Thursday, June 25, 2020

The New Normal in the Section of Archaeology of the State Museum of Pennsylvania

We are beginning Week 15 of telecommuting from home and remain quarantined. Access to our lab and offices has been restricted for safety reasons but plans are in the works for this to change. The following is a reflective description of the past more than three months, of how we are functioning and some predictions for the future. A date for returning to work in the Archaeology lab has not been set, but plans are being made for how we will return to the lab and museum. The overriding philosophy is to continue practicing social distancing and keep interactions with people to a minimum while still fulfilling our responsibilities. The tentative plan is that telecommuting will be encouraged for those employees who are able. To avoid crowds in the building (especially the Keystone building where the Archaeology labs are located), the staff going into the lab may be divided into teams working alternate days. Some staff are anxious to return to working in the lab (their work assignments, such as cataloging artifacts require this), while other staff can work from home with periodic visits to the lab to retrieve necessary materials. In addition, to avoid crowds while entering the building and crowds in the parking garage, we may even alter start and finish times. However, for the foreseeable future, telecommuting may be the norm rather than the exception.

As you have read in several of our previous blogs, the staff of the Section of Archaeology have been busy at home and actually have learned new ways of using our collections for the benefit of the public and researchers. Just before we left the lab on March 13th (it seems like years ago), we moved commonly used and necessary data to a platform that was accessible from our home computers. This allowed us to continue to process collections so that they were readily available to the interested public and researchers. Andrea Carr has continued working with the Veigh collection, adding or updating 132 sites from this collection to the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey files (PASS). This involves over 136,000 artifacts. Prior to the quarantine, Calli Holmes had finished cataloging the artifacts from the 2019 excavation season at Fort Hunter and while at home, finished creating maps of the features and artifacts from different time periods. As she explained in our blog of June 6, this allows us and others to better analyze how the site was used during different time periods. Currently, she is plotting the distribution of fire-cracked rock reflecting Pre-Contact Native American activities.

As was described in our blog on May 11, the Argus project is one of the top priorities for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). There are two components or goals of this initiative. First, it is a collections management program. It will bring all the collections (history, science, fine arts etc...) into one database so we will know exactly what we have and where it is located. This will greatly facilitate loans, exhibit development, outreach and, obviously, research. For archaeology, loading all nine million artifacts (actually, we don’t know the exact number) into this electronic database will be a huge task requiring years of work. Melanie Mayhew has spent several years converting the various electronic spread sheets and databases into a single data platform. She has made significant progress with those conversions. As of this date, more than four million artifacts from over a thousand separate sites have been converted to a single database platform. This has been a heroic accomplishment. Archaeologists have been using electronic spread sheets for decades, so we are ahead of the game compared to other collections. However, the time-consuming task is just beginning. Processing the old collections that were created prior to the use of electronic databases will take years. These consist of typed or handwritten lists of artifact inventories that need to be manually entered into Excel spread sheets. The lists were previously typed up by our volunteers and many staff (notably Kim Sebestyen), have worked on this project but currently, Dave Burke is the primary person typing thousands of artifacts into Excel spread sheets so they can eventually be moved to the Argus platform. 

A second goal of Argus is to place artifacts online to offer the public a sample of what can seen in our galleries. Janet Johnson, Liz Wagner and Kim Sebestyen have been focusing on developing short descriptions including a photograph of all of the artifacts in our gallery creating a virtual museum gallery. They have finished the Susquehannock case and most of the pipe case and they are starting on the 18th Century case. The images can be found on our PHMC website under Explore PHMC’s Museum Collection. We have added well over a hundred new artifacts to this page from our gallery and hundreds more will be added in the coming months.

The artifacts in the Susquehannock Exhibit are now on-line. 

As for our normal day to day activities, we are still receiving requests to identify artifacts. People from all over Pennsylvania and beyond send us pictures of items they have found and request help in getting them identified. In many cases they are just rocks that fit perfectly in one’s hand but other times, they are real Native American artifacts and result in significant new data. We welcome these inquiries. We also continue to advise archaeologists around the state on how to best curate in-coming collections.

