Friday, October 25, 2019

Discover the Monongahela Culture Archaeology of Southwestern, Pennsylvania

Monongahela, Youghiogheny and lower Allegheny valleys

Archaeologists began exploring prehistoric Native American sites in the Monongahela, Youghiogheny and lower Allegheny valleys as early as the late 1800’s when much of the emphasis was placed on mounds (cf. Hayden 1883; Thomas 1894; Carpenter 1951). Other sites were added by the Pennsylvania Indian Survey in 1928 under the direction of Dorothy Skinner. This was an expansion of the work begun in 1924 by Frances Dorrance, Director of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society (Smith and Herbstritt 1977).

Francis Dorrance 

In addition to the interest in mound sites other information was published in the 1930”s (Cadzow 1933); Engberg (1931); George Fisher (1930) that broadened the distribution of sites known at that time for southwestern Pennsylvania, especially Late Prehistoric villages located in upland (hilltops and mountain ridges) and valley settings. 

Archaeological investigations in Somerset County during the late 1930’s identified a number of Native American villages. The work was done with government funding through the Works Progress Administration better known as the WPA. In a report to the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Dr. Mary Butler (1939) linked these people to a mixed material culture having Algonquin and Iroquoian traits and so named it the “Monongahela Woodland Culture”.

Mary Buttler

Over time, archaeologists dropped “Woodland” from the name, and the “Monongahela Culture” was borne into the literature that presently describes the Late Prehistoric through Protohistoric period Native American occupations of southwestern Pennsylvania where their material traits are found (Mayer-Oakes 1955).

Clay Monongahela pottery vessels

The Carnegie Museum carried on its research interest into Monongahela archaeology after Mayer-Oakes field work was completed and published in the museum’s Anthropological Series No. 2 “Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley: An Introductory Archaeological Study” (Mayer-Oakes 1955). Don Dragoo (1955) and later, Richard George (see for example 1974; 1978; 1983; 2011) who conducted field work and published extensively on the Monongahela Culture, began organizing the differences observed in the  artifact assemblages using the concept of “Phase” developed by Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips (1958) which with some modification remains in current use (Herbstritt 2003; Johnson and Means 2020). The following cultural phases/subtraditions for Monongahela are in current use.

Early Monongahela                  1050-1250 AD     Drew, Kiskiminetas, 
Somerset I subtradition
Early Middle Monongahela     1250-1450 AD     Campbell Farm, 
Somerset II subtradition
Late Middle Monongahela       1450-1580 AD     Scarem, Youghiogheny, Johnston, 
Terminal Somerset II subtradition
Protohistoric Monongahela      1580-1640 AD     Throckmorton (Early sub-phase), Foley Farm (Late sub-phase)

Triangular projectile points

Attempts have been made to link the cultural identity of Monongahela to different Native American language groups such as Siouan and Iroquoian based on linguistic (cf. George 1980, Johnson 2001; Sorg 2003; Swauger 1974), oral history and the cartographic/historical record (Hoffman 1964), research topics that have drawn critical review.

Marginella shells, fish vertebrae and a carved shell ornament

Archaeologists recognize the disappearance of the Monongahela culture from the archaeological record in the mid-1600’s. The impact of European diseases is not certain. Iroquois warfare is more easily supported. Droughts played a significant role in reducing the population of Monongahela villages and impacted survival. Examination of the curated artifacts and site information for these villages, as well as more recent excavations has enabled archaeologists to gain a better understanding of this culture group.

Glass trade beads

To learn more about the Monongahela Culture please join us in Harrisburg on November 9th 2019 when the State Museum of Pennsylvania will host its annual Workshops in Archaeology Program “Defining Monongahela: Western Pennsylvania’s Archaeological Mystery”.  This is a program for the general public interested in how Native Americans lived in the Upper Ohio Valley centuries ago.    Featured will be different topics on Monongahela Culture with eight presentations by archaeologists familiar with this unique Native American culture that disappeared in the early 17th century. 

