Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sharing the Legacy of the Steve Warfel

Our blog for Memorial Day 2019 was written as a tribute to Barry C. Kent, former Senior Curator at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. In that blog, we identified the history of Memorial Day as a time to honor those men who had died in the Civil War, but it has since become a day to remember all those whom we have lost from our lives. It is with a heavy heart that we share our news of the passing of another former Senior Curator and archaeologist, Stephen G. Warfel on May 14, 2020. Once again, we have lost a friend, a colleague and a talented archaeologist far too soon. This blog will share some of Steve’s significant contributions to archaeology, and his legacy as an educator and mentor for so many archaeologists.

Steven G. Warfel at Franklin & Marshall College 

Steve’s career in archaeology began at Franklin & Marshall College (F&M) (1967 - 1971) in Lancaster, PA. It began, as with many of us, at a summer field school. An investigation conducted by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and F&M at the Strickler site (36La3), Lancaster County exposed him to the fascinating heritage of the Susquehannock Indians. Under the guidance of Dr. Kent, Steve discovered a passion for archaeology. In his words- “Archaeology is fascinating because it involves true detective work and problem-solving. It also provides a perspective on the past which is not solely dependent on documentary sources.” Steve continued to work with Barry Kent during the 1970’s on many of the Late Woodland/ Contact period Susquehannock investigations conducted through this period. Steve’s graduate training at Brown University concentrated in historical archaeology and when an opportunity to join Barry at the State Museum arose in 1980, Steve was quick to accept a curatorial position in the Section of Archaeology. 

Byrd Leibhart, Susquehannock site,1970

His first field project as a curator was part of an ongoing interest by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) in French and Indian War period sites.  In addition, a desire at the local level to discover and preserve the fort, led to an investigation at Fort Loudoun in Franklin County. The excavations under Steve’s direction led to the uncovering of the entire stockade, interior building and  the discovery of a well with preserved contents dating it’s use to the period of the fort.  These artifacts and the information gleaned from the investigation led to the first installation of exhibit space focused on historical archaeology in the gallery of the State Museum.

Field crew at Fort Loudoun

Fort Loudoun bucket, 36Fr107

Steve’s interest in historical archaeology was an asset to many of the historical sites operated by the Museum Commission (PHMC) including French Azilum in Bradford County, Old Economy Village in Allegheny County, Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland County and his long-term research interest at Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County. Steve’s passion for archaeology and his willingness to share his knowledge with others made him an ideal educator for students, volunteers and visitors to his excavations. Most of these projects incorporated a summer field school for college students, providing them with the training and experience necessary to become an archaeologist.  Steve’s incredible patience, his meticulous excavation and documentation methods and his encouragement of individual talents and abilities were essential to these successful programs.

Field School in cellar at Ephrata Cloister, 36La981

Archaeology at the JosephPriestley House produced broken fragments of laboratory test tubes that contained residues directly linking their use to testing Priestley was conducting relative to his discovery of oxygen before immigrating to Pennsylvania from England. These fragments were recovered in an area just outside of the laboratory window and door, indicating discard of the broken test tubes at the time of use. These tubes are the tangible evidence of the activities of Priestley and an important contribution to the interpretive story at this historic site. This is but one example of a site that benefitted from Steve’s expertise in uncovering the archaeological record and enhancing or correcting the historic interpretation.

The curatorial duties of the Section of Archaeology were rapidly increasing due to changes in preservation laws which required investigations of known or potential archaeological sites and the curation of these collections. These changes resulted in an influx of archaeological collections and required an organized approach to the curation process and the ability to provide research material for scholars. Steve reorganized the entire assemblage of artifacts by their recorded archaeological site number and began reviewing and recording collections submitted for curation. When Barry retired in the mid-1980’s, Steve was appointed to the position of Senior Curator.

Curatorial tasks benefited from Steve’s organizational talents and he oversaw numerous changes and improvements to the exhibits in the State Museum including updates to content, lighting and presentation. Efforts to make the exhibits more engaging included audio presentations in the Susquehannock case and tactile content for the popular Schultz diorama.  Steve’s thoughtful approach in discussions concerning changes to the museum was acknowledged as an important asset by colleagues, he was known for his knowledge of the history and archaeological heritage of the Commonwealth and the mid-Atlantic region.  

Student Visitors at Ephrata Cloister

Public programs expanded under Steve’s direction and he often provided programs sharing the results of archaeological investigations and the subsequent research associated with these projects. Publication of his investigations in journals, books and annual reports of his work at Ephrata Cloister were important in informing the public of his findings and increasing their awareness and appreciation for these sites. Steve’s support of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology (SPA) was important at a critical time in that organization. His contributions in organizing and leading the group through a difficult time both in membership and financially were crucial to its survival.  His creation of the Workshops in Archaeology program at the museum became a popular event to disseminate information, and except for a brief hiatus has continued to provide registrants with comprehensive discussion of various topics in archaeology.

Steve retired in 2007 from the museum, but certainly not from archaeology. He excavated the French & Indian War site of Fort Morris in Shippensburg, Cumberland County. Here he was able to locate evidence of foundations and supplies used by the troops stationed here and correct conflicting documents as to the site location. He returned to the site of a Revolutionary War period prison camp in York County. Camp Security had been previously recorded by Barry Kent and Steve had participated in early efforts to discover foundations or artifact concentrations relative to the site, but none had proven successful. Threatened by development and supported by local citizens to preserve the site, Steve researched archival records, interviewed local residents and employed new investigative techniques in his search for physical remains of the camp. Unfortunately, no foundations were discovered but his methodical approach laid the groundwork for future investigations at this site and provided an increased appreciation for the site to countless volunteers and visitors.

Steve had an ability to bring archaeology to everyone and his passion encouraged others to see the value of our profession in their communities.  He inspired so many people with his enthusiasm and love of archaeology and the discovery of the past. Volunteers from his projects, students from his field schools and colleagues from the Commission all benefited from his expertise and the ability to share it so passionately with others. He was a mentor for many of us throughout our careers. We benefited from his expertise and thoughtful perspective, but beyond that we knew him as a good people person. His laughter, compassion and understanding of others are qualities to live by and strive to replicate.

Presentation at Workshops in Archaeology Program

For many of us the COVID-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on our lives and has given us a reason to pause and evaluate and prioritize our needs. What was important to us 3 or 4 months ago may not seem so significant now. Communities are coming together in new ways to restore social activities. Steve was a people person- he loved being with people, talking, laughing, enjoying food and drink in social settings. Evaluating what is important to me during this pandemic has reminded me of people I value in my life that are still with me and those I have lost. Steve’s passion for life and community will be remembered and missed by all for a very long time. His legacy as a teacher and mentor in the archaeological community will endure as evidenced in the many archaeologists whom he inspired and loved. 

Steve and Barry were excellent mentors and great resources for archaeology but at their core was the fact that they were good people. They cared about others and inspired others to care about community and heritage. Take a moment today to think about your heritage and appreciate the work conducted by archaeologists in your community in our efforts to preserve the past for the future. 

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

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