Friday, March 29, 2019

Welcome to Spring: Indigenous Methods of Tracking Time

March 20th officially heralded in the beginning of spring with the spring equinox, and we have been granted our first glimpses of warmer weather. The equinox is the point at which the earth’s axis tilts neither towards or away from the sun, it is the midpoint between summer and winter and the date when the day and night occupy equal amounts of time. Around the world, cultures have long marked this occasion as the end of winter and a sign that warmer weather is on its way. It is a time for celebration as the scarcity of winter fades into the welcome warmth and abundance of warmer months. The indigenous people who lived in this area before the arrival of Europeans were no different, marking the seasonal round by the movement of the sun, the phases of the moon, the constellations in the night sky and by observing the changes in their environment.

In order to track the movement of the sun, ancient people built structures and utilized natural features which, either through imaging or sighting, tracked the movement of the sun from winter solstice to equinox to summer solstice and back again as the rising sun moves across the horizon from north to south. Sighting calendars use alignments of natural or man-made features to indicate the direction of the rising or setting sun, while imaging calendars create specific shadows or rays of light at certain times of the year. For a people who were far more connected to their environment than we are today, the movement of the sun and the accompanying changes were part of the rhythm of life, dictating when to hunt, gather plants or sow fields. Today we use dates on a calendar, but these ancient solar calendars are, in many cases, functioning just as they have for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

An example of an imaging calendar, a rectilinear area adjacent to this circular motif on Little Indian Rock in the Lower Susquehanna fills with light as the sun crests over another section of the rock on the equinoxes. The light first fills one portion of the box, bisected by a natural crack, before expanding to fill the remainder of the shape. Serpent motifs elsewhere on this rock sight to the rising sun on the equinoxes. (photo by Melanie Mayhew)

With the passing of time, the indigenous cultures of this area celebrated their respective festivals and ceremonies, although often it was not the sun’s position that was used for the timing of these rites. The Iroquois and Delaware relied upon other events such as environmental changes, phases of the moon and constellations present in the night sky to determine the correct time for their ceremonies.
The Delaware, as recorded by Frank Speck, use the position of the stars and the moon to inform them of the proper time to gather medicinal herbs, plant crops in the spring, and the time at which animals breed and fish move up stream. The gathering of materials for basket-making was also tied to the seasons, and in order to produce durable hides, animals must be killed at the right time of year. This determination of activities based on the seasonal round is pervasive and is an integral part of the indigenous lifeway. Star-lore was used to inform tribal members of environmental changes and the proper times for such activities as leaving for or returning from a hunt.

 This watercolor painting by John White titled “A Festival Dance” depicts inhabitants of coastal North Carolina participating in the green corn or harvest ritual and was painted between 1585 and 1593. (Photo: C Trustees of the British Museum)

A feature of Iroquois, Delaware and other indigenous cultures is the naming of each lunar cycle based on environmental changes occurring at that time. The moon names may change by group and location and reflect cultural and regional variation in indigenous culture. The lunar names give a clue as to the activity that occupies the central role for that time of the year.

The names of the moons as described in the book Travels in New France. Moon names varied by region and cultural group.

The cyclical nature of time and observances of the sun’s position have been recorded in the Middle Atlantic in ethnographic records, and to a lesser extent in village patterning and recovered artifacts. Whatever the season, there was always some significance to the time of the year as we travel around the sun and through the seasons, once again arriving at spring.


Snow, Dean
1996     The Iroquois. Blackwell Publishers, Malden.

Speck, Frank G.
1931     A Study of the Delaware Indian Big House Ceremony, Vol II. The Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Harrisburg.

Stevens, Sylvester K. et al (Eds.)
1941     Travels in New France by J.C.B. Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Harrisburg.
Sturtevant, William C. (Ed.)
1978       Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15, Northeast. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. 

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

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Leiser Collection – Preserving our Past for our Future

This week in Pennsylvania archaeology we are visiting some old friends and familiar collections. At the end of last week a few of the Section of Archaeology staff set out toward Milford, Pa, where they spent two days conscientiously packing up, long time collector and educator, Bill Leiser’s artifact collection from several eastern Pennsylvania sites. Mr. Leiser is a retired middle school science teacher, who collected on sites in the Upper Delaware River Valley for over 50 years and has spent time in his retirement continuing to educate students on prehistoric life in Pennsylvania and the importance of archaeology and record keeping.

Mr. Leiser with a reconstructed pot and stone tools from the Santos site.

Mr. Leiser discussing site information and artifacts with staff member as we work to safely bag and box up the artifacts.