2019 Annual Workshops in Archaeology 


1939       Three Archaeological Sites in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Cadzow, Donald A.
1933     Mr. George Fisher’s Discoveries in Western Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 3(3): 3-5, 16-17. Harrisburg. Carpenter, Edmund S.
1951     Tumuli in Southwestern Pennsylvania. American Antiquity 16(4): 329-346. 
             Salt Lake City. Dragoo, Don W.
1955     Excavations at the Johnston Site, Indiana County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 25(2): 85-141. Engberg, Robert M.
1931      Algonkian Sites of Westmoreland and Fayette Counties, Pennsylvania. Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 14: 143-190. Fisher, George S.
1930      Indian Sites and Excavations in Western Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 1(2): 8-9.
              George, Richard L.
1974      Monongahela Settlement Patterns and the Ryan Site. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 44(1-2):1-22.
1978     The McJunkin Site, A Preliminary Report. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 48(4): 33-47.
1980     Notes on the Possible Cultural Affiliation of Monongahela. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 50(1-2): 45-50.
1983      The Gnagey Site and the Monongahela Occupation of the Somerset Plateau. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 53(4): 1-97,
2011     The Wylie #3 Site (36WH283): Part I. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 81(1): 1-27. Hayden, Horace
1883      Antiquities of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Smithsonian Institution Annual Report for 1881, pp. 638-641. Washington. Herbstritt, James T.
2003       Foley Farm: The Importance of Architecture and the Demise of the Monongahelans. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 73(1): 8-54.  Hoffman, Bernard G.
1964      Observations on Certain Indian Tribes of the Northern Appalachian Province. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 191. Johnson, William C.
2001      The Protohistoric Monongahela and the Case of an Iroquois Connection. In Societies in Eclipse: Archaeology of the Eastern Woodland Indians, A.D. 1400-1700, edited by David SBrose, C. Wesley Cowan and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., pp.67-82. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington. Johnson, William C. and Bernard K. Means
2020    The Monongahela Tradition of the Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric Periods, 11 - 17th Centuries AD. In the Lower Upper Ohio Valley in The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. In press. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. Mayer-Oakes, William J.
1955    Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley: An Introductory Archaeological Study. Anthropological Series No. 2. Annals of the Carnegie Museum 34. Smith, Ira F. and James T. Herbstritt
1977     A Status Report on the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
             Sorg, David J.
             Linguistic Affiliations of the Massawomeck Confederacy. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 73(1): 1-7. Swauger, James L.
1974    Rock Art of the Upper Ohio Valley. Akademische Druck – u. Verlagsanstalt Graz/Austria  Willey, Gordon R. and Phillip Phillips
1958    Method and Theory in American Archaeology
           University of Chichago press, Chichago. Thomas, Cyrus
1894    Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology. 
          Twelfth Annual Report of the Bureau of  Ethnology, 1890-1891, pp. 494-503. Washington.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .
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Friday, October 11, 2019

Falling Through History

This week’s guest blog is provided by Mifflin County High School student, Granuaile Moyer and offers a teen’s perspective of our investigation. Granuaile spent a week with us this year at Fort Hunter and is excited to share her experiences with others. 

Granualie Moyer

Recently I was able to participate in an archaeological excavation with The State Museum of Pennsylvania.  I’m fortunate that my mother is an archaeologist and curator at the museum. They have been conducting archaeological excavations at Fort Hunter since 2006. They are only able to be in the field for one month, the other eleven months they are busy being curators taking care of other people’s artifacts from excavations. For one month of the year though, they are busy searching for structural evidence of the French and Indian War fort that gives Fort Hunter its name.

Map from 1763 indicating Fort Hunter

The land was first settled in 1725 by Benjamin Chambers, who later founded Chambersburg. During the French and Indian War (1755-1763), the British built a small supply fort at the rivers bend. After the war was over, the fort was left to rot. Captain Archibald McAllister, who fought with general George Washington in the Revolutionary war, settled on the land. He built a small farmhouse in 1787, which is believed to have been built on the foundations of the fort blockhouse. He later expanded the farm, he built a sawmill, country store, blacksmith shop, artisan’s shops, school, distillery, and tavern. 

