Friday, August 18, 2017

The Petroglyphs of Pennsylvania: Rock Art in the Lower Susquehanna River Valley

Did you know that the Lower Susquehanna Valley, approximately 50 miles south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is home to one of the largest concentrations of prehistoric petroglyphs in the Northeastern United States?

Petroglyphs are a form of rock art in which images are pecked or carved into the surface of a rock. In the case of Pennsylvania’s petroglyphs, rocky outcrops along rivers were prime locations where these images were created. Petroglyphs can be found across Pennsylvania and styles vary widely depending upon the area in which they were created. Nearly all the petroglyphs recorded in Pennsylvania (42 sites at time of writing) are associated with rivers. Waterways were, and still are, significant features of the natural landscape that have shaped where people lived and how they traveled since long before the first Europeans settled in this area.

The distribution and various styles of petroglyphs in Pennsylvania.

The petroglyphs south of Harrisburg, PA (numbers 8 and 9 on the above map) are particularly special due to their location in the center of the nearly mile-wide Susquehanna River. Some groups of petroglyphs in this area, such as those on Walnut Island and nearby Creswell rock were submerged underwater when the Safe Harbor Dam was constructed in the early 1930s. Other sites farther downstream such as Big and Little Indian Rock are accessible only by boat, a feature that has no doubt helped preserve the numerous rock carvings that were made by the prehistoric people who once inhabited this river valley.

It is difficult for us to imagine the vastly different landscape of the Susquehanna River prior to the construction of railroads and hydro-electric dams. The river was at one time filled with rocky outcrops, small islands, and numerous rapids carved by the ancient waters of the Susquehanna, one of the oldest rivers in the world. The riverscape prior to the construction of the Safe Harbor Dam is reflected in photos taken prior to the dam’s construction, as well as by maps made by various surveyors during the 19th century.

A composite image of the Susquehanna River before and after construction of the Safe Harbor Dam. Walnut Island is in the group of islands on the left side of the upper image.
(top image: Scott’s Map of Lancaster County, Library of Congress; lower image: Google Earth)

In 1930-1931, an expedition led by Donald Cadzow documented four petroglyph sites in the Safe Harbor area where Conestoga Creek flows into the Susquehanna River: Little Indian Rock, Big Indian Rock, Walnut Island (now submerged), and Creswell Rock (now submerged). The team photographed and drew the petroglyphs of Walnut Island and Creswell Rock before ultimately drilling the petroglyphs from the surrounding rock on which they were created and transporting them to the State Museum of Pennsylvania. Four of the petroglyphs from Walnut Island are on permanent display at the State Museum’s Archaeology Gallery in Harrisburg, and another four panels are on display at the Conestoga Area Historical Society Museum in Conestoga, PA. The remainder of the petroglyph panels removed from Walnut Island and Creswell Rock remain in storage at the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

The Petroglyphs on Walnut Island were traced and photographed before being drilled from the surrounding bedrock. The original section of rock with the pecked image is on display at the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Archaeology Gallery. (Image: PHMC)

Like much of the archaeology performed during the first half of the 20th century, documentation and collection practices fall short of today’s standards. Although Cadzow and his team recognized the importance of the individual images, other information, such as the exact directional orientation of the glyphs and the shape and nature of surrounding rock formations, was largely neglected. Additionally, some fruits of their efforts, such as creating casts of the petroglyphs, have been discarded in the decades since the work was undertaken. The documentation that exists today falls short of depicting the full stunning beauty of a place that no doubt held special significance to the people who created these images.
Donald Cadzow’s map of petroglyphs on Walnut Island. The image panels depicted on this map are the best evidence researchers have of their original locations on the island. (image: Cadzow 1934, PHMC)

Many of the petroglyphs located on Walnut Island bear little resemblance to the petroglyphs of other rock art sites within the Northeastern United States, and researchers have long pondered their origins. Other sites near Safe Harbor, such as Little Indian Rock and Big Indian Rock are similar in style to petroglyph sites attributed to Algonkian groups which inhabited much of the Northeast and Canada during Woodland and Late Prehistoric times.
While the meaning of petroglyphs is still largely unknown, advances have been made in understanding their significance as places of teaching or for communing with spirits who were believed to inhabit sacred locations associated with rocky outcrops and water. Some believe that the petroglyphs are reflections of the sky above.
One of the abstract groups of petroglyphs on Walnut Island. This rock outcrop provided a view of the river looking towards Lancaster County. (image: PHMC)

