Friday, July 29, 2016

The Extensive Collection of Henry K. Deisher

There was a time when the banks of Pennsylvania’s creeks and rivers were rich with evidence of the area’s first inhabitants. Artifacts were once so abundant that not a second thought was paid to collecting them. It is not a difficult image to conjure when viewing the artifact assemblages housed at the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s archaeology collections. Sad as it may be, archaeological sites are non-renewable resources, for once the artifacts have been collected from a site, little to no physical evidence may remain of the people who once occupied them. This emphasizes the importance of recording the provenience (location) of artifacts and recording the site with Pennsylvania’s site files using the PASS (Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey) form.

Today we’ll be taking a look Henry K. Deisher’s (1867-1951) contribution to the Section of Archaeology’s collections. Deisher’s collection, acquired by the State Museum in 1917, includes over 15,000 (closer to 24,000 by one account) prehistoric artifacts, primarily from Berks County. Unlike our previous blog, which highlighted a donated collection with exceptional records, Henry Deisher did not identify artifacts from specific sites, and he often grouped artifacts together by drainage, a fact that has been lamented by researchers who have made use of his collection.

This is one of several drawers containing the Deisher collection artifacts, most of the boxes pictured were found along the Saucony Creek. Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania

H. K. Deisher was an avid lifelong collector of artifacts, finding his first six projectile points in 1873 at the age of seven. His collection quickly grew to immense proportions. Deisher made use of his family’s farmland along Saucony Creek to collect artifacts, expanding his search to include the farmland of relatives and neighbors who apparently had little objection to his obsession. Although specific proveniences and sites were not recorded, the Deisher collection is incredibly valuable for the variety of forms and materials found within it. Much of his collection at the State Museum has been sorted into boxes by form, material type and drainage, making the assemblage more useful to researchers.
An image of Deisher’s original catalog that accompanied artifacts purchased in 1917. Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Not limiting his interests to the artifacts themselves, Deisher found the tool stone quarries used by prehistoric people in southeastern Pennsylvania equally interesting. An article detailing these explorations can be found in The Pennsylvania Archaeologist 3(3), published in 1933. His discovery of quarries in Pennsylvania was memorialized by the State Museum in an exhibit depicting a replica of the Flint Hill jasper quarry, which Deisher discovered in 1877 at the age of 10. Although this quarry exhibit has long since been dismantled, one of the three Indian figures used in the exhibit survives to this day, repurposed in the Delaware Village “walk through” at the State Museum in Harrisburg.

Deisher at the Vera Cruz Jasper Quarry, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.
In his late teens/early twenties, Deisher traveled west to California where he formed a connection with Reverend Henry Clarkson Meredith, whom he referred to as his “Field Collector”. Meredith was instrumental in acquiring an astonishing, and well-documented collection of California Indian baskets from the classic period (1892-1918). Perhaps most incredible about this collection, not discounting the beautiful basketry, is the accompanying documentation, which includes names of the weavers and photographs of them with their baskets. Nowhere else does such a collection of California basketry exist. The majority of Deisher’s collection of Pomo basketry was sold the University of Pennsylvania in 1918 where it resides today.

The collector and some of his favorites.

If you would like to donate your collection for curation at the State Museum, please contact Kurt Carr at or Janet Johnson at  Help us to preserve our archaeological heritage by collecting responsibly and organizing/cataloging your discoveries. We ask you to join us in ensuring that our archaeological heritage is preserved by supporting public programs and preservation laws so that we can protect the past for future generations.
Custer, Jay F.
1994       Pennsylvania Profile No. 10: Collecting Indian Artifacts in Eastern Pennsylvania in the Early Twentieth Centruy, Part I. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 64(1): 70-76
Deisher, Henry K.
                1933       South Mountain Indian Quarries. The Pennsylvania Archaeologist 3(3): 6-7, 18-19
McLendon, Sally
1998       Pomo Basket Weavers in the University of Pennsylvania Museum Collections. Expedition 40(1): 34-47
Strasser, Brandan D.
2003       Along the Saucony: The Kutztown Area’s Early Inhabitants. Kutztown Area historical Society, Pennsylvania.

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

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