior year at Dickinson College where I study archaeology and art history. I am very excited to have had this opportunity to intern in the Section of Archaeology at Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) as a Keystone Summer Intern. 

mending reconstructed red earthenware vessel from Ephrata Cloister (photo courtesy of Carl Sander Socolow, Dickinson College)

My experience working in the Section of Archaeology has opened my eyes to so many new opportunities.  It is amazing how much I have learned over the course of the summer. My main project has been rehousing the artifacts from the excavations at Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County. The archaeological field school at Ephrata ran from 1994 to 2003, under the direction of former Senior Curator, Steve Warfel. The collections were inventoried and housed on open shelving, organized within their year of excavation. My rehousing project included removing the artifacts from their boxes and into acid-free boxes and bags and prior to placing them in drawers for curation. As the artifacts are being moved I am also creating a drawer inventory of each catalog number, a general artifact class and the new location. This inventory is then recorded in an electronic database maintained by the Section to be used for quick reference in the search for artifacts in the collection. Detailed inventories prepared after each field season are available for researchers who may be searching for a specific artifact type or class. Freeing up this shelf space is important; this then opens up space for more artifacts, increasing the size of our collections and the number of artifacts available for research. This project has definitely given me a lot of insight into tasks like proper curation practices, conservation, organization, and the duties of a curator.  

2014 Keystone Interns at the Pennsylvania Rail Road Museum

As part of the internship, PHMC took us on some great field trips. We visited a few PHMC properties and I was able to learn all about Pennsylvania heritage. My favorite trip was our day trip to Ephrata Cloister, Oregon Dairy, and The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. In addition to these field trips, I was able to tag along on a PennDOT sponsored field trip to McCormick Taylor, a consulting engineering firm specializing in design, land use planning, and environmental studies for transportation-related projects. Before this I hadn’t had much exposure to the world of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) archaeology, but visiting their office gave me a different understanding of CRM and opened it up as a possible career path for the future.

This summer I also had the opportunity to spend four weeks excavating at an archaeological field school in Trim, Ireland. The site was a Late Medieval Dominican Friary from the 13th century. There I learned basic excavation techniques like taking levels and coordinates, recording features, and how to properly excavate, document, and process human remains (the grounds of the friary also contained medieval burials). This experience, coupled with my internship, gave me a more complete understanding of the many aspects of archaeological research, including excavation, lab procedure and analysis, and preservation and curation. 

This internship has also given me the opportunity to diversify my knowledge base and to learn more about Pennsylvania and Native American archaeology as well as Cultural Resource Management and Historic Preservation. This summer I was able to acquire hands-on skills that cannot be taught in the classroom, and being able to apply my theoretical knowledge to the real world was the most valuable experience I had during the internship.  In the near future, I hope to attend a graduate program in Archaeology and Bioarchaeology, and then find a job in the field or in a museum. I have thoroughly enjoyed my summer working at PHMC, and I would highly recommend this internship to anyone else interested in archaeology.

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Jefferson County Revisited

Back on the alphabetical trail this week through Pennsylvania Archaeology and we arrive at the letter “J”. With options like jasper and Jack’s Reef points discussed in earlier posts, “J” becomes a bit more difficult to find a match for.  Revisiting Jefferson County might not be the most creative solution but it does provide an opportunity to look at a recent cultural resources management project or CRM. Cultural Resource Management is a review process that aids in the protection and management of our cultural heritage under state and federal guidelines. This may include archaeological resources, but also addresses historic buildings. Cultural resources are finite and non-renewable resources that once destroyed cannot be returned to their original state.

Summerville Bridge project area, facing WNW

Jefferson County is home to Summerville, a small village situated along the northern and southern banks of Redbank Creek, a meandering tributary that forms the border between neighboring Clarion and Armstrong Counties and eventually meets the Allegheny River further west.