Donald Cadzow’s report of his expedition is published as a book under the title Petroglyphs in the Susquehanna River near Safe Harbor, Pennsylvania. It is available for purchase from the PA Heritage book store.
If you visit a petroglyph site, there are steps that you can take to help preserve this fragile and non-renewable resource for future generations. Researchers today have no way of knowing what techniques may be developed in the future that could contribute to the understanding of these ancient writings.
The following guidelines for visiting petroglyph sites are adopted from the National Park Service:
-          Do not touch the petroglyphs, even small amounts of oils from your hands can darken and destroy the carved images
-          Photograph and sketch the images, but avoid taking rubbings which can hasten the deterioration of the petroglyphs. The best time of day for viewing petroglyphs is early morning or evening, when the Sun is low on the horizon.
-          Do not introduce any foreign substance to the rock surface such as paint or chalk, these actions can damage the image.
-          Do not repeck, recarve or deface the images in any way, these actions destroy the original image. Many rock art sites have been destroyed by the addition of historic graffiti.

Petroglyphs in Pennsylvania, videos produced by the PHMC:
Petroglyphs of Pennsylvania Part I - 
Petroglyphs of Pennsylvania Part II
Additional information on petroglyphs is available through our web site:

Additional Resources:
Diaz-Granados, Carol, and James R. Duncan, eds. The rock-art of eastern North America: Capturing Images and Insight. Vol. 45879. University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Cadzow, Donald A. Petroglyphs Rock Carvings in the Susquehanna River Near Safe Harbor. Pennsylvania... Vol. 3. No. 1. Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1934.
Lenik, Edward J. Making pictures in stone: American Indian rock art of the Northeast. University of Alabama Press, 2009.
Vastokas, Joan M., and Romas K. Vastokas. Sacred art of the Algonkians: A study of the Peterborough Petroglyphs. Mansard Press, 1973.

Carr, Kurt W. and Nevin, Paul A., Advanced Technology Rubs Ancient Past. Pennsylvania Heritage, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Fall 2008 (

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Oshnock Collection from Western PA

This week in the archaeology lab of the State Museum of Pennsylvania we have completed one major feat and have begun another. After years of work with donated collections from eastern Pennsylvania sites, accessioning over 40,000 artifacts from these sites, we can finally say that they are fully processed, insuring their long-term curation. We have taken a deep breath to enjoy this accomplishment, and are now turning our sights to recently donated collections from western Pennsylvania.

The collections, donated by brothers Robert (Bob) and James (Jim) Oshnock, arrived at the State Museum in June of 2014 and we are happy to say, that as our lab shelves are now cleared of Delaware Valley artifacts, processing has begun! Bob and Jim’s collection and documentation strategies have led to the recordation of several hundred new archaeological sites in western Pennsylvania, as well as the confirmation of site boundaries for numerous previously recorded sites. The assemblages represent over 50 years of collecting by the brothers, who began in 1966. It is estimated that the collection includes around 50,000 artifacts, along with eleven binders of various notes, maps and inventories. This is one of the largest documented collections donated to the State Museum from sites across western PA, making it of considerable importance in understanding the lives of prehistoric peoples in western Pennsylvania and provides a useful comparative collection between sites from other areas. 

Bob and State Museum, Section of Archaeology staff unloading the collections

 State Museum, Section of Archaeology staff unloading the collections

Jim Oshnock, Bob’s nephew, Bob Oshnock and Jim Herbstritt of the State Museum looking over maps in the archaeology lab (listed from left to right)

Bob Oshnock is recognized as a significant contributor to the archaeology of western Pennsylvania due to his considerable efforts at investigating, documenting and identifying sites. In 1984, Bob was appointed a Regional Representative of the Section of Anthropology, Carnegie Museum of Natural History. To this day Bob has continued to contribute to archaeology as a member of Westmoreland Archaeological Society, Chapter 23, Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology (SPA), Inc. through continued investigation, research, recordation, presentation, publication (see list below in references) and preservation of archaeological sites across western Pennsylvania. It was Bob who convinced his brother Jim to also donate his collection to The State Museum of Pennsylvania for long term curation and the opportunity for the information and artifacts they gathered to be shared and used for research for many years to come.  

