Friday, February 22, 2013

Lycoming County

This week our journey by county through the archaeology of Pennsylvania takes us to Lycoming County. Located in the northern tier, close to the center of the state this county is located on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. Secondary streams include Pine Creek and Little Pine Creek which flow into the Susquehanna from the north and Lycoming Creek which enters the Susquehanna near Williamsport.  This county is located within the Allegheny High Plateaus section of the Appalachian Plateaus province with its southern territory in the Ridge and Valley province. The rugged terrain of the Appalachian Plateau attributes to the high percentage of sites (78%) located in riverine settings. These river terraces are subject to seasonal floods which distribute rich alluvial soils, ideal for agricultural activities.  Bedrock underlying this area primarily consists of shale, sandstone and siltstone, none which possessed desirable minerals for lithic tool manufacture. However, local chert outcrops as well as chert cobbles which were glacially deposited here were widely used for tool manufacturing.

projectile points and bifaces from 36Ly84 made from a variety of lithic materials

Evidence of prehistoric occupation dates to the Paleoindian period (10,000-16,500 years ago) as indicated by fluted points recorded by William Turnbaugh in his survey of the West Branch Valley for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1972. Pollen and faunal analysis for this period suggested a trend from Artic-like to temperate conditions.  Faunal analysis indicates a series of narrow zones of micro-environments quickly changing from boreal forests to more temperate fauna types. Turnbaugh noted fluted points of Onondaga chert from western New York, jasper, quartz and quartzite from the south and Normanskill flint from the east.  The variety of lithic materials recorded by Turnbaugh increased our understanding of Paleoindian activities in the region and supported patterns of small groups or bands of transient hunters moving through the area seasonally.

Turnbaugh conducted this survey during and after the devastating flood created by hurricane Agnes in June of that year. Due to the destruction created by the flood waters, more of the river bottom lands were exposed than would have been from normal cultivation allowing Turnbaugh to recover artifacts and record numerous sites.   Turnbaugh acknowledged the assistance he received on this survey both from the North-Central Chapter 8 of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology and by several individuals including Mr. James P. Bressler.

An archaeological investigation conducted for PennDOT  by Skelly & Loy, Inc. recovered evidence of  Middle Woodland hunting-gathering activities at Powys Site (36Ly254). Cultural features identified included firepits, storage/refuse pits and postmolds.  Using floatation methods, plant remains were recovered from some of these features and along with macro-botanical samples, aided in identifying site activities. This site was interpreted as a seasonal camp where pottery was manufactured and utilized for processing of bone grease and nut oils. Flaked stone tools were reworked, hides processed, and plant and animal foods preserved and consumed.  Wood charcoal analysis identified oak, maple, hickory and beech. Along with squash or gourd, the seeds and sap from these trees represent some of the foods consumed at this site. Maize was absent at Powys site. Archaeologists summized that the “late Middle Woodland of north-central Pennsylvania continued a traditional Archaic lifeway of seasonally scheduled hunting and gathering activities, possibly supplemented, to some extent, by the cultivation of squash.”(East, Johnson, Sams, Beckman, 1996)       
James Bressler and Harry D. Rainey reported on excavations conducted by Chapter 8 of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology situated at the confluence of Loyalsock Creek and the Susquehanna River near Montoursville from April 1997 to June 2000.  The Snyder Site (36Ly287) was a floodplain site where topsoil mining activities potentially threatened to destroy the site.  Richard Snyder, a member of Chapter 8 offered his property for excavation to the chapter, preserving evidence of a Late Woodland, Clemsons Island site. 

Clemson Island culture history diorama in the Archaeology and Anthropology Gallery at the State Museum of Pennsylvania

Pottery recovered during this excavation was identified as primarily Levanna Cord-on-cord(38%), Clemsons Island Punctate, and Carpenter Brook Cord-on-cord.  A Total of 29,074 ceramic sherds were analyzed by the chapter. The collection is being curated at the Thomas Taber Museum, Lycoming County Historical Society.