Mr. Leiser is a dedicated and knowledgeable avocational archaeologist who has devoted a lot of his time to excavating, curating and sharing his collections. Working alongside other avocational archaeologists such as David Werner, William DeGraw and a former student of Mr. Leiser’s- Fred Assmus these men honed their excavation and mapping skills. Fred Kinsey who was a curator with the William Penn Memorial Museum (now the State Museum of Pennsylvania) and later at the North Museum at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, provided guidance to these former members of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, Lenape Chapter 12. Bill gleaned invaluable knowledge on recording and mapping sites and continued to keep detailed records on his own excavations. You may remember from previous blog posts (Pike County, The Werner Collection, and In Memorium, Fredrick Assmus January 6, 1946-October 14, 2012) these other members of Chapter 12 have also donated their collections to the Section of Archaeology, which included most of the Zimmermann site (36Pi14) artifacts. Thanks to Mr. Leiser’s donation we believe we have completed our acquisition of all of the available Zimmermann site collection, which as has been mentioned in previous blogs is a large, well-documented site due to the efforts of Mr. Werner, Mr. Leiser, Mr. DeGraw and Mr. Assmus (Collecting in Archaeology).

A few of the Zimmermann site artifacts in Mr. Leiser’s collection.

One of the many shelving units and cases that Mr. Leiser safely kept his collections.

Along with excavating and collecting at the Zimmermann site, Mr. Leiser also collected on numerous other sites. Some of these other sites include the Santos site (36Pi37 and 36Pi02) and the Ludwig/Pitman site (36Pi19), both of which are large multi-component sites with numerous artifacts covering a large span of time. As he learned from the Zimmermann site, Mr. Leiser continued to take copious notes, create maps of the excavation units and organized the artifacts in such a way that he retained the unit and level information for each one. It is this extensive work that lends to these collections true value as exceptional research sources and great tools to furthering our understanding of the history/prehistory of this region.

Example of some of Mr. Leiser’s notes and maps for the Santos site.

Example of how Mr. Leiser kept artifacts organized by site, unit and level.

Bill and James with a few artifacts from the Santos site.

With the help of Bill and his son James, archaeology staff were able to safely pack and transport Mr. Leiser’s collection to The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology. We will begin to process Mr. Leiser’s collection into our cataloging and inventory system. This process allows us to prepare the collection for future researchers. The inventory process encompasses current point and ceramic nomenclature facilitating an opportunity to further comparative research into these recently acquired collections from the Upper Delaware. We thank Mr. Leiser for his hospitality, diligence and efforts to help preserve these all-important pieces of our past.

Upcoming events:
Dr. Kurt Carr will be sharing research related to the recently reprinted book Indian Paths of Pennsylvania, Paul Wallace, 2018, this weekend at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum

Archaeologists understand the importance of sharing our research with the community and offer a variety of venues for avocational and professional archaeologists to present their findings. Every spring there is a flurry of conferences available for the general public to attend and share in these discoveries. For those who would like to attend, the Middle Atlantic Archaeological Conference (MAAC) is being held in Ocean City, Md this year from March 21st – 24th. For the program and other additional information on the meeting please visit the website here: MAAC 2019. Online registration is closed, but walk-in registration is available.

                Another opportunity to hear about the archaeology of Pennsylvania is the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology (SPA) annual meeting being held in Uniontown, Pa on April 5th – 7th. For additional information please visit the SPA annual meeting website at: . We hope to see you at one of the spring meetings or at one of the speaking engagements of our staff. Please take some time to read about the archaeological heritage of our commonwealth and the lessons that archaeology can provide for the future. Follow the example of Bill Leiser and his friends to record archaeological sites that you may know about.  Remember this is your heritage and it is our duty as citizens to strive to preserve the past for the future.  

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

Friday, March 1, 2019

March Madness Aside, This Month We’re Fired up for Fire clay!

In western and northcentral Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, fire clay deposits are found underlying coal seams and date to the Carboniferous age. Fire clays have historically been an important economic resource for the Commonwealth, most notably during the industrial boom of the mid-19th and early 20th century. The archaeological record also demonstrates Pennsylvania fire clays were a natural resource exploited by Pre-Contact Native Americans as early as 6000 years ago, although direct evidence of prehistoric quarry activities is lacking. Future trace element studies from probable sources as compared with artifacts have potential to shed further light on the movement of people, and the trade and exchange of goods and ideas in the Upper Ohio drainage basin, Middle Atlantic and Northeast. 

                          Map of Clay Sources in Northern Appalachia, (Ries 1903)

Fire clay samples from Cambria, Clearfield and Fayette counties

Fire clay is the common term  for clays of high aluminum content, valued since the industrial revolution and prior for their refractory properties, or resistance to high temperatures. Objects made from fire clay will remain structurally stable up to or above 3,000 ˚F. “Fire bricks” manufactured from these clays are used in metal, ceramic and glass industries for lining furnaces and kilns. Refractory clays are also used to create tools and utilitarian vessels also subjected to high heat in metallurgy, pottery and glass-works, such as crucibles and saggers.