Bob presenting at the 2009 SPA annual meeting

Though the majority of the sites Bob and Jim investigated were found through surface surveys, they have also conducted a few larger excavations. Assisted by members of the Westmoreland Archaeological Society, Bob directed the excavation of the Consol site (36Wm100) in Westmoreland county between 2000 and 2015. This site is a multi-component prehistoric village site with an Early Drew Phase Monongahela component and Middle Monongahela component. Two overlapping village components with stockades are visibly present on this site, as can be seen in the map below. To Bob’s credit, this excavation was particularly well documented with extensive notes and annual reports. His work has made a significant contribution to Monongahela research. He has continued to publish reports detailing the excavations and findings at Consol (36 Wm100), proof of his continued devotion to preserving, understanding and sharing the prehistory of western Pennsylvania.    

Map of Consol site as of 2013

Bob also played a significant role in the submission of collections from two other collectors. Donated at the same time as the Oshnock collection was the Jacob L. Grimm collection, which Bob prepared, as he did with his collection by organizing documentation and artifacts, for submission from Jacob Grimm’s widow, Beverly Grimm. He also played a role in packaging another large assemblage, the Fred Veigh collection, which was accepted by the State Museum in March of 2016. We are currently in the preliminary organizational stages with this collection.

State Museum, Section of Archaeology staff shelving the Veigh collection

So, with over 450 sites, from Westmoreland, Bedford, Indiana and Fayette counties, making up the collection Bob and Jim have donated, the State Museum of Pennsylvania archaeology lab is grateful for the immense effort they have put forth to organize documentation and label artifacts with their site numbers as we begin to delve into beginning stages of processing this very large collection.  And so, we continue their legacy in preserving what these sites have to offer about western Pennsylvania’s past and we would like to thank Bob and Jim for their commitment to preserving the past for the future.

For additional reading on Bob and his brother Jim and their donation to The State Museum, see the article in the summer 2017 Pennsylvania Heritage magazine (Adkins 2017 -

For more information on the Consol site please visit Bob Oshnock’s guest blog here: or look into some of his publications listed below.

Adkins, Sean
2017       The Oshnock Archaeology Collection. Pennsylvania Heritage Summer 2017:42-43.

Auffart, Albert, and Robert Oshnock
2011      Keyhole Features from the Consol Site (36WM100). Pennsylvania Archaeologist 81(2): 44–53.

Oshnock, Robert

2000       Prehistoric Usage of Loyalhanna Chert. Manuscript on file, Archaeology Section, State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, Pa.

2004       Consol Site 36Wm100, Report Number 2, Findings from the 2002-2003 Field Seasons.  Manuscript on file, Archaeology Section, State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, Pa.

2005       Consol Site, 36Wm100, Report Number 3, Findings from the 2004 Field Season. Manuscript on file, Archaeology Section, State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, Pa.

2007       Consol Site, 36Wm100, Report Number 4, Findings from the 2005 & 2006 Field Season. Manuscript on file, Archaeology Section, State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, Pa.

2012      Fluted Points from the Loyalhanna Creek Watershed, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 82(1): 74–78.

2012      Early Woodland Features at the Consol Site (36WM100), Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 82(2): 44–53.

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

Upcoming Events Hosted by the Section of Archaeology

July and August

The Nature Lab summer series is in full swing at The State Museum of PA every Wednesday and Thursday starting at 11:30am. Program event fees are included in the regular cost of admission.

We are more than half way through our Thursday archaeology series, however, there are three more opportunities between July 27th and August 17th to meet the curators and take part in hands-on-activities and informational sessions on your next visit to The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Also, check out the ecology series on Wednesdays, as well as periodic paleontology focused sessions.

7/27       Flint Knapping, Kurt Carr
Next Thursday, Kurt Carr will demonstrate hard hammer, soft hammer and pressure flaking flint knapping techniques using raw source materials that Native Pennsylvanians used to make their stone tool kits. You may even get the opportunity to try your hand at the ancient art of flint knapping too.