Right: Levanna Cord-on-Cord ceramic, Left: Clemsons Island Punctate ceramic 

As mentioned earlier, the rich alluvial soils deposited on the floodplain provided fantastic conditions for an emerging agricultural society. Deep storage pits uncovered at Snyder site suggest food storage and trash disposal, indicators of permanent occupation. Analysis also revealed fish bones and scales of gar as well as small minnow-sized fish. Interestingly, no fish remains were recovered from Powys site and no squash remains were found at Snyder site.  These are clear examples of why archaeologists must examine multiple sites to further our understanding of the lifeways of native peoples.

A large semi-subterranean hearth feature was exposed during the excavations that required assistance from our own Jim Herbstritt to assist the chapter in excavating and interpreting their findings.  Shenk’s Ferry pottery was recovered in deeper soils of this feature which led Jim to conclude that remnants of a keyhole structure were present beneath the upper level hearth. The presence of Shenks’s Ferry culture period ceramics (750-500 years ago) above  Clemsons Island ceramics (1,000-650 years ago) indicated this overlapping activity.  The term “keyhole” is applied from the pattern that these features leave in the soil.  Their purpose is still debatable with theories ranging from sweat lodges to storage structures and smokehouses. Disturbance of a second keyhole prevented additional analysis as to their function at Snyder site.
Profile (above) and plan view (below) of keyhole structure at the Snyder site (36Ly287)

The dense forest cover encountered by Euro-american visitors led to the designation as the “Dismal Wilderness” (Wallace 1945). White pine, oak, chestnut and hickory created a thick, dark canopy. Historic records indicate settlement in the region began in the 1700’s with towns erupting along the same transportation routes that Native peoples used during prehistoric periods.

1892 Lycoming County township map (above), Indian Paths map from Wallace (below) with Tioga Path (inset)

The Tioga Path was an important foot path that later developed into Route 15 from Trout Run to Painted Post, New York, still a major transportation route through north-central Pennsylvania. Canals and railroads that ran through Williamsport contributed to its boom during the lumbering era.  Construction of the Susquehanna Boom, essentially a man made dam, in 1851 helped to control the flow of logs streaming into the Susquehanna each spring.  The demand for lumber after the Civil War attributed to making Williamsport the Lumber Capital of the World. Between 1868 and 1906 these mills sawed more than eight billion feet of white pine.  Lumbering demand led to the construction of railroads and the Boom became obsolete.  The flood of 1894 broke the Boom and washed approximately two million board feet of lumber down the river. By 1908 the great woods of northern Pennsylvania were depleted and the timber barons moved to the mid-west.  Today, many of the homes on “Millionaires Row” have been restored and preserved for the future and serve as a reminder of the perils associated with depleting unsustainable resources.

We hope you have enjoyed our visit to Lycoming County and it has inspired you to learn about the archaeology of your community.  Understanding and exploring our archaeological heritage is pivotal to our understanding of human behavior and our ability to change and adapt over time- just as the peoples of Lycoming County have done for thousands of years.

We close this week on one final disturbing note.  Last week we shared information about the excavation effort by the Frances Dorrance Chapter, Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology at two sites near Duryea.  Unfortunately, someone destroyed equipment and vandalized one of these sites this week . 

This chapter was working to preserve the archaeological heritage of their community, please educate those around you to the valuable role that archaeology plays in our communities and the importance in preserving and not destroying our heritage. 


Bressler, James P.; Harry D. Rainey 
Excavation of The Snyder Site 36Ly287 - North Central Chapter No. 8 Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology and Lycoming County Historical Society Williamsport, PA

East, Thomas C.; William Johnson; Margaret Sams; Kristen Beckman
Powys Site (36Ly254) Phase III Data Recovery - prepared by Skelly & Loy, Inc., manuscript on file at the Section of Archaeology

Turnbaugh, William H.
Man, Land and Time: The Cultural Prehistory and Demographic Patterns of North-Central Pennsylvania Unigraphic, Inc. Evansville, IN

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

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