Monday, March 30, 2020

The Ubiquitous Pitted Stone

During the 1930’s Henry Deisher published several articles in the Pennsylvania Archaeologist on the topic of pitted stones (Deisher 1935; 1939). Prompted by the abundance of pitted stones from archaeological sites in Pennsylvania, he set out to identify their true function based on the profile characteristics of the stone’s indentation.

Some archaeologists and other researchers place these unique tools in the “problematic” category offering little convincing evidence for a functional interpretation. In fact, when Deisher questioned Warren Moorehead, Director of the Peabody Museum, about the function of pitted stones, his reply was “The man who made them is dead” (Deisher 1939).

 The statement “Generally the pits are worn deep and smooth, produced by long usage” (Deisher 1935) indicates that he was referring only to a certain type of pitted stone that he interpreted as nut crackers and nut hullers. Other forms of this tool type are known and some of these are described below.

Deisher was intrigued by pitted stones as he reported on more than 1300 specimens held in Pennsylvania museums and private collections. Impressed by the large number of this artifact type (over 800 specimens) from the Jacob Dreibelbis farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania, Deisher conducted archaeological excavations there. The site was located in a large nut grove that had been partly destroyed by a cyclone in 1868 and near the confluence of the Ontelaunee and Saucony creeks (Deisher 1935).

 Nut crackers and nut hullers dominated  Deisher’s study based on the presence of deep gouge marks created with sharp stones that were modified by further reduction from processing nuts one by one. In a later report, he noted that pitted stones could also have been used to crush rock and shell for temper in pottery production and as anvils in splitting chert pebbles used in arrowhead production.  

 In other regions of Pennsylvania, pitted stones are as common as those present in Deisher’s study area. For example, within the Upper Ohio, Allegheny Monongahela, Susquehanna and Delaware river valleys, pitted stones occur abundantly. Let’s look at a few examples from these watersheds. 

Excavations at the Brown site (36Ar188) yielded a date of 6090 BP. The date is associated with Brewerton points, pit features, a mix of other artifact types and pitted stones (George and Davis 1986). Clarion State College (Clarion University of Pennsylvania) conducted a multi-year field school at the State Road Ripple site located in Clarion County. Pitted stones with multiple pits were recovered from stratified Archaic deposits at the site. According to Gustav Konitsky, site director and professor of Anthropology at the University, the objects were anvils used in processing a variety of plant materials.

 Pitted stones were recovered from Archaic and Woodland site contexts in the Susquehanna valley. The deeply stratified site on Canfield Island in Lycoming County yielded several pitted stones and others were found associated with the Late Woodland occupation of the Bull Run site (36Ly119) (Bressler 1980). According to the report, bi-pitted stones were abundant  and likely served a multitude of functions including as anvils and mullers in the processing of nuts, splitting animal bones and crushing rock for tempering pottery (Bressler 1980). At the Allenwood site located along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River (36Un82), pitted stones made from river cobbles were associated with the Late Archaic Lamoka component. This occupation was radiocarbon dated between 3600-3900 BP and Wall (2000) interpreted these as tools used in food processing.

There is evidence that pitted stones were widely used in the Upper Delaware Valley through much of the Archaic-Woodland continuum. All of these sites are situated on stratified floodplains on both sides of the river. 

A pitted stone (designated with the letter “O”) in a Late Archaic hunting and gathering assemblage associated with a wide variety of tools. 

At the Zimmerman site (36Pi14), the category of “Altered by Usage” tools included pitted stones thought to be used as hammerstones from the Late Woodland through Archaic levels (Werner 1972). Nearby at the Faucett site (36Pi13A), pitted stones were recovered from the stratified Delaware Valley Archaic and later Bushkill Complex levels. These all show similar forms of one to seven pits usually paired on opposite flat surfaces of the cobble. The pairing of pits suggests something other than nut processing or use as an anvil stone, but it is still a mystery.

Pitted stone (designated with the letter “u”) in a Late Woodland horticultural assemblage associated with a wide variety of tools. 

The Miller Field site on the Warren County, New Jersey side of the river was the focus of a multi-season field school sponsored by Seton Hall University (Kraft 1970;1972).  A number of pitted cobbles were recovered from the Archaic and Woodland deposits there. Kraft’s analysis is perhaps the most in-depth study of use modified cobble stones from a single Delaware Valley site. the assemblage was characterized by pecked cobble tools with single pitted stones, bi-pitted stones, pitted mullers, simple anvil stones and simple hammer stones. These types of pitted stones are found on surface sites throughout Pennsylvania. Finally, Kraft suggested that these tools served different purposes around a camp site including cracking open animal bones for  their marrow; processing chert blocks for tool reduction; processing nuts, crushing stone and shell for temper in pottery and mashing and grinding a variety of other abrasive materials.

The analysis of these stone tools and their use is important; Why? Because archaeologists are always trying to understand the site function or how it was used by the people who lived there previously. As Moorehead said “the man who made them is dead.” so it is up to us to determine in what activity the stone was used. Archaic peoples may have been using pitted stone to process nuts, berries and root supplies, but Woodland peoples who had begun growing squash, beans and corn also used pitted stones. In examining these tools and their function, the context in which they are found is crucial. The environment changed over time and each of these river valleys has unique geography, climate and habitat that influenced the resources being processed and thus the function of pitted stone tools.

Experimental archaeology (the making and using of stone tools by archaeologists) has been successful in answering questions about stone tool use such as adzes, celts and scrapers to name a few. Pitted stone tool use would benefit from this analysis as well. We don’t have the books and documents to tell us what our prehistoric peoples were doing, but we do have the clues left in the ground and the technology to examine these tools in a new perspective.

We hope that you have enjoyed this blog on a topic that is frequently overlooked by archaeologists and other researchers as an integral part of the prehistoric Native American tool kit. Join us next time when we present another look into the archaeology of Pennsylvania through This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology.

References Cited.

Bressler, James P.
1980    Excavations of the Bull Run Site 36Ly119. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 50(4):31-63.

Deisher, Henry K.
1935    Pitted Stones. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 5(3):77

Deisher, Henry K.
1939    Pitted Stones or Problem of the Pitted Stones. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 9(1):11-12.

George, Richard L. and Christine E. Davis
1986    A Dated Brewerton Component in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist

Kinsey, W. Fred
1972    Archaeology in the Upper Delaware Valley. Anthropological Series No.2. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Kraft, Herbert
1970    The Miller Field Site, Warren County, New Jersey: A Study in Prehistoric Archaeology, Part 1, The Archaic and Transitional Stages. Seton Hall University Press.

Wall, Robert D.
2000    A Buried Lamoka Occupation in Stratified Contexts West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 70(1):1-44.

Werner, David

1972    The Zimmerman Site 36-Pi-14, In Archaeology in the Upper Delaware Valley. Anthropological Series No.2. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

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

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