                                                                          1860s McAllister

The next owner, Daniel Boas, bought the house in 1870, then left it to his daughter and son-in-law, also known as the Reily’s. The Reily’s built the last and biggest addition to the house in the late 1800s. The Reily’s ran a successful dairy farm for 50 years. Since they never had any children, they had many pets, such as dogs and cats. They also had some extravagant pets, like peacocks, a parrot, and a Macaque monkey.  

Daniel Boas

They later left the farm to their nieces and nephews, one of which being Margaret Meigs. Margaret recognized the historical value of the land and set out to make it a museum. In 1956, she along with her family set up the Fort Hunter Foundation. With their hard work and dedication, they were able to restore the land and create an educational program. Now the land is owned by Dauphin County, and you are able to tour the estate to learn more about its great history, or to just simply enjoy the scenery. 

Fort Hunter 

The Section of Archaeology for the State Museum of Pennsylvania has been working at Fort Hunter Park since 2006. They are looking for the remains of the French and Indian War fort, Fort Hunter. They have not found any structural evidence of the fort yet, however they have found other evidence such as a cannon ball, musket balls and gun parts among other things. They have also found the old farm well, which was connected to the milk house by a small pipe. The
pipe allowed cold water to run through the walls of the milk house keeping their food cool. They also found a unique octagonal smokehouse that was built by Mr. McAllister. There was a pet cemetery left from the burials of the Reily’s many beloved pets. They have also found numerous prehistoric artifacts, such as projectile points, prehistoric pottery (cordmarked or plain in decoration), and a prehistoric grooved stone axe dating back 4,000 years. These artifacts give evidence of at least 9,000 years of human occupation of the landscape we now call Fort Hunter.

Even as a small child I was intrigued by archaeology, my mother saw my interest and allowed me to come with her to watch her work. I was six years old the first time I visited an excavation, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to visit and participate every year since then. In the beginning I just observed how precisely they would take the layers of soil down. It was not until I was nine years old that I was able to get into a unit. This was the year that they discovered the pet cemetery behind the milk house. I was in the unit with my mother helping her write the bags, take measurements and draw the unit.

Archaeological excavation is a destructive science, the soils can never be put back the way you found them, so it is very important to know where artifacts are discovered. A grid is laid out over the site so north south coordinates are assigned to every unit and measurements are taken both horizontally and vertically to know where each artifact is recovered from. 

Assisting with measurements 

In the following years I learned how to screen the dirt, and how carefully you have to do it or else artifacts might fall through the screen. I also learned how to use a trowel and how to carefully take down a soil level. The first time I was able to get in a unit and dig I was fourteen. While I was digging I found a prehistoric grooved axe, in situ, which means “in its original placement” and that is extremely rare. This year I was able to screen all the dirt and I found many artifacts, like flake chipping debris, pottery and glass, among other things.     

I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to develop these skills at such a young age, and I hope that I am able to further my skills and knowledge in this field.

News interview
This is Archaeology Month in Pennsylvania and a great opportunity to seek out programs in your community that explore the cultural heritage of your region. The archaeology at Fort Hunter is an opportunity for us to engage with the public and provides an outlet for students to learn about the archaeological process. Excavations have ended for 2019 but with the discovery of many 18th century artifacts this year, we have already begun preparing for next year.  Stay tuned this winter as we research the many artifacts recovered this year and share some of our discoveries on our blog.

We also invite you to attend our annual Workshops in Archaeology program on November 9th, 2019. This day long venue is a continuum in our exploration of tribes who inhabited Pennsylvania from pre-historic through the 18th century. Building on our program last year that explored the Susquehannock Indians, this years’ theme of Monongahela Indians promises to be as informative and interesting as last year. Discussion of maize agriculture, disease and conflict amongst tribes and European colonists are just two of the subjects scheduled for discussion.  Registration is available on-line or by check through the Pennsylvania Heritage Foundation

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