Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Cobbles, Cobbles and More Cobbles: Archaeological Collections at the State Museum of Pennsylvania

Recording archaeological sites can often lead to important discoveries that change what archaeologists know of the ancient activities of Indigenous people of long ago. For example, consider William Turnbaugh’s detailed survey of the Susquehanna’s West Branch valley as part of his doctoral dissertation, later released as Man, Land and Time: The Cultural Prehistory and Demographic Patterns of North-Central Pennsylvania (Turnbaugh 1977).

The Agnes Flood of 1972 devastated much of Pennsylvania causing billions of dollars in property damage and lost revenue. Serendipitously, perhaps, perhaps not, it was the intensity of the flood of 1972 that opened the West Branch valley to Turnbaugh’s research as the impacted river bottoms exposed the buried remains of long-lost archaeological resources (Turnbaugh 1978).

Map of Pennsylvania showing general area of site in yellow. (photo: Google Earth)

Among the reported archaeological resources were the locations of Late Woodland period camp and village occupations of three major cultural phases identified for the West Branch Valley. One of these, a village occupation of considerable size, was 36CN0023, near the confluence of Pine Creek and the Susquehanna River. There, shell tempered pottery sherds, then identified as Susquehannock, were reported. 

Between 1995 and 1999 excavations undertaken at 36CN0023 revealed a Quiggle phase (formerly a.k.a. Susquehannock) occupation, radiocarbon dated at AD 1450-1550. Based on diagnostic ceramic and lithic objects, the occupation likely represented two sequential settlement occupations and a midden stratum, resulting from the introduction of and/or accumulation of organic material to sediments and soils (Stein 1992). At 36CN0023 the midden stratum contained well preserved botanical items such as carbonized seeds, plant parts and a plethora of faunal remains of mammals, birds, and aquatic related creatures. These things were directly associated with the cultural objects and represent the residues of lost or discarded materials (Herbstritt 2020; Herbstritt 2021). Along with these objects was an inordinate number of river cobbles fashioned into tools and used in various processing activities at 36CN0023. This week’s featured TWIPA blog describes some of the cobble tool forms from 36CN0023.

Sorting cobble tools at The State Museum of Pennsylvania archaeology lab. (photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

ANVILS: Most of the artificially modified cobbles are anvils. Used in combination with a cobble hammer, these were sufficiently stationary heavy objects on which organic and inorganic materials were processed, such as nuts for human consumption and reducing blocks of chert/quartz rock to grit size for pottery temper. The degree of modification these tools exhibit ranges from slight battering to extensive modification through heavy use on one or more of the cobble’s surfaces although one or two locations on the two opposing sides of the cobble is most common. Anvils were typically made from siltstone and sandstone.

Examples of anvils recovered from the site. (photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

MULLERS: Generally mulling stones have flattened smooth and/or polished surfaces. Usually, this type of tool has two opposing flat surfaces where such modification exists. Mullers were handheld and used in conjunction with milling stones to render certain foodstuffs into finer textures. Some mullers retain calcified traces of plant/animal residues and orangish/red pigmentation from refining hematite rock into powdered ochre. Mullers were made from siltstone, sandstone and less frequently from granite.

Composite image of an abrader (left) and a muller/milling stone (right) (photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

MILLS: Large cobbles up to thirty pounds (66 kilograms) in weight were used as milling tools and, like anvils, were stationary in use. They were used in conjunction with mullers. These large cobble tools have flat to concave surfaces from muller abrasion. Midden deposits located around mills show evidence of heavy organic concentrations. Mills were made from siltstone and sandstone.

Examples of milling stones recovered from the site. (photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

HAMMERS: hand size cobbles exhibiting multidirectional battering were hammers employed in many ways from smashing animal bones for the purpose of extracting marrow to rough shaping other stone into celts, pestles, projectile points, etc. Hammers are made from harder material such as silicified fine-grained siltstone, quartzite, and granite. Sizes range from 2 – 6 in (5 – 15 cm), shapes are subspherical to elongated and most display areas of localized faceting from repeated use from one direction of impact. 

Examples of hammerstones recovered from the site. (photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

ABRADERS: As with hammers, cobble abraders of different shapes and weights were hand size. Wear patterns suggest that these objects were used to reduce a rough or coarse surface object to a smoother one by employing the tool in a back-and-forth motion as in the way one would operate a hand saw. Any surface of the cobble was sufficient for abrading purposes as is indicated by the different use/wear patterns present on archaeological specimens. Abraders were commonly made from coarse grained siltstone and sandstone, ideal materials for their abilities to remove excess material in modifying bone, wood, and softer stone.

To be sure, the foregoing is but a glimpse into the clouded history of cobble tools and how they were used centuries ago in the Susquehanna’s West Branch valley. Modern day experimental studies into the replication of stone tools are another aspect of understanding how humans of long ago made and used stone tools – cobble tools were no exception. Please visit with us next time when we will present another interesting topic in This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology. 


Herbstritt, James T.

2019          Becoming Susquehannock: The West Branch and North Branch Traditions. In: The Susquehannocks: New Perspectives on Settlement and Cultural Identity. Edited by Paul A. Raber.

Herbstritt, James T.

2020         The Late Woodland Period in the Susquehanna and Northern   Potomac Drainage Basins, Circa AD 1100-1575. In: The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. Volume 2, edited by K. Carr, Christopher A. Bergman, Christina B. Reith, Bernard K. Means, and Roger Moeller; Elizabeth Wagner, Associate Editor

Stein, Julie K.

1992          Organic Matter in Archaeological Contexts.  In: Soils in

                   Archaeology: Landscape Evolution and Human Occupation,

                   edited by Vance T. Holliday. Smithsonian Institution Press,



Turnbaugh, William A.

1977          Man, Land and Time: The Cultural Prehistory and Demographic Patterns of North-Central Pennsylvania. Unigraphic, Inc.

Turnbaugh, William A.

1978          Floods and Archaeology. American Antiquity, 43(4):593-607. Washington. 

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

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