Friday, February 16, 2018

A recent submission to the Section of Archaeology

W.P.A. excavations during Winter at the Peck Site (36So1)

Winter in Pennsylvania is not typically a time of year that is well suited for archaeological fieldwork. That is not to say fieldwork in February does not happen. Indeed, it has and does, but it would be difficult to persuade anyone that conditions like the ones seen above are anything approaching optimal.  When the days are short, cold winds bitter, and the ground is well, frozen, archaeologists often take to the lab to process (that is to sort, clean, catalog, inventory, label and archivally package for curation) artifact collections from the previous season’s excavations.

Here at the museum, artifact collections that are the product of cultural resource management projects arrive year-round, although there does seem to be an uptick in submissions this time of year. Being centrally located as the State Museum is in Harrisburg, from time to time criticism bubbles to the surface that our efforts and attention can focus disproportionately on sites in the Susquehanna River Valley region. Given the diverse topography and size of the state, wide ranging archaeological research interests, and our own limited resources, this criticism is not without some merit. This week’s post attempts to kill two birds with one stone in that it highlights an artifact collection submitted for curation just two weeks ago (a “fresh” collection so to speak), and that also happens to come from Westmoreland County – a nod to our cohorts over the hills in the southwestern part of the state.

project overview photo with phase one shovel test in foreground (photo credit: McCormick Taylor, Inc.)

In 2016, McCormick Taylor Inc. conducted an archaeological survey and evaluation for PennDoT’s proposed improvements to the highway interchange of state routes 70 and 31 in South Huntingdon Twp., Westmoreland County. As a recipient of federal highway tax dollars PennDoT is obligated to make a good faith effort in identifying and evaluating cultural resources, and, if necessary, mitigating any adverse effects their undertakings may have on important historic and prehistoric sites.

modern disturbance and steep sloped portions of the project area not tested (photo credit: McCormick Taylor, Inc.)

After eliminating areas of the project determined to have low archaeological potential due to modern disturbances or steep terrain, a total of 228 shovel test pits and two 1m x 1m test units were excavated across 12 ½ acres of ground. As a result of their work, seven new archaeological sites were recorded (36Wm1113 – 1119). Four of these sites consist of just 2 to 16 pieces of debitage each of local or regionally sourced cherts.  The very low artifact density, and the lack of diagnostic artifacts or cultural features were cited as justification to recommend these sites as ineligible to the National Register of Historic Places, and no further work was performed.

representative sample of lithic debitage from the Davis site (36Wm1119)

The Tignanelli site, 36Wm1113, comprised of mostly early 20th Century kitchen wares, bottle glass and architectural material such as brick, window glass and iron hardware, also contained about a dozen flake fragments of local chert. This site too, was recommended ineligible to the NRHP, primarily due to a lack of integrity and significance. There was one artifact in the assemblage however, that did stand out amongst the 1200 more mundane bits that is unique and worthy of a moment in the spotlight.

1937 Radio Orphan Annie decoder pin from the Tignanelli site (36Wm1113)

"mint" condition example

The 1937 Radio Orphan Annie decoder pin is a wonderful object of popular culture that harkens back to the days before television, when radio was king. It is easy to imagine that this, for a time, was probably a child’s most prized possession, and of course it conjures up images of the classic movie A Christmas Story, with Ralphie feverishly cracking the code only to be rewarded with a reminder to drink more Ovaltine. Not the type of thing to stop a transportation project in its tracks, but a charming artifact all the same.

phase two excavation unit of the Davis site (photo credit: McCormick Taylor)

After the phase I survey, the final two sites, 36Wm1116 and 36Wm1119, were recommended to proceed to phase II, to determine their eligibility to the National Register. As is the case with most cultural resource management efforts, excavations were limited to the project’s area of potential effects, or APE.  For the Davis site, 36Wm1119, this meant a limited view at what McCormick Taylor acknowledges in their report as a site that in all likelihood extends beyond the project boundaries. The four phase two 1m x 1m test units yielded 48 chert flakes in addition to the 25 pieces recovered from the two phase one test units. Similar to the other sites identified for the project, no features or datable diagnostic artifacts were found at 36Wm1119, and consequently the portion of the site in the project area was deemed ineligible to the Register.