 8/10       Discovering Petroglyphs in Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Wagner and Melanie Mayhew
In August, discover how Native Americans shared stories and marked the passage of time through carving symbols on stone. Make your own story, tracing cut outs with crayons of selected symbols representing petroglyph sites found on rock outcrops in Pennsylvania. Learn more about Pennsylvania petroglyphs and afterward visit a Safe Harbor petroglyph on display in our second floor gallery.

 8/17       Prehistory thru Artifacts, Janet Johnson
Explore prehistory with fun hands-on activities for kids and an artifact guided introduction to 16,000 years of Pennsylvanian Native American material culture. Try your hand at corn grinding, making holes in shell using a “pump-drill”, and see what it was like to heft a stone axe.
If you are unable to attend Nature Lab activities this year you will have the opportunity to view earlier events from the summer in a broadcast coming to the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN) this fall. Keep checking our blog for airdates.  Other archaeology topics previously covered this summer:

 Pots in Clay and What They Say- Jim Herbstritt, our resident prehistoric pottery expert, and Kimberley Sebestyen led a lively presentation on the evolution of pottery through time and use in Pennsylvania Native American cultures. Attendees were given the opportunity to create a clay vessel using the ancient methods of pinch, coil and paddle, and slab construction techniques.

Who’s Digging PA- Dave Burke and Elizabeth Wagner discussed current archaeology projects happening in Pennsylvania and how they are curated by The State Museum. In their last presentation they focused on the historic sites impacted during the construction of the Museum of the American Revolution in Old City Philadelphia next to Independence Hall. 

Forget Me Not- Labeling Artifacts for the Future- Andrea Carr and Callista Holmes and Section of Archaeology volunteers provided a behind-the-scenes look into our lab and the equipment used to process donated collections at The State Museum. They demonstrated best-practice conservation for artifact labeling and why cataloging and record keeping is important in the field of archaeology. Participants were able to help wash historic artifacts from Ephrata Cloister and sort projectile points from a recently donated Fred Veigh Collection of Western Pennsylvania.


Mark your calendars to come see us at outdoor events this fall.  

Weekdays, 9/11-10/6/2017
9am to 4pm

photo credit: Don Giles

*Special Weekend Event*
Sunday, 9/17/2017
10am to 5pm

We return to Fort Hunter September, 11th to continue excavations and kick off October Archaeology Month celebrations in Pennsylvania. The investigation is open for public visitation on weekdays and on Fort Hunter Day, a special event on Sunday, September 17th. Come and learn about our shared hidden past that can be discovered below the ground surface—from early 20th century farming practices and domestic life, early American frontier cottage industry, French and Indian war-time fortifications, colonial period settlers, to Native American prehistoric cultures.


 Program planning is under way for the annual Workshops in Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania on Saturday, October 28, 2017.  This year our theme will focus around immigration, ethnicity and multi-culturalism and its presence in the archaeological record. The program highlights evidence of ethnic diversity and change amongst the immigrants who populated our Commonwealth from its beginning as “Penns Woods”. Presentations are designed to engage the public in research topics that appeal to all ages. Keep watch on our blog for additional registration information in early September.

We hope you can join us at one of these events and learn about the past through our archaeological heritage. Remember, it is up to us to Save the Past for the Future

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Archaeology for the Museum of the American Revolution

In April of this year The Museum of the American Revolution opened in Philadelphia.  It was constructed “in the heart of the oldest part of Philadelphia” (Yamin et al., 2016), along Chestnut Street and a mere two blocks from the Delaware waterfront.  Realizing the history of the chosen plot archaeology commenced and Commonwealth Heritage Group (formerly John Milner Associates) conducted Phase III excavations in 2014 and briefly in the spring of 2015 and 2016. 

The excavations exposed Philadelphia’s history from the earliest seventeenth-century residential plots, through the commercialization of taverns and printing offices of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, to the construction of the Jayne building in 1849/1850.  The Lippincott button factory represented yet another transition to industrialization in 1907; and finally, the property became institutional by the construction of the National Park Service Visitor Center in 1970 (Yamin et al., 2016).

