Friday, May 4, 2012

Centre County: Jasper quarries, Late Woodland hamlets and early compliance surveys.

This week we travel to the center of the Commonwealth in the West Branch of the Susquehanna drainage basin to Centre County. It is located on the western edge of the Appalachian Mountain Section of the Ridge and Valley physiographic province. The largest stream is Bald Eagle Creek which joins the West Branch at Lock Haven. There are 540 sites recorded for the county in the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey files. This represents a moderately high density (1 site per 2.12 square miles) compared to other counties.

The Bald Eagle jasper quarries, located just outside of State College, were a major lithic source used by prehistoric peoples but as is true for most of the Ridge and Valley province, chert is the most frequently found lithic material at prehistoric sites. Bald Eagle jasper is the “other” jasper source in Pennsylvania although it is consider to be of a lesser quality than the better known Hardyston quarries in eastern Pennsylvania. It is generally more grainy with a dull luster compared to the Hardyston quarries of Vera Cruz, Macungie and Kings.

Curtin Village and Eagle Iron Works property is owned by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and represents the main historic site in Centre County. This site, which dates between 1810 and 1921 consists of an iron furnace, mansion house and workers housing. The iron industry was important to the development of Centre County and by 1810 the "Juniata Iron" industry, was producing half the pig iron in the United States. Iron was transported first by wagon, then canal and eventually by railroad. Curtin Village was established as a company town, as were most iron “plantations” of the time which insured a constant work force for the charcoal fired furnaces. Oak trees were burned and converted into charcoal which fueled the furnaces and as a result the surrounding hill sides were stripped bare of old growth forests. It was through the generosity of one of the iron barons of Centre County, James Irvin, that the campus of Penn State was established as an affordable school for the local farm community. Irvin recognized the importance of affordable education-“we must connect the acquisition [of scientific knowledge] with manual labor—“.

Penn State University Excavation Trench

Under the direction of Dr. James Hatch, Pennsylvania State University conducted most of the major early archaeological investigations in the county. One of these early surveys conducted in compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act was for the Penn State Bypass project. The project impacted the Bald Eagle jasper quarries and resulted in these quarries being determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The adverse impacts of highway construction were mitigated by a large scale excavation of several sites. Dr. Hatch was able to determine the types of activities that took place at these quarries and the nature of the initial stages of stone tool production. Hatch went on to also conduct a major survey of the Hardyston quarries in preparation for the I-78 highway project in the Bethlehem/Allentown area. Using material from both of these investigations, he conducted chemical sourcing studies of jasper in the Middle Atlantic region and discovered a chemical “signature” for several different jasper formations in the region. This research has allowed archaeologists to address issues of trade and seasonal migration patterns. The results of his work are still used today.

Another early compliance project conducted by Penn State was the Jacks Mill project. The site (36CE0230) was a large multi-component occupation mostly confined to the plowzone and dating between Early Archaic and Late Woodland times. It was associated with a large spring and documents the intensive use of this ecological setting by prehistoric groups. A controlled surface collection was conducted, resulting in thousands of artifacts. This was followed by the removal of large sections of the plowzone in a search for prehistoric processing and hearth features. This project was notable as one of the first investigations of an upland site that produced datable subsurface features from the Late Archaic (4300-6000 years ago) and Transitional periods (2700-4300 years ago). Late Archaic features in upland settings are especially rare and these provided valuable information on the use of plants in the diet during this period.

Points from the Milesburg Site
The Milesburg (36CE0038) site is situated along Bald Eagle Creek and was also excavated by Penn State. This site is not stratified but it produced material dating from the Middle Archaic through the Late Woodland period. It produced over 7000 artifacts including more than 150 projectile points. The low variety of other tool types suggest this site was generally used by small groups as a transient hunting camp. Approximately 70% of the artifacts were made from jasper and 20% were in metarhyolite. The small number of Late Woodland artifacts were in chert. Three features were uncovered including a hearth feature measuring one meter in diameter. This was associated with five metarhyolite broadspears, a steatite bowl fragment, a Bare Island projectile point, Vinette I pottery and a large number of metarhyolite flakes. The excavators concluded that this represented two different occupations – one representing the Transitional period and one representing the Early Woodland period. Many archaeologists now believe that these artifacts overlap in time and may represent a single occupation dating around 3000 years ago.