Historic aerial photo of Summerville, bridge is slightly below the center of photo, Redbank Creek flowing right to left

As seen in the historic aerial photo above, Summerville’s only bridge linking the northern and southern sections of town spans the creek at a perpendicular angle. PennDoT proposes to replace the bridge, “on a new alignment skewed across the creek . . . in order to improve the horizontal and vertical geometry and eliminate two 90 degree turns to the north of the existing bridge.”(Raber, Heberling and Vento 2012)

 Due to receiving federal funds, PennDoT undertakings are required, among other things, to make a good faith effort in identifying cultural resources, evaluating their significance, and if necessary, mitigate any adverse effects their projects may have on important archaeological sites. In 2011, Heberling Associates, Inc. was contracted by PennDoT to conduct a phase I archaeological survey of the bridge replacement project’s area of potential effect, or APE.

field crew huddles around the geomorphologist in a test unit, bridge visible in background

 Referencing the Bureau for Historic Preservation’s Cultural Resource Geographic Information System (CRGIS), no fewer than eight previously recorded archaeological sites have been identified in the vicinity of Summerville, suggesting a high probability of a site within the project area. Directly abutting the existing bridge a steep slope, recent erosional activity of Redbank Creek and modern demolition work eliminated the need for subsurface testing in three of the four quadrants of the project area. However, in the southeast quad geomorphological analysis indicated the potential for intact cultural remains in Holocene age soils.

west wall profile of test unit #2

Four 1 x 1 meter test units in the southeast quad of the project area were hand excavated to sterile soils. Thirteen pieces of Onondaga and Upper Mercer chert debitage were recovered from A horizon (topsoil) contexts across each of the four units, one of which exhibits slight utilization wear on opposite margins. No other prehistoric tools were found and none of the lithics could be assigned to a particular time period.

Upper Mercer and Onondaga chert flake and flake fragments from the Summerville Bridge site (36Je178)

utilized flake from 36Je178, showing minor use wear on left and right margins

 Several dozen historic artifacts were also recovered including earthenware and stoneware ceramics, vessel glass, a kaolin pipe stem fragment, and miscellaneous architectural materials. Two heavily corroded U.S. one cent pieces were found in stratum 2 of Unit 3. Although the obverse of both are so worn the dates are obliterated, enough of the reverse remains to identify one as a “wheat” penny, produced from 1909-1958, and the other as an “Indian Head” penny, minted from 1858-1909 (Yeoman 2001).

architectural materials: (top, left to right) brick, window glass, well preserved cut nail (bottom) heavily corroded cut nails

top, left to right: kaolin pipe stem fragment, aqua colored bottle glass fragments, glass button with iron eye, US wheat penny, US "Indian Head" penny. bottom, left to right: glazed red earthenware, stoneware crock rim and body sherds, hand-painted white earthenware ceramics

The cultural review process requires resources to meet certain criteria  in order to meet eligibility standards.  The light density and non-diagnostic nature of the prehistoric finds, and the historic artifacts’ lack of spacial integrity or association to important people or events, renders the Summerville Bridge site (36Je178) not eligible to the National Register of Historic Places, and no additional archaeological testing has been recommended prior to the construction of the new bridge.

Summerville Bridge, looking North

While not an exceptional archaeological site yielding new, interesting finds that will turn Pennsylvania Archaeology on its head, the Summerville bridge replacement project serves as an example of the numerous transportation projects throughout the state where PennDoT has (after the artifacts and associated documentation have been submitted to the State Museum of Pennsylvania, of course!) done its due diligence in helping to preserve the past for the future. These cultural resource management projects have provided archaeologists with an opportunity to look at archaeological resources all across the Commonwealth. Well documented and carefully prepared reports have provided us with a much improved picture of our archaeological heritage thanks to these investigations.


Raber, Paul A.; Scott D. Heberling; Frank J. Vento
(2012) Phase I Archaeological Survey S.R. 3007 Section 550; Summerville Bridge Replacement Summerville Borough, Jefferson County, Pennsylvania

Yeoman, R.S.
(2001) A Guide Book of United States Coins, 54th Ed. St. Martin's Press, New York

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