Finally, for the Markle site, 36Wm1116, PennDoT successfully modified the design of their project to avoid any potential impacts. In many situations, avoidance constitutes an agreeable solution for all parties involved, in that redesign is generally a less costly option for PennDoT as opposed to labor intensive data recovery undertakings, and, while no additional fieldwork is planned for, the site is nevertheless recorded and will (or, should) remain undisturbed, thereby serving the interests of the cultural resource community and ultimately the broader public.


(2017) Brewer, Allison; Cristie Barry; Amanda Rassmusem

Phase IB/II Archaeological Identification and Evaluation Investigations for the S.R. 0070 Section K10, S.R. 70/S.R. 31 Interchange Improvement Project South Huntingdon Twp., Westmoreland County, PA

-report on file Section of Archaeology, State Museum of PA

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

Friday, February 2, 2018

Whistle Pigs, Winter and Weather Predictions

As we enter the month of February for many of us our thoughts turn towards warmer weather and planning in the hope for an early spring. This happens to be Ground Hog day here in Pennsylvania and many a person will wait with great anticipation for Punxsutawney Phil to appear. Popularized by the movie Groundhog Day in 1993, this annual tradition has origins that go back much farther than one might think.

Punxsutawney Phil and his handler
(image: "Phil supports Candelora (Venice version)" by "Alessandro M." Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0). Accessed 1 February 2018.
Oral tradition places the origin of the ceremony on German immigrants who encountered an abundance of groundhogs upon their arrival in Pennsylvania. The belief that if this ground boring animal came out of his hole and saw his shadow, he’d scurry back inside as an indicator of six more weeks of winter. How did it come to be that a rodent would be considered an accurate predictor of the weather? It actually has origins in Europe and was likely a carryover from religious teachings.
February 2nd corresponds with the forty-day period after Mary gave birth on December 25th in the Christian church, known as the Purification of the Virgin.  Women had to wait forty days after childbirth before entering a church or Temple again due to "uncleanliness". Eastern Orthodox Christian churches continue to practice this belief today, and all Christian churches schedule the Christening for forty days after the birth in keeping with this ancient purification practice.  Observed in Catholicism, and by Anglicans and Lutherans, the Feast of the Purification is otherwise known as Candlemas. The Church blesses all the lights to be used in its ceremonies throughout the year, since it was at Christ’s Presentation at the Temple that Simeon called him "the Light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people."
Celebrated throughout Europe, Candlemas and its ties to weather and predictors of spring can be found in various poems and verses. Of German origin; For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, So far will the snow swirl until the May.  The Scottish version; If Candlemas day be dry and fair, The half o' winter to come and mair, If Candlemas day be wet and foul, The half of winter's gone at Yule.  Lastly, the English version; If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again. Pennsylvania’s ethnic melting pot includes all of these European groups, who continue to carry on some of their European traditions.
While these beliefs and origins seem rather antiquated today in this world of modern technology and (mostly) accurate weather predictions, these and other predictors were a necessary tool for cultures throughout time. Archaeological evidence of mid-winter celebrations at sites such as Stonehenge supply an opportunity to examine these belief systems. Archaeologists believe Stonehenge to be associated with the winter Solstice and excavations have revealed evidence of feasts and celebrations to support these theories.
Here in central Pennsylvania, the petroglyphs in the lower Susquehanna river near Safe Harbor include symbols and alignments for the annual equinox and solstices as well. Jay Toth, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, of the Seneca Nation feels that many of these symbols are a reflection of the sky on the water and the images were then pecked and created in the rock.
Little Indian Rock at sunset
The Iroquois Midwinter Ceremony occurred in late January or early February, dependent on the midwinter new moon and lasted at least a week. Iroquois belief systems rely heavily on the lunar calendar and an appreciation for moon phases and constellations helped to guide their survival. The Pleiades, a winter constellation of seven stars is known as the seven sisters in Greek mythology. When the Pleiades appeared in the sky in North America, it was a sign for the male hunters to return to the village from their early winter hunt. The ceremony was a period for renewal and thanksgiving, an opportunity for the hunters to rest before returning to the woods. A celebratory time of gathering in preparation for the remaining weeks of winter.
Environmental changes such as tree buds, or sap running are indicators of spring and one that our maple sugar producers follow closely. Birds that migrate begin to return north and animals who hibernate begin to emerge. These changes in the season and the significance of animals and birds to Native groups is likely reflected in the effigy figures created. Bears, turtles, owls and geese appear in artifacts such as clay smoking pipes, carved stone and wood, or shell ornaments which honor their significance.
Left to right: shell geese from the Byrd Leibhart Site (36Yo170) [photo by Duane Esarey]; a carved wooden owl effigy with brass inlay from the Strickler Site (36La3); a carved steatite pipe bowl with bear effigy and attached pewter stem from the Oscar Leibhart Site (36Yo9) [photo by Vince Cassaro]
These rituals and ceremonies were a valuable tool for ancient cultures in planning for the remaining months of winter. Whether predicted by the moon phases, constellations, floral or animal behavior each of these indicators were a survival tool and a coping mechanism for the dark days of winter. The desire to add light either by honoring the solar system, building a fire, or lighting candles all produced the same effect of illuminating darkness. These cultural practices have changed and evolved over time, but at the core of these is the desire for light and that sense of renewal that comes with spring. 
We hope that you’ve enjoyed this reflection on our winter weather and that Punxatawny Phil’s prediction is for an early spring.  
Snow, Dean R., The Iroquois, The Peoples of America, Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