Drawing of Clemson Island pottery

The excavation at the Fisher Farm site (36CE0035) conducted by Penn State from 1976-1978, was significant because it was a stratified Late Woodland occupation. The goal of this excavation was to identify changes in diet, house types and pottery styles. What is believed to be a series of Late Woodland hamlets radiometrically dated between AD 960 and AD 1520 were uncovered. Unfortunately, only part of the site was stratified and house patterns were not as identifiable as was hoped. In the stratified portion of the site the archaeologists were able to document the evolution of early Late Woodland ceramics from Clemson Island/Owasco types to Shenks Ferry types. Shell tempered ceramics that date to a later time were also present but these were difficult to confidently place within the chronological sequence because of overlapping radiocarbon dates. Hatch (1980) argues that the ceramic changes were slow and overlapping. At times two ceramic types were being used at the same time in the same hamlet. Traditionally, it is believed that these ceramic types represent different time periods.

Drawing of Shenks Ferry pottery

The excavation uncovered over 50 features and a variety of post mold patterns but the patterns were incomplete and it was difficult to document any house patterns or the evolution of house types. A keyhole structure was identified consisting of a depression two meters in diameter. There were a series of post molds just inside the limits of the depression with an opening to the east and a hearth at the opening. These features were interpreted as semi-subterranean structures that may have been used for food processing (a smoke house) or food storage units. The excavations at Fisher Farm were not as conclusive as predicted but this research motivated archaeologists towards solving these problems.

Map of Keyhole structure floor plan

Drawing of Reconstructed keyhole structure

Many of the early compliance surveys throughout the United Stated were conducted by local universities such as Penn State. For a variety of reasons, the universities gradually got out of the consulting business and by the mid 1980’s, they were replaced by private contracting companies. At Penn State, a group of graduate students formed there own consulting firm (also a common practice at the time), Archaeological and Historical Consultants, and they are still conducting investigations today.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the archaeology of Centre County and that it inspires you to learn more about the archaeology of your county. These resources are Pennsylvania’s heritage and for all of us it is our window into the past. Please help us preserve these important resources by reporting and recording your archaeological finds while we all Preserve our Past for the Future.

Hatch, James W.

1980 The Archaeology of Central Pennsylvania, Volume I, The Fisher Farm Site, A Late Woodland Hamlet in Context. Occasional Papers in Anthropology, Number 12, Department of Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania.

Hatch, James W.

1983 A Stratigraphic Analysis of Late Woodland Material Cultural Change at Fisher Farm. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 53:11-27.

Hatch, James W. and Patricia E. Miller

1985 Procurement, Tool Production and Sourcing Research at the Vera Cruz Jasper Quarry in Pennsylvania. Journal of Field Archaeology 12:219-230.

Hay, Conran and Christopher Stevenson

1984 The State College Bypass Archaeological Project: Final Mitigation Research. Report prepared for Erdman, Anthony, associates, Inc., Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

Hay, Conran A. and Mary Alice Graetzer

1985 Archaeological Investigations at the Jacks Mill Site (36Ce230), Final Mitigation Research. Department of Anthropology Technical Report No. 7, The Pennsylvania State University.

Webster, David, Jan D. Applegarth, and David J. Faingnaert

1977 The Milesburg Site: A hunting Camp in Central Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 47:37-47.

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


  1. Wonderful blog!! I look forward to this every Friday afternoon!

  2. Agree with above post. Thx for a great blog, from very knowledgeable staff. Look forward to it each week. Can't wait till you get to Clinton County!