William Carter received a patent from William Penn shortly after his arrival in 1682 for land surrounding the project area.  Carter later added to that parcel by purchasing a north-south lot in 1701/1702.  It was this later property that would encompass a quarter of the project area for the new Museum of the American Revolution.  This is the parcel that was divided into 74, 76 and 78 Chestnut Street by 1750.

74 Chestnut Street (36Ph194) was purchased by William Smith, a tanner by trade, in 1749 from the Overseers of the Public School that included William Carter’s trustees.  There were two features found on this parcel that represented the early colonial occupation of the project area “generating over 25,000 colonial-era artifacts” (Yamin et al., 2016). 

Feature 28 was a privy located at the back of the lot.  Near the bottom of the privy laid two Westerwald jugs.  

While the privy contained relatively little tableware or food remains there were several drinking vessels and bottles.  The feature also contained over 1,400 fruit pits.  

Yamin et al., suggest that perhaps no one lived in the “alley house” but instead, may have been used for some commercial related activity.  Evidence of the tanning industry was suggested by “horn pieces, leather scraps, modified wood and bark fragments” (Yamin et al., 2016).

Feature 32 was another privy, 

located in the middle of the lot straddling the property line of 74 and 76 Chestnut Street.  76 Chestnut Street (36Ph195) was occupied by Samuel Garrigues, a barber.  Unlike Feature 28 this privy contained a large quantity of table and teawares, including Chinese Export porcelain

locally made redwares, slip-decorated earthenware 

and stoneware.  

There were also many Kaolin or ball clay pipes and pipe stems (180) as well as a large volume and variety of faunal food remains.  These clues point to the privy use by tavern clientele as opposed to strictly domestic use.  The “terminus post quem” for this deposit is 1760 and although no tavern license can be found for either 74 or 76 Chestnut Street at that time there was a tavern across Chestnut Street (Yamin et al., 2016).  Another possible explanation for the volume of non-residential fill may be related to an act passed by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1763 dictating the depth of privies with regard to distance from the Delaware River.  Possibly trash was collected and dumped into the privy in an attempt to reduce the depth to the newly acceptable level (Yamin et al., 2016).

The information produced from this excavation gives us a window into our country’s earliest days as well as its evolution through the twentieth century; this brief presentation hasn’t even scratched the surface (so to speak) of the archaeological history of the project area.  It’s an incredible site and we hope you enjoyed this glimpse of our shared American heritage as we celebrate its birthday.  We also hope you’ll check back for future posts dedicated to other components of this excavation.


Yamin, Rebecca, Alexander B. Bartlett, Tod L. 
Benedict, Kevin C. Bradley, Juliette Gerhardt, 
Timothy Mancl, Claudia L. Milne, Meagan Ratini, 
Leslie E. Raymer and Kathryn Wood

2016     Archaeology of the City - The Museum of the American 
            Revolution Site, Archaeological Data Recovery, Third 
            and Chestnut Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
            Prepared for the Museum of the American Revolution,
            Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

Charnel Structures, Petal Structures and the Disappearing Monongahela Culture

Figure 1

The Monongahela were a Late Prehistoric group of people who lived in the lower Upper Ohio Valley of southwestern Pennsylvania from circa A.D. 1050 - A.D. 1615/35. Many of their settlements were built on bluffs overlooking large river systems while others were hidden away on low terraces adjacent to smaller waterways. The typical Monongahela village can be described as a single or double ring of small round houses (domestic/storage/burial zone). Many of the houses also had a semi-subterranean pit that was free-standing or attached to the wall (Figure 1). Houses were built around an open plaza (communal zone) encircled by one or more gated palisades (defensive zone). An encircling ditch-trench, surrounding the palisade, was used as a convenient place for discarding trash (disposal zone) (Figure 2). Most villages covered an acre or more though some were enormous, approaching  nine acres in size. Village locations were re-used over time as is indicated by overlapping palisades and midden features of accumulated trash at some sites (Figure 3).