Harmony Brick Works furnace, Leetsdale (36AL480), (Sewell 2004)

By the mid-1800s in Pennsylvania, plastic forms of fireclay and non-plastic deposits, known as flint clays, were mined to produce refractory materials for the iron, coal, ceramic and glass industries, and were a key product that in tandem with the associated coal sources of the region facilitated the burgeoning steel industry in Pittsburgh. 
Fire brick, manufactured by S. Barnes Company of Pittsburgh to line furnaces and kilns at  the Harmony Brick Works, a common brick manufacturer, Leetsdale (36AL480), (Sewell 2004).
 Fire brick manufacture was the second leading clay production industry in Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century. Combined 1901 and 1902 profits from fire brick manufacture grossed over $9.3 million, just under the $9.9 million income from common brick production. Pennsylvania manufacturers, using local fire clay sources, supplied nearly half of the refractory brick used in the nation, and were only surpassed in production by Ohio refractories (Ries, 1903). 

                                 Table courtesy of (Ries 1903)

Long before the steel boom greatly increased the demand for commercial-industrial refractory products, Native Americans were exploiting fire clay deposits for their unique plastic, yet stone-like properties. Raw sourced fire clays are easily hand polished to a high luster. For this reason, it was a valued material used by a variety of prehistoric cultural groups to make specialized ground stone tools such as bannerstones or atlatl weights, smoking pipes, gorgets, pendants and other personal adornments.

Gorget fragment and polished fire clay spalls surface collected from the Buffington site (36In15), Veigh collection

Fire clay artifacts have been found in archaeological contexts that range from the Late Archaic to Contact Period, yet the most distinct and diagnostic artifact almost exclusively made from fire clays are blocked-end tubular pipes. These pipes were produced and widely traded in the Adena and to a lesser extent, the Middlesex/Meadowood interaction spheres during the Early Woodland throughout the Ohio Valley, Middle Atlantic and Northeast.

Blocked-End Tubular fire clay pipes from the Haldeman O’Connor Cache, Shelly Island (36Yo3)

Rafferty (2004: 16) argues that the uniformity of blocked-end tubular smoking pipes suggests they were traded widely from specific and limited number of workshops. In contrast, the variability found in conical and open-ended tube pipes, also widely dispersed during the Early Woodland, were more likely products of local regional developments. While the well documented fire clay sources, such as those found in Portsmouth, Ohio are closer to the heartland of Adena culture in the Upper Ohio Valley, McConaughy hypothesizes that trace element source studies may demonstrate bordering Cresap phase communities of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, whose mortuary practices and aspects of material culture show a vested interaction in Adena trade and exchange networks, were potential suppliers of blocked-end tubular pipes. Pipes found in various stages of early production in Warren, Forest, Elk and Clarion counties may further indicate local fire clay quarry activities. It is possible that local Cresap phase communities would have  controlled access to these upper Allegheny Valley fire clay sources, and the production and trade of this pipe variety facilitated their interactions in these greater regional exchange networks (Mayer-Oakes 1955; McConanghy in press). Smith (1979) also notes that outcrops in Clearfield County believed to be “used extensively for pipe and pendant-making by the later Susquehannock inhabitants of the West Branch” of the Susquehanna River as potential quarry sources in the Early Woodland. 
Fire clay pipes and preforms (Mayer-Oakes 1955)

Blocked-end tubular pipe distribution in the Susquehanna River Valley (Smith 1979)

However, prehistoric fire clay quarries have yet to be recorded in the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey (PASS). This may be largely due to the extensive mining of these resources in the 19th and 20th centuries that have likely destroyed most archaeological evidence of pre-industrial quarry use. Furthermore, fire clay trace element sourcing studies have yet to be a priority in regional archaeology research. Comprehensive comparative sourcing studies would be a possible avenue for future study, (McConaughy in press), and provide direct evidence that western and north central fire clay sources were also mined in prehistory.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our overview of fire clay use through time. Mark your calendars for the 49th Annual Middle Atlantic Archaeology Conference, March 21-24, 2019 in Ocean City, Maryland. It is still possible to register online to attend through March 8th.


Ries, Heinrich
1903       The Clays of the United States East of the Mississippi River. Department of the Interior, United States Geological Survey, Professional Paper No. 11.

Mayer-Oakes, William J.
1955    Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley; An Introductory Archaeological Study. Anthropological Series, No 2. Annuals of Carnegie Museum 34, Pittsburgh.

McConaughy, Mark A.
In press Chapter 7, Early and Middle Woodland in the Upper Ohio Drainage Basin. The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania Volume 1. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Rafferty, Sean M.
2004       “They Pass Their Lives in Smoke, and at Death Fall into the Fire”: Smoking Pipes and Mortuary Ritual during the Early Woodland Period. The Archaeology of Tobacco Pipes in Eastern North America: Smoking and Culture. The University of Tennesee Press, Knoxville.  

Sewell, Andrew R.
2004       Chapter 5 Phase III Archaeology Data Recovery at the Historic Brickworks Component of 36AL480 in Leetsdale, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania ER# 1999-2661-003-E. Submitted by Hardlines Design Company, 4608 Indianola Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43214. On file at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology.

Smith, Ira F. III
1979       Early Smoking Pipes in the Susquehanna River Valley. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 49(4):9-23

Stewart, R. Michael
1989       Trade and Exchange in Mid-Atlantic Prehistory. Archaeology of Eastern North America 17:47-78

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