Thursday, July 2, 2015

Turnbaugh's West Branch Survey

This week, we continue our celebration of the 50thanniversary of the opening of The State Museum of Pennsylvania in 1965 with a trip down memory lane to the early 1970s. The 1970s were fruitful times for the Pennsylvania archaeology as interest in the less explored areas of PA arose. A major climatic disaster hit much of the eastern coast of the United States including a large area of central Pennsylvania. In late June of 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes tormented Pennsylvania with torrential rains lasting for a week.  Agnes struck with winds between 25-45 mph and heavy rains across the area, causing rivers and creeks to rise at alarming rates.   Flooding removed large amounts of earth and buried artifacts from archaeological sites were cropping up to the surface, causing great concern for the loss of this culture history.

 For one curious archaeology student, William Turnbaugh, the Lycoming Creek Valley and section of the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna River in Lycoming county was one of those archaeologically untapped regions of Pennsylvania. Turnbaugh became interested in archaeology and basketry in particular in the early 60s when he was given the opportunity to handle the remains of the collections from the Lycoming County historical society as he assisted in the moving of the collections to the New Museum, now the Thomas T. Taber Museum, after a fire at the previous location. By 1967, as a high school student, Turnbaugh became vice president and acting president of the New Museum and in 1970 he left for a college education at Harvard University. So, with an interest in north-central Pennsylvania and specifically Lycoming county and growing up there Turnbaugh turned this interest into his doctoral dissertation.

After receiving an NSF grant he began his dissertation in 1972 just two days after the peak of the Agnes flooding. He describes the scene as,

 “Scores of vacant windows stared from towns of muddy homes, apartments, stores and churches, all looking out onto lawns and trees and streets filled with yet more of the stinking oily mud… One marveled at the boats and campers and travel trailers and cars cluttered together at various eddy points… Everywhere there were trees and other natural debris; houses, chicken coops, outhouses and barn roofs; jewelry, silverware, typewriters, television; mementos and family photos and books.” (Turnbaugh 1973; 66-67)

Turnbaugh’s survey which is known as the West Branch Survey spanned over a large area of Lycoming and eastern Clinton counties focusing on localities near the river and streams. The survey covered more than 160 miles of terrain and uncovered 53 prehistoric sites ranging back as far as the Paleoindian period (11700 BP-19800 BP) through the Contact period (1650 AD-1550 AD).  Artifacts recovered included projectile points from throughout all of our time periods as well as pottery and other stone tools. 

various points from Turnbaugh's survey

net sinkers and groundstone tools from Turnbaugh's survey

prehistoric ceramics from Turnbaugh's survey

knife/scraper and broken drill base from Turnbaugh's survey

Overall, William Turnbaugh played a major part in our understanding of how geology and the environment factors into site development in this region of the state.   He also developed and improved our understanding of the prehistoric cultural history  of the region and recording extent archaeological sites from the Susquehanna River basin.


Turnbaugh, William
1973       Cultural Prehistory and Demographic Patterns in North-Central Pennsylvania. Manuscript on file, Section of Archaeology, State Museum of Pennsylvania.
1977       Man, Land, And Time; The Cultural Prehistory and Demographic Patterns of North-Central Pennsylvania. Unigraphic, Inc., Evansville, Indiana.
United States Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
1973       Final Report of the Disaster Survey Team on the Events of Agnes: A Report to the Administrator. Natural Disaster Survey Report 73-1. Copy available at 

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

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