Figure 2

Figure 3

               During the 15th century the internal composition of Monongahela villages changed to include a single, larger-than-average, round house, a pattern that over time appears to have moved toward the outermost ring of houses. This type of structure was a place where some of the dead were interred, frequently exceeding more than 10 individuals (Figure 4). These so-called charnel structures may have been reserved principally for individuals, who were perhaps considered prominent members of the community i.e. headmen or others serving special roles or perhaps members of a certain lineage. There was, however, no general preference as to the gender or age of the interred individuals. By the late 16th century houses for the dead disappear from the archaeological record and infants and children are the only classes of individuals being continually interred in the common village household. Adult and elderly Monongahelans were evidently buried elsewhere which marks a defining moment in Monongahela mortuary practices from earlier times.

Figure 4

                Curiously, by the proto-Historic period circa A.D 1550/75 Monongahelans began building large round-shaped buildings with semi-subterranean petal-shaped appendages at some of their settlements (Figure 5). Petal structures, like the smaller size Monongahela households had a centrally placed hearth where residents prepared and processed food. At colder temperatures, the hearth became the sole source of radiating heat both in households and petal structures. The archaeology at these sites suggests that newer petal-structures were often rebuilt on or very near the footprint of older ones thereby demonstrating a desire to reuse the same general locations through time.
Figure 5

The number of appendages associated with petal structures varied widely. For example, at Sony, Throckmorton and the Foley Farm sites, archaeologists found as few as 11 to as many as 24 appendages attached to petal structures. An opening or doorway always appears on the northeast to southeast side of the petal structure. When petal structures were first incorporated into the ring of houses, as at the Throckmorton site, the doorway always faced toward the village plaza (Figure 6). The appendages associated with houses and larger petal structures are recognizably different in that the latter generally had a greater length ratio of nearly 2 to 1.
Figure 6

There is a long-standing assumption by archaeologists that semi-subterranean structural features, whether free standing or otherwise, were used for storage of perishable foods and, no doubt, a resident’s personal effects. The function and purpose of Monongahela petal structures may never be satisfactorily explained since their morphology is generally comparable to Monongahela dwellings. That petal structures abruptly appear in southwestern Pennsylvania at the very end of the Late Prehistoric period when goods of the European trade begin to filter into the region from the eastern coast of North America seems clear from the archaeological evidence. With these changes in village architecture came disease, sickness and often death, to people who had little resistance to biological vectors of calamity.

In summary, it is interesting to note that Monongahela villages grew from small settlements containing a half dozen or so houses to enormous settlements covering many acres followed by a recognizable reduction in village size in the closing years of the Late Prehistoric period with the appearance of petal structures and the disappearance of charnel structures in the Monongahela core area of southwestern Pennsylvania. These archaeologically deduced observations leave us with many unanswered questions regarding the driving forces that forever changed the settlement, community and mortuary patterns of a disappearing people called Monongahela.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the past at the Monongahela peoples who occupied Pennsylvania during prehistoric times and invite you to visit other blogs on TWIPA which discuss the Monongahela.   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 Monongahela peoples did for hundreds of years.


Davis, Christine E. and Amy K. Wilks
1997       Phase III Data Recovery Sony Site, 36WM151, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. A Cultural Resource Management Report prepared for the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corporation.

Dragoo, Don
1955     Excavations at the Johnston Site. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 25(2): 86-141.

            George, Richard L.
1983       The Gnagey Site and the Monongahela Occupation of the Somerset Plateau. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 53(4): 1-92.

Herbstritt, James T.
2003       Foley Farm: The Importance of Architecture and the Demise of the Monongahelans. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 73(1): 8-54.

Mayer-Oakes, William J.
1955       Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley; An Introductory Archaeological Study. Anthropological Series No.2. Annals of the Carnegie Museum.

NPW Consultants, Inc.
1983       Excavations at Two Monongahela Sites: Late Woodland Gensler (36GR63) and Proto-Historic Throckmorton (36GR160). Report submitted to Consolidation Coal Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Archaeology of Three Mile Island

With Three Mile Island once again in the headlines as of late, what better time could there be than now to share some additional information about the archaeology of the island that hosts the nation’s most infamous nuclear power plant.

Residents of central Pennsylvania (of a certain age) can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they received word about fears of a meltdown at the plant in late March of 1979. Truly a “where were you?" moment in history outdone only by the disasters at Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima. 

