Monday, August 1, 2022

So Long, Agnes

With this blog we say good-bye to our series on Tropical Storm Agnes and her impact on the Commonwealth.  The previous blogs have traced her path through the major river basins of Pennsylvania, leaving behind massive destruction and hardship.  Cultural resources – churches, museums, libraries, and cemeteries- were significantly impacted, but the communities surrounding them rallied together to help salvage these resources. Improved preparation and planning by many of these institutions were implemented in anticipation of the potential for future floods. Flood protection programs that had been proposed decades prior to Agnes were finally approved, funded, and constructed by Army Corp of Engineers who recognized that flood events were happening more frequently, and their impact was becoming increasingly destructive.

Figure 1-Aerial view of Cowanesque Dam, Tioga County.
Image By Bjoertvedt - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The archaeology conducted in the aftermath of Agnes provided a broader resource for examining the past. Rural areas and previously undeveloped landscapes yielded evidence of cultural activity over thousands of years and improved our understanding of movement and settlement patterns by Indigenous peoples.  This could be viewed as a positive outcome from such a destructive event. Archaeological sites are often destroyed by private construction projects, natural disasters, or careless destruction by those digging for “treasures”, preventing systematic investigations that ends with the loss of cultural heritage.  Unfortunately, some of the destruction from Agnes could not be rectified.  The displacement of cemetery burials at Forty Fort, in Luzerne County couldn’t be repaired, but the monument dedicated in memory of the individuals from this gravesite is a reminder of the destruction. and our need to plan and prepare for the future.  Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is currently developing a multi-year project to address flooding in the Wyoming Valley. Development within the watershed has led to storm water runoff reaching the river faster and with the increased frequency and intensity of storms, the threat of flooding intensifies.

Figure 2 Wilkes Barre, Luzerne County
Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives

State and Federal agencies have put many planning tools in place since Agnes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dedicates funding to implement flood mitigation projects, to improve planning and assistance for communities.  Flood insurance programs have expanded to assist homeowners and businesses impacted when these events occur. Improved land management practices have been put in place to control run off from paved surfaces. Flood plain management programs are updated and revised as development occurs which also impacts communities. These measures are important tools for protecting our resources and preparing for the potential of future flood events. The impact of climate change has already been realized in flash flood events and extreme fluctuations in temperature-by rapidly melting snowpack due to a sudden spring thaw.

Archaeologists have examined climate change over time and the impact on cultures, but how did they adapt and change due to changing conditions? Our climate has evolved since the first Ice Age 1.8 million years ago to the present, marked by extreme temperatures and drought. In the Paleoindian and Early Archaic periods, characterized by low population density, humans responded to changes in climate by moving to more favorable regions. During the Middle and Late Archaic periods families occupied all the river valleys and movement was generally not an option to offset population increase. Instead, incremental technological improvements were incorporated to obtain food resources more efficiently.

 The decrease in precipitation and relatively high population density during the Sub-Boreal episode (5800-2850 years ago) required significant changes in Native American technological systems. Technology was not the only solution and changes certainly occurred in social organization that resulted in groups that could exploit the environment in a more organized and efficient manner. Hunting and gathering was supplemented with the gardening of seed plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex. By 900 AD, gardening could not maintain pace with a growing population and maize based agriculture became the dominant subsistence pattern. After 1350 AD, the Little Ice Age created some level of stress among Native American farmers, especially those occupying the northern regions of Pennsylvania where frost -free growing seasons were reduced. High fertility soils and settings with more frost-free days would have been very important in this environment and competition for these settings may have contributed to the widespread social stress among groups.  

Figure 3 Schultz site (36LA0007) diorama. 
PHMC image.

In the 21st century, our high population density, a global economy, and an advanced technical society are part of a delicate interrelated cultural system. Climate is part of that system. Global warming will cause sea levels to rise. Populations will be displaced inland. Some cities may be abandoned. In the United States, a decrease in rainfall is predicted for the western corn belt and that will result in reduced food production. An increase in hurricane activity is predicted along the East coast and this will result in costly disasters. Competition for agricultural land and the resources to farm this land will increase and result in our own instances of social stress. As in the past, we will have to develop technological and economic solutions to produce more foods. Scientists, farmers and concerned individuals are already coming together to examine current agricultural practices and crop yield and where changes can be made to better utilize our resources. Sustainability of our food resources is vital to population growth, implementing best practices for management of these resources is just one step we can take now.   Archaeologists have seen cultures adapt and change over thousands of years and that belief that we, as a society made up of many communities, will adapt and change for the future is promising.

We hope you have enjoyed our Agnes series, for some it reminded us of a significant event in our past, for others it was a picture into the past and an event that helped to form many of our land use and flood protection programs across the Commonwealth. Preservation of our cultural resources continues as an initiative of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).  We encourage you to learn about the resources in your community and support the preservation of the archaeological and historic sites that enrich our lives.  We remind everyone of the need to have an emergency plan in place for your household and to engage in discussions within your community for emergency preparedness and land use practices.  

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

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