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

Friday, January 19, 2018

Projectile Point Types of the Early Archaic Period

            The Early Archaic period in Pennsylvania corresponds with the end of the Younger Dryas climatic episode and the beginning of the Holocene episode or the modern era at about 11,700 calendar years ago. This is a very interesting time because it witnessed the most significant environmental change of the past 40,000 years, although some argue that the current episode of global warming will turn out to be even more significant.  Additionally, we see radical changes in projectile points from the unique fluted points of the Paleoindian period to the more common notched points of the Archaic period. During the Younger Dryas, fluted points in the Northeast evolve from Clovis into points with longer flutes and a fishtail shape eventually leading to a decreased emphasis on fluting and finally to leaf shaped points with no fluting. Rather quickly, around 11,700 calendar years before present (BP), notched projectile points such as Thebes, Charleston, Palmer, and Kirk appear.

Environmentally, at 11,700 calendar years ago, this is a transition between the cold, harsh conditions of the Pleistocene to the warming of the Holocene. The temperatures rose rapidly to modern conditions, but it required approximately 1000 years for the open spruce pine forest of the ice age to evolve into the oak and pine forest of the early Holocene and 5000 more years to become the oak-hickory and hemlock forest of the later Holocene. For Paleoindians, the long winters and coniferous forest did not provide many plant food and probably 60% of their diet came from hunting small game, deer, bear, elk, caribou in northern Pennsylvania and fishing. The closed spruce pine forest of this transitioning period between 11,700 and 10,200 calendar years BP also did not provide many plant foods, although the winters were shorter and oak trees, with their supply of acorns were increasingly available for both human and animal consumption.

            The drastic change in projectile points has always perplexed archaeologists. The change from lanceolate forms to notched forms suggests radical changes in the way they were hafted to the shaft. Lanceolate points are found all over the world, but only in the Americas are they fluted. The mechanism for hafting fluted points is generally understood, but why the need for fluting is a mystery. Some archaeologists believe that the change in spearpoint shape was related to hunting with an atlatl in the dense coniferous forest of the Early Archaic period. However, others argue it is more difficult to throw with an atlatl in a forest, so the jury is still out on this issue. Hardaway and Hardaway-Dalton points are basially thinned and notched and considered by some to represent a transition between fluted points and Early Archaic notched points but these are very rare in Pennsylvania.

            Whatever, the reasons, the most common Early Archaic projectile point types found in Pennsylvania are: Palmer and Kirk, corner notched types; less common are Kirk side notched and Charleston corner notched types and lastly, the Thebes type has only been recovered from a few sites. Generally, they all have a ground base and are serrated. Like fluted points, most are made from chert or jasper, although metarhyolite and quartzite was also used.