Avid followers of TWIPA will recall a previous post thoroughly reviewing the excavation and artifact analysis of the northern-most site on the island, 36Da50, and it can be found here. There have been, over the course of the last 50 years, eight additional archaeological sites registered on Three Mile Island.

First, enjoy a few newpaper clippings and the formal press release from that initial work conducted in 1967 that are now themselves as of this year technically, historic.

 “The Metropolitan Edison Company in developing and creating the Three Mile Island complex made every effort to cooperate with concerned environmental and historical groups. Long before the establishment of State Offices of Historic Preservation or the need for Environmental Impact Statements, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission requested and received from the electric company a grant to examine prehistoric remains on the island and to obtain a sample sufficient to be able to reconstruct its culture history” (Smith 1977)

“The types and relative quantities of lithic artifacts, as well as, the horizontal distribution of ceramic artifacts suggests that Three Mile Island was occupied intermittently by small groups of Early and Middle Woodland peoples utilizing a local fish or animal resource.”(Smith 1977)

The Middle Woodland cord-marked storage vessel seen below was excavated, and ultimately donated by Monroe Brown to the State Museum where it was then reconstructed in the early 1970s. Assigned to site 36Da52, the provenience information indicates it was discovered eroding out of a pit on the southern bank of the island. Generous contributions like Mr. Brown’s go a long way in enhancing our collective understanding of Pennsylvania prehistory.

Sites 36Da96 through 36Da99 were recorded with the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey in 1976 and are attributed to the work of Tom Grace and others. Mr. Grace worked at TMI as GPU Nuclear’s environmental licensing engineer, and for several years, as weather and time would permit, he would hunt for artifacts on undeveloped parcels of the island. His enthusiasm for archaeology and some of his discoveries were highlighted in the fall 1987 edition of GPU Nuclear Today, a periodical published for employees working at the plant and their families. His findings were consistent with earlier work and reinforced ideas about how long people had been occupying the island.

In the 1980s, another employee at TMI, Gary Prinkey, was also scouring the island for artifacts. On one excursion, he uncovered a fragment of a human skull eroding out of the bank of the island. Unsure whether the deceased was a victim of crime, Prinkey notified the State Police. State Museum of PA curator of archaeology Steve Warfel was contacted and investigated the grave site with Trooper John Brown in February of 1988.  The presence of wood fragments and cut nails indicated to Warfel the remnants of a coffin, dispelling any notion of nefarious deeds. Furthermore, vest buttons recovered from the site (36Da101) were identified as a particular type manufactured between 1850 and 1880. Likely an inhabitant farming TMI in the late19th century, their remains were re-interred further inland on the island after analysis.  

In the mid-nineties archaeologists re-identified site 36Da51, the second of three sites originally recorded in 1967, during survey and evaluation work in connection with a proposed fish passage facility on the southeastern side of the island. Phase II work determined that what was initially considered a buried A horizon containing chipping debris, a few sherds of Early/Middle Woodland ceramics and FCR was actually the historic plow zone from 19th century farming activities. The disturbed nature of the soils in the the project area precluded any additional archaeology. 

Finally, the most recent archaeological investigations on TMI were conducted in 2014 in anticipation of a “Nature-like Fishway” construction project on the southwest side of the island. At this site, 36Da100, archaeologists observed stratified and sealed deposits, the earliest of which contained a Thebes projectile point made of jasper. Thebes projectile points are classified as Early Archaic in age and date between 10200 and 11700 years before the present. Due to its potential to contain significant new information, this site has been determined eligible to the National Register of Historic Places. If construction plans cannot be designed to avoid the site, a data recovery effort may be necessary to mitigate adverse effects the project may have on this important cultural resource.

For archaeologists, there’s just no such thing as TMI about TMI.


Franz, D. (2015)
Phase I Archaeological Investigations for the proposed Nature-like Fishway at the York Haven Hydroelectric project. Brockington & Assoc.