We have been in contact with our colleagues around the Commonwealth concerning archaeological research. There are small pockets of field work taking place and some of it is very interesting – a stratified Archaic and Woodland site, a stratified Paleoindian through Contact period site and a quarry site. We are anxious to visit these sites in the near future and will report their progress. Several staff members were fortunate to have their articles and a book published and other research projects and publications are in the works.

A few of the publications authored by staff over the past 15 weeks. 

The coronavirus caused the cancellation of several state and regional conferences. Initially, these were postponed until the summer and then to the fall and now some have been moved until the spring of 2021. The consequences of hundreds of people in one room are just too dangerous. There are discussions of doing these conferences online. We have all learned how to Skype or Zoom and we would like to learn Microsoft Teams, but teleconferencing will require something more sophisticated and comprehensive. Archaeologists are a gregarious bunch and seeing old friends is part of the function of these meetings. In addition, it is simply easier to share research issues with colleagues in person, meeting face to face, in a friendlier atmosphere holding a beer in one hand than on a computer screen. However, the discipline needs to develop a convenient mechanism to exchange new research quickly, and I am sure we will figure a way.   

We do not have a date for when the State Museum galleries will be open to visitors, but detailed plans are being developed. Masks will be required along with social distancing throughout the galleries. The number of visitors at any one time will be monitored, and reservations will be encouraged. A variety of programs are being planned for the Nature Lab and Curators Choice as videos, but these have not been finalized. 

For the immediate future, our plans for field work at Fort Hunter, outreach at Kipona, the Workshops in Archaeology, the Eastern States Archaeological Conference, and the Pennsylvania Farm Show are problematic.  These activities are dependent on how the virus continues. Pennsylvania’s response to Covid-19 has been reasonably successful. We closed early, stayed quarantined and practiced social distancing. Predictions vary widely, but one scenario assumes social distancing will continue this summer and the number of cases will decrease slowly until at least October when the virus may return with a vengeance. With this window of opportunity, we may be able to carefully work at Fort Hunter in September, but our other public programs are in jeopardy.  

Finally, our dear friend and colleague, Steve Warfel passed this spring after a long illness. We summarized his career and contributions to Pennsylvania archaeology in our blog of May 24. This week, his wife, Barb, graciously donated his “dig bag” containing field tools that he used for decades in the investigation of numerous Pennsylvania archaeological sites. This will be on display in our excavation area in the gallery. We sincerely appreciate this donation and it will be a constant reminder of his contributions.

Steve Warfel’s dig bag on display in the Excavation Exhibit in our gallery at the State Museum 

In summary, we have done well in the Section of Archaeology in terms of managing our collections, public outreach, and research. The staff will be able to return to the archaeology lab sometime, but many will continue to work from home; it is the new normal. At times, it is awkward and un-natural and makes us feel anxious (a new term has been introduced into our lexicon - re-entry panic syndrome) but I am sure we will adapt and in the long run, be more successful. Teleworking has been discussed for years; there are a variety of advantages to the employer and the employee, especially in this hectic world we live in, but we were afraid and intimidated to make the change. A deadly virus has been the motivating factor. There are many issues that need to be resolved but having an office at home is going to be the new normal, at least until we develop a successful vaccine and probably longer.  

Adaptation and change are difficult, but our research of past cultures demonstrates it is necessary for survival. We hope our followers will continue to practice the CDC Guidelines and stay safe and healthy- it's important for all of us and necessary for survival.  We’ll keep in touch; be sure to check out our collections on-line and be safe. 

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Fort Hunter in Quarantine

In these difficult and strange times, the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s archaeologists have been continuing to do our best to find ways to remain productive from home in order to continue to preserve and share Pennsylvania’s archaeology. One of the important tasks we do each year is to process the artifacts and data collected from our annual Fort Hunter (36Da159) excavations. We have been investigating this multi-component site located just north of Harrisburg in Dauphin County for thirteen years in September and early October as part of our Archaeology Month activities.  Our main research interests have been life on the “frontier” during the mid-1700s and especially the French and Indian War period supply fort at this location.  With the help of our loyal volunteers, we have been working on this task since we returned in the office after our work in the field back in October.