Thebes Points (Justice 1987)
Based on stratigraphic associations, the oldest of these seems to be the Thebes type. This is a relatively large, side notched or diagonally notched point. The blade is generally triangular in shape and the overall thickness of the point is generally greater than other points of this era. A distinctive characteristic of this type is that one edge of the blade is usually beveled suggesting that it was also used as a scraper or knife. Some have argued that this was its primary function (Justice 1987). These have not been dated in the Middle Atlantic region, but at Graham Cave in Missouri, they were dated to 10,854+570 and 10,557+429 calendar years BP (Justice 1987).
Caption: Early Archaic points from the Wallis (36Pe16) Treichlers Bridge (36Nm142) and Lewistown Narrows (36Ju104) sites. (upper left – Kirk corner notched; upper right – Palmer; lower left 3 – Charleston; lower right – Kirk;)

Again, based on stratigraphic associations, the Charleston corner notched type occurs with the Thebes type and below Kirk and Palmer types (Justice 1987). These are relatively broad points compared to other types of this era. The blade is also frequently asymmetrical again suggesting they were used as knives or scrapers. Two Charleston points were dated to 11,408+750 at the St. Albans site in West Virginia (Broyles 1971).

The Palmer corner notched type is a relatively small point with a straight base and frequently with more pronounced serrations (Coe 1964). The shape of the blade has been compared to a “Christmas tree”. They have not been well dated in Pennsylvania, but at the Thunderbird site in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, they were dated to 11,468+566 calendar years before present (Verrey 1986). At the Richmond Hill site in New York, three Palmer points associated with a hearth were dated to 10,595+180 calendar years before present (Justice 1987).

Caption: a metarhyolite Kirk corner notched point dated to 10,334+302 calendar years BP from the Central Builders site (36Nb117).


The Kirk corner notched type has a large, generally triangular blade with a straight or sometimes convex base. Compared to the Charleston type, the blade is less frequently asymmetrical. In addition, these points are thinned by flakes that extended across the mid-line of the point (Justice 1987). This type has been dated at several sites in Pennsylvania to between 10,730+412 and 10,209+30 calendar years BP (Carr 1992). Kirk side notched points are sometimes found above corner notched types in stratified alluvial settings and usually below bifurcate base points, but there are few if any dates on this type (Carr 1992). Kirk stemmed points have been found in the same levels as bifurcate points at several sites (Daniel 2011).

The Early Archaic sequence presented above – Thebes, Charleston, Palmer, and finally Kirk seems reasonable based on stratigraphic associations. Daniel (2011) published a re-analysis of Coe’s (1964) work that essentially supports the above chronological sequence for these types. However, the radiocarbon dates do not support a sequence of dates for these types, but rather suggest several types were contemporary and were being used at the same time. Part of the problem is there are a limited number of dates and most of them cover a wide range of time. Or these types, in fact, overlap in time and were used throughout this period by different bands or had different functions. Obviously, it is necessary for archaeologists to obtain more dates from stratified contexts and use the most refined dating system available (ie AMS dates) to further our understanding of this time period.

            In conclusion, it is clear that the Early Archaic projectile point types were part of the adaptive strategy for exploiting the post-Pleistocene environment that was transitioning to a more diverse deciduous forest at about 10,200 calendar years BP. Although there is a slight overlap with Kirk points, bifurcate base points were the main lithic projectile point used to exploit this initial phase of the evolution of the deciduous forest in the Middle Atlantic region.

            We hope you’ve been inspired during these cold days of winter to consider the harsh environments that prehistoric peoples encountered and their survival techniques. A better appreciation and understanding of our past, helps us to consider change and adaptation for the future.  If you’d like to learn more about the Early Archaic period, please check out other posts on this blog or the references provided below.



Broyles, Bettye J.

1971    Second Preliminary Report: The St. Albans Site, Kanawha County, West Virginia, 1964-1968. Report of Archaeological Investigations No. 3, West Virginia Geological and Economic, Morgantown.

Carr, Kurt W.

 1992   A Distributional Analysis of Artifacts from the Fifty Site: A Flint Run Paleoindian Processing Station. Ph.D. dissertation, The Catholic University of America, Washington D.C.

1998    The Early Archaic in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 68:42-69.

Coe, Joffre L.

1964    The Formative Cultures of the Carolina Piedmont, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 54, Part 5. 

Daniel, J. Randolph

2011    A New Look at an Old Sequence: Typology, and Intrusive Traditions in the Carolina Piedmont. In The Archaeology of North Carolina: Three Archaeological Symposia. North Carolina Archaeological Council Publication Number 30.

Justice, Noel D.

1987    Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of the Midcontinental and Eastern United States. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Verrey, Robert

1986    Paleoindian Stone Tool Manufacture at the Thunderbird Site (44WR11). Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Anthropology. Catholic University of America, Washington D.C.

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