Friday, February 27, 2015

Archaeology on the World Wide Web

In the almost 25 years since the creation of the first website a  lot of technical changes have occurred and we have evolved from one site to over a billion sites. Obviously there is a lot of information available on the web, and weeding out the accurate from the inaccurate can sometimes be overwhelming.  Today, we’d like to direct you to the web site for the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and more specifically to the Archaeology Page.

Recently, the State Museum’s Section of Archaeology has been actively improving its website. Our goal to share resources through our current site has proven difficult. In the next few months significant structural changes will be made, and, if all goes well, a more navigable and useful website will emerge. Since many of the biggest changes are yet to come, we will take you on a tour of the best resources currently available on our website.

Section of Archaeology website

 In an effort to keep visitors up to date on future events, our archaeology calendar has been updated. One upcoming event is the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology’s annual meeting April 10-11, 2015 in Bethlehem, PA. Our Archaeology Publications page has also been updated; here you can find information on upcoming and recent publications, download our archaeology brochures, and more.
You may have visited the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at the State Museum in Harrisburg, but have you ever considered the items that are not on display? Our exhibits represent only a fraction of our total collections. The collections summary page on our website has information on notable prehistoric and historic artifacts curated by the State Museum (there are over 6.5 million items in our collections). Researchers have utilized this incredible resource to produce magazine and journal articles as well as completing Master’s and doctorate degrees.

Pennsylvania has a rich archaeological history, and educating the public about the past is a primary goal. The Section of Archaeology’s website contains a wealth of information, with a focus on Pennsylvania prehistory.

Check out the Native American Archaeology section for overviews of each of the prehistoric periods in Pennsylvania’s archaeological record. These sections have been recently revised and updated to reflect our current understanding of Pennsylvania’s first peoples.

Transitional Period painting by Nancy Bishop

Archaeology conducted during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal continues to play a role in our understanding of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. Our website hosts an entire section outlining excavations during this time in America’s history. These pages contain a wealth of information on excavations, artifacts, and current research as well as photographs of the men who conducted the excavations.

From the arrival of the first Europeans to a rich military history to agriculture and industry; historic archaeology plays an important role in understanding Pennsylvania’s history. Visit our pages on early settlement, military, canal, agricultural, and industrial archaeology to learn more about historical archaeology in the Commonwealth.

Greenwood Furnace, PHMC Collections

Ways for you to get involved with the State Museum’s Section of Archaeology will soon be organized into a series of pages aptly titled “Get Involved”. These pages will contain information on recording archaeological sites, avocational archaeology, as well as volunteer and internship opportunities with The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Professional resources, such as guidelines and policies, instructions for using the Cultural Resources Management Reports Database, and information on using our collections will continue to grow as our website is improved.

Within our education pages, two school curriculums are available for teachers of grades four through eight. For additional educational, archaeological, and PHMC resources, visit our resource list.
Pennsylvania’s history is our history, and the responsibility falls on us to educate the public about archaeology, and the Section of Archaeology’s website is one of the many ways in which we share these resources.

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Value of Archaeology

The subject of archaeology often produces “oohs & aahs” of intrigue from people, after all it is the science or study of past human activity via material culture (everyday objects) and their discovery context (the position / place the artifact was found).  As humans we are inherently interested in where we came from.  Consider the blockbusters Hollywood has created, invoking the romantic idea of what archaeology is, even if it’s not exactly accurate…

People have been living in Pennsylvania for ~19,000 years.  The written record of Pennsylvania, on the other hand, has only been available for a fraction of that time, less than 500 years.  Were it not for the scientific excavation and recordation of more than 23,000 sites in Pennsylvania, we would know little about our earliest residents; how they lived or how their modes of survival evolved through time.  As an example, we know that climate changes overtime and because we cannot control it we must adapt to it.  
Implications for the 21st Century
Implications for the 21st Century

Climate Change was the theme for our 2014 Workshops in Archaeology and our 2015 Farm Show Exhibit.  By looking at the strategies that humans of the past adopted we are able to better prepare for our future. 

Among the many functions we, as archaeologists, serve in the Section of Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania is interpreting the importance and value of the extensive archaeological resources our commonwealth has to offer.  We do this through a variety of means: public outreach, field research, maintenance and updates to the anthropology and archaeology gallery at The State Museum, assisting researchers with the examination of our collections and using existing collections to investigate various research problems, as well as serving as the principal repository for collections obtained through Pennsylvania’s cultural resource management (CRM) projects.  As such we are responsible for the care and curation of over six million artifacts representing the entire span of human occupation in Pennsylvania.  We use all of these methods in an effort to demonstrate how archaeology teaches us about human endurance, resourcefulness and ingenuity.

