Friday, April 12, 2019

A Different View of the Early and Middle Woodland Periods in Southwestern Pennsylvania

Paul A. Raber
Heberling Associates, Inc.

Like the rest of us, archaeologists get set in their ways. They become used to looking at the same types of archaeological sites and doing so in the same ways. Sometimes it takes an outside force to pull them away from their pet subjects and ingrained habits. Cultural resource management (CRM) studies required by federal and state historic preservation laws and regulation have served this purpose in North American archaeology over the past half century. Archaeological field studies directed by the dictates of project design have come to dominate the practice of archaeology in the United States, with highway improvements and public works projects defining areas of required archaeological testing and study. Archaeologists may grumble about the limitations imposed on their interests by project boundaries and scopes—the really great site that we know is just outside the project area—but CRM studies have benefited the discipline of archaeology by directing the attention of archaeologists to settings and sites that we might otherwise have ignored.

Recent archaeological studies in connection with a highway project in southwestern Pennsylvania highlighted this phenomenon. Proposed federally-funded improvements to State Route 519 in North Strabane Township, Washington County required that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), Engineering District 12-0 consider possible project effects to archaeological sites. Among the precontact archaeological sites discovered during preliminary surveys was a small site overlooking a tributary to Chartiers Creek. Initial testing and subsequent large-scale excavation of site 36WH1729 revealed the remains of numerous brief encampments there, almost all of which dated to the Early and Middle Woodland periods, roughly spanning the period 1000 BC to 1000 AD (Raber 2018). This was a time of profound change in the Native cultures of eastern North America, witnessing the first sustained experimentation with plant crops, new technologies like pottery, and connections with regional ceremonial complexes like Adena and Hopewell based in the Middle Ohio River valley to the west (see previous posts here and here, for example).

Our understanding of this period and the ties of local peoples to the Adena and Hopewell complexes, however, has been heavily influenced by the traditional focus on the sometimes spectacular remains found at mound sites like McKees Rock Mound and dozens of other burial mounds in southwestern Pennsylvania and adjacent regions of the upper Ohio Valley, or those uncovered at semi-permanent hamlet or village sites like those at the Fairchance Mound and Village site in nearby West Virginia. Available archaeological information is heavily biased towards those site types.

The work at 36WH1729 joins several other recent studies in drawing attention to the distinctive set of activities and the use of local resources that occurred at small, briefly occupied campsites in the Ohio Valley and elsewhere in Pennsylvania (see Nass and Henshaw 2017; Raber 2017a, 2017b). Such studies have contributed detailed information on what happened at these small sites and how the sites were related to seasonal occupations at larger base camps and other specialized sites through large-scale exposures and intensive post-excavation studies of artifacts and features.

The excavations at 36WH1729 exposed roughly 26% of the core site area, recovering more than 6400 stone artifacts and pottery fragments and 178 kg of fire-cracked rock. The exposure of 93 m2 revealed twelve confirmed or likely pre-Contact cultural features, all of which seem to have been hearth or hearth remnants, as would be expected at small, briefly occupied camps, where the family or task group present would have gathered around a hearth to cook, socialize and conduct most of the varied activities documented in the excavated remains. We defined the dates of occupation with 15 radiocarbon dates on charcoal taken from features and other contexts.

The results of excavation and post-excavation analyses provide a detailed picture of life at a  small upland camp used repeatedly during the Early and Middle Woodland periods. Studies of microscopic wear on stone tools allowed us to characterize some of the activities that occurred at successive camps at 36WH1729, while analyses of pollen and residues on both stone tools and pottery expanded our knowledge of the local environment, activities, and the materials obtained and used at the site. Small groups—probably nuclear families—camped here for short periods during the fall, hunted white-tailed deer and other game, and collected nuts and other wild plants available in the cleared areas around the site. Much of the activity seems to have focused on the collection and processing of black walnuts, the butchering of deer carcasses for meat, and the working of hides, bone, and antler. Most of the meat, hides, and nuts were processed and preserved to be later used or consumed at seasonal camps.

These tasks were accomplished using flaked stone tools of local Uniontown chert that was obtained within a short distance of the site. Some 97% of the toolstone used at 36WH1729 was Uniontown chert obtained from nearby—but currently undefined—sources. The site was occupied for perhaps a few days or a week during the fall, when the nut crop and game could be harvested in the vicinity of the camps. The inhabitants returned to base camps or hamlets along the larger streams’ drainage for the winter season. They must also have used nearby Early and Middle Woodland period burial mounds, but there is no evidence to indicate that they visited the mounds while camped at the site.

The studies at 36WH1729 provided a new perspective on life during the Early and Middle Woodland periods in the upper Ohio Valley, one very different from that derived from the traditional focus on burial mounds and villages. The daily lives of families and small bands, and their intimate knowledge of the changing local environment evident in the use of resources like Uniontown chert, deer and wild plants, are all delineated in the material remains from small sites like 36WH1729. As the body of our knowledge of small sites accumulates, we can ask new and more detailed and relevant questions about how the past inhabitants of the region lived and adapted to changing conditions.

Our ability to ask such questions, however, depends on paying attention to the small sites that were critical parts of past settlement systems. Giving such small sites their due reflects the major impact CRM archaeology has had on the study of the past.

Nass, John P, Jr. and Marc Henshaw
2017    The Value of Small Sites for the Study of Late Woodland Subsistence: An Example from Southwestern Pennsylvania. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 33:27-48.
Raber, Paul A.
2017a  The Significance of Small Sites in the Upper Ohio River Drainage: Investigations at 36WH1619. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 87(1):1-28.
2017b  Eight Thousand Years on the Banks of Aughwick Creek: archaeological Studies at 36HU224, The Pogue Bridge North Site. Byways to the Past Series. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

2018    The Early and Middle Woodland Periods at Small Site in the Upper Ohio Valley: The Evidence from 36WH1729. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 87(1):1-28. 

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

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