Geidel, Richard (1998)
Phase I and II Archaeological Investigations 36Da51 East Channel Fish Passage Facility, Three Mile Island, Dauphin County, PA. KCI Technologies

Smith III, Ira F. (1977)
Early and Middle Woodland Campsites on Three Mile Island, Dauphin County, PA. PHMC

Warfel, Stephen G. (1988) A Report on the Discovery of a Human Skeleton at Three Mile Island, Dauphin County, PA. The State Museum of PA

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

Going Native

The current popular trend for small sustainable gardens filled with heirloom seedlings and native plants is nothing new, it is simply a return to our roots. 

Archaeologists carefully examine the botanical remains recovered during excavation in determining what plants were utilized in the prehistoric and historic landscape. Plants were utilized for medicinal practices and were important in making cordage, basketry and mats.  Seeds and plant fibers recovered in flotation and charred residues on pottery all provide an opportunity to assemble a list of plants, nuts and berries utilized by peoples in the past and assemble a list of food resources.  Several of our previous blogs have addressed the processes for recovering botanicals and their subsequent analysis which has yielded important information on their role in the prehistoric diet.

 Anthropologists consider the ethnographic documentation and the oral traditions or ceremonial practices of native groups in conjunction with this archaeological evidence to enhance our understanding of the use of many of these plants.

 During the Woodland Period (2,900 BP.- 1550 AD) population increases escalated the dependency on the natural resources necessary for survival and as previously addressed on our blog, the development of agriculture during this period as well.   Domestication of native plants such as Chenopodium (lamb’s quarters or goosefoot and other plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex) knotweed and little barley began in the Middle Woodland as tribes had more people to tend the garden and the environment was conducive to horticulture.


little barley

Ceremonies surrounding the planting or gathering of plants supported the significance of these resources. In Iroquois culture the Thanksgiving address or prayer usually began and ended every ceremony associated with planting or harvesting. The prayer gave thanks to the earth, water, food plants, medicinal plants, trees, animals, fish, birds, winds, sun, moon, stars and the teachers. The appreciation for and understanding of nature and the balance of these elements is important for gardeners and for society in general.  Understanding that your survival is dependent on these resources and respecting and honoring them as valuable was important for native peoples and why many of us today are working to conserve, restore and respect our remaining natural resources. 

There is much to celebrate after a long winter and the coming of fresh plants in the spring and summer had to have been extremely important to native groups as well as early settlers.  Many of the plants native people were consuming are considered weeds today. I think of the dandelion plant which is not native to North America and is the curse of many a landscaper, but is considered a food resource utilized by many.  My grandfather’s dandelion wine was family lore and I recall many a dish of cooked dandelion on their farm table.  The emerging plants of spring and the lunar calendar have guided planting time for many generations and ceremonies such as the Planting Ceremony marked the beginning of the summer growing season.

Timucua Indians preparing land and sowing seeds, engraving by Theodor de Bry from a drawing by Jacques Le Moyne, c. 1564; first published in 1591.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-31869)

The Strawberry ceremony which honors the native species (Fragaria virginiana) in Iroquois culture celebrates the native strawberry, a plant much different than the commercially grown gigantic berries available at the grocery.  The small sweet berry was symbolic of early summer and community gathering. Archaeologically, the strawberry seed is one of the more frequently recovered berries followed later in the season by raspberries.  If you’ve never had wild strawberry jelly, plan to forage fields and hedge rows in early June to gather this delicious fruit.  If this isn’t an option, then plan to attend a local strawberry festival and enjoy the domesticated berries produced locally.

Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

No matter how you choose to enjoy the native plants in our landscapes either for their aesthetic beauty, their medicinal benefits or their food resource, we hope you will consider their value and significance on the landscape.  These native plants have survived and adapted to climatic conditions and may be the resource we will turn to in the future as climate change and environmental factors impact our ability to grow food crops.  Help us to preserve the past for the future and leave native plants in their natural habitat, so that they can be enjoyed for many more generations.

Indian Pipe plant (Monotropa uniflora)

Indian Pipe is a woodland plant found in wet, damp areas of the forest. Used as a pain reliever as one of its main constituents is salicylic acid, which is a base for aspirin.
Additional Resources

Gladys Tantaquidgcon, Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians, Anthropological Series Number 3, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1995.

Foxfire 2, spring wild plant foods, Anchor books edition:1973.

Dean R. Snow, The Iroquois, Blackwell Publishers, Inc. 1996.

Web sites;

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