Unlike our cinematic icon, Indiana Jones “destroying every temple he enters” we realize that archaeological sites are non-renewable resources.  This means that when they are destroyed by construction, neglect or for whatever reason, they are gone forever.  The simple economic concept of supply and demand assigns value to things in short supply.  Therefore the limited nature of sites, the fact that there will not be any more Paleo-Indian sites or Susquehannock sites created means that every one of them is valuable due to its scarcity.  Each has the potential to teach us something new that if the site is destroyed or unscrupulously excavated could be lost permanently. 

This simple post barely scratches the surface of the ways archaeology has enriched our lives but hopefully it leaves you intrigued enough to learn more.  If you are interested in reading more about the value of archaeology please visit our website and peruse our past blogs.  They contain a wealth of information about all aspects of archaeology and what we do here at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology.

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

Friday, January 30, 2015

Undergraduate Research

This week we have a guest blogger, Sam Azzaro. Sam served as an intern with us this past summer. His project involved our collection of bannerstones that includes approximately 500 whole, partially complete and broken specimens. He collected basic data that will allow us to better characterize bannerstones in Pennsylvania. Building on this, archaeologists will have a better idea of how they were made and generally how they may have been used. The State Museum has other similar collections that would benefit from this type of analysis (gorgets, axes and adzes, pitted stones… ) and we are always looking for interns to gain the experience. Below is Sam’s report.

            Anyone who knows me will acknowledge that I have had a deep interest in the ancient and prehistoric past, as far back as I can remember.  As you can imagine, this led to having a somewhat unique childhood, preferring to spend my free time learning about a variety of things I found fascinating, such as the Maya, the Roman Empire and prehistoric creatures, at an age when most children would have considered these activities to be a fate worse than death!  Over time, my unique interests brought me to Dickinson College, where I will be graduating in May 2015 with a major in Archaeology, a concentration in Anthropological and Environmental Archaeology, as well as minors in Anthropology and Earth Sciences/Geoscience.  It’s amazing to think that the educational journey I began many years ago toward becoming an archaeologist will finally be complete.  Now, there is also the matter of going on to graduate school and actually finding a job in the field of archaeology, but, as a college senior looking back on the many years it took to get this far, I'm just going to choose to enjoy the moment!  But, all kidding aside, having the opportunity to intern this past summer in the Archaeology Section of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, was an incredible experience and an invaluable step in my journey toward entering into the field of archaeology.

            My work as an intern this past summer had been centered on a kind of Native American stone artifact known as a bannerstone.  The archaeological community currently classifies bannerstones as a special kind of weight that Native Americans would have placed on their spear throwers.  But, to be totally honest, not everyone agrees on this explanation. It is primarily based on one site in Kentucky where bannerstones were found in alignment with the handle and the hook of what appeared to be spear throwers. This seems like conclusive evidence but when people have experimented with actually using bannerstone on spear throwers, they could not detect a significant improvement in performance compared to spear throwers without weights so the jury is still out on their function. Yet, this function has continued to be associated with bannerstones, seemingly due to the simple fact that no alternative function has been proposed and effectively proven accurate by a formally educated and credentialed member of the archaeological community. 

            Let us establish something right off the bat.  No, I did not manage to solve this centuries old mystery during my internship this summer.  And, furthermore, most of the work I performed had nothing to do with solving this mystery.  Essentially, most of my internship responsibilities consisted of cleaning, re-labeling and cataloguing the museum’s collection of bannerstones.  To some, this might seem like grunt work.  However, the reality is that each of these tasks is crucial in allowing museums to "function properly" for both visitors and researchers.  Whether an artifact has been dug out of the ground a day ago or has sat on a museum shelf for centuries, it requires thorough cleaning before it can be displayed to the public or studied by archaeologists.  Additionally, in order for museums to function properly as repositories of artifacts, these artifacts must be labeled and stored in a succinct and uniform manner, so that any single piece in a collection may be located, removed for display or research and returned to its appropriate storage location, with ease.  In truth, learning how important these duties are, along with how truly rigorous they are to perform, was one of the most significant things I learned this past summer.  Simply put, this internship provided me with a realistic, hands-on orientation pertaining to what a significant aspect of archaeological work at a museum consists of, which will play into the career path I choose to pursue in the near future.

            Now, the other important portion of work that I focused on during my museum internship consisted of collecting a range of measurable and observable information from the most intact, as well as the majority of fragmented bannerstones, in the collection.  In other words, I examined almost every bannerstone specimen, after each had been cleaned and re-labeled, collected previously unrecorded information about them (what shape they were, what they weighed, etc.), and then placed them into storage.  While the data I recorded won't resolve the ongoing mystery as to what bannerstones’ actual function was, it does provide an "information base" upon which future researchers can build and, perhaps, someday, possibly even utilize to solve the aforementioned mystery. 

Finally, I would be remiss if I were to not mention that much of this examination was performed under the direction of Senior Curator of Archaeology, Kurt Carr.  That said, I would like to thank Dr. Carr, along with the other members of the State Museum's archaeology department, for their help and guidance during my internship.  It was an incredible experience that I will never forget.

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