Fieldwork for the 2019 season was completed nearly eight months ago and the final processing of the artifacts for curation in the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s archaeology lab was completed just before the start of our Covid-19 quarantine. We recovered 6,688 artifacts at Fort Hunter this year with 218 dating from the 18th century. Features 172, 173 and 192 from the N60W45 unit produced a high percentage of the 18th century artifacts. It is these features that our previous blog identifies as possible remains from the French and Indian War period fort or an even earlier structure (check out: These features reflect a hole that was dug into the ground during the 1700s that may represent part of the fortifications or a cellar from a mid-18th century building. Many of the interesting and possibly fort related artifacts found within these features include several pieces of scratch blue and tin-glazed ceramic fragments, glass emerald cuff-links, lead shot, and glass trade beads.

Artifacts recovered from Feature 173, including a crucible fragment (top left), scratch blue white salt-glazed stoneware, glass cuff buttons, large tin-glazed base fragment, brass buckle fragment (bottom left), lead shot, white trade beads and a flint strike-a-lite.

With the artifacts processed, the statistical artifact information collected and the data collected in the field, different kinds of maps are created to help us understand the overall site and how different excavation areas compare to one another. Knowing the relationship of artifacts and features on the site provides the foundation that archaeologists use to develop explanations for how past humans lived on and used the landscape. In order for archaeologists to do this, we must map the location of all artifact and features both horizontally and vertically. Recording the location of where artifacts, features and structures are located is so important because once removed from the ground there is no way for us to put artifacts and features back in their exact place again.

Artifacts in situ in the field: lead shot (left) and white glass trade beads (right).

In order to preserve this locational information, sites such as Fort Hunter, are excavated based on a grid set from a datum (a known fixed point). This allows archaeologists to go back to a site and re-establish the grid, whether it is from year to year or fifty years from now. With good documentation and a re-established grid, archaeologists can determine what areas had been previously excavated at any archaeological site. The grid also provides the horizontal locational information of artifacts and features that have been removed from that area. At Fort Hunter, our grid is in 5 by 5 foot squares each of which are referred to as a unit. We identify our units using the northing and easting (for example N90E10) of the most southwest corner of a square. This designation allows us to easily reference that unit and track all of the data associated with that area. 

Map used to show units that we have opened over the years.

Creating and updating the various maps we use each year is very important in providing us a more complete understanding of what is happening in our excavations. We create maps that show the outlines of each of the features, which illustrates to us where different features and activities are located in relation to one another. We also create artifact distribution maps, which visually display how many artifacts of a certain type were recovered from each unit. With maps like these we are not only creating additional records of artifact and feature locations, but we are also providing ourselves a graphic indication of what was happening on the landscape at different periods of time. These maps also help guide our decisions on what units are providing significant information for helping us find the Fort Hunter fortifications and therefore aid us in deciding where to excavate. Finally, maps also provide a great illustration for the public on how we interpret an archaeological site. 

Feature map identifying the locations of the features uncovered within each unit.

                                   Prehistoric artifact distribution map.

One of the most useful maps we make each year is the 18th century artifact distribution map.  This map illustrates where we uncovered higher amounts of 18th century artifacts, which could indicate the likelihood of French and Indian War period structures or activities. Since the beginning of quarantine, I have worked on creating and updating all of these maps and we are especially excited to see the high concentrations of 18th century material coming from unit N60W45 and the adjacent units. Though we remain home for everyone’s safety, we hope we can expand our excavations in this area at Fort Hunter this fall in order to learn more about the activities present in these features and units. 

18th century artifact distribution map. 

We hope you have enjoyed learning about how we use archaeological data to create various types of maps and how we use those maps to better understand an archaeological site and past cultural behavior. Archaeology is a destructive science, which requires documentation of all of the excavation methods and processes that occurred in the investigation. These maps are an essential part of the documentation of the site analysis and insures the preservation of the archaeological record for any given site.

We hope you are all remaining safe and healthy as we continue to telework and remain quarantined.   Our various projects are focused on preserving Pennsylvania’s past for its future. We are continuing to respond to your questions and to answer them via email.  Thank you for continuing to follow our activities through our blog and we hope to see you all in the future. 

For additional information on our 2019 excavations check out:
Sebestyen, Kimberly M. and Kurt W. Carr
2020      2019 Excavations at the Fort Hunter Site (36Da159): Have we Finally Found the Fort? Pennsylvania Archaeologist 90(1):53-62.

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