Archaeology in Western Pennsylvania

By: M. B.

Originally Published in 1936

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ALTHOUGH few of us think that archaeology, like charity, can begin at home, digging in Pennsylvania has gone on spasmodically for years. At present, co-ordination of archaeological work in the state under the direction of Donald A. Cadzow, Archaeologist to the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, is determining the problems presented there by the various and successive waves of prehistoric Indian occupation, and the progress that has so far been made in solving those problems. Pennsylvania archaeology is important not only for what it can tell us of Indians within the state, but for its bearing on the archaeology of the Northeastern United States. While the objects found in this area, stone and bone tools and ornaments, shell beads, pottery pipes and vessels, are neither spectacular nor of any particular aesthetic value, the information they give us is beginning to tie together the whole continent of Indian North America in a network that stretches from Canada to Mexico.

An people excavating in the middle of the woods
Plate III — Excavating an Algonkin Village Site in Somerset County, 1936.

A type of stone tool called the bevelled adz, found in Erie County, suggests that the Archaic people of what is now New York state pushed west along the south shore of Lake Erie into northwestern Pennsylvania. These people, the earliest we know, were hunters and fishers who had dogs, but no knowledge of agriculture, nor of any of the comforts that go with it. They lived a wandering life, gathering nuts and other available natural foods, and following the game that was their main source of food, clothing and tools. Their clothes were made of hides and furs, most of their tools and ornaments of bone, and their cooking vessels of bark, skin, or wood, since they had not learned how to make pottery. The few, long-headed, skeletons that have been found show these people to have been related to the earliest population in the Southwest and in the Plains, people living the same sort of life, and of the physical stock that is considered to have formed the basic population of the New World. It is safe to say that they reached the Northeast at least two thousand years ago; probably a good deal earlier.

The next people in northwestern Pennsylvania were a round-headed race, the first farmers, whom we can call for the time being the Early Algonkins. They raised corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, and reaped the advantages that come from living a settled life, possible only when you can make your food come to you, instead of having to pursue it. They had crude, cord-marked pottery vessels, soapstone dishes, and stone and clay pipes, and their ornaments ran to marine-shell beads, polished slate pendants, and pieces of hammered native copper. Imported flint, and objects of Mound-Builder type show contact with Ohio, and burial mounds in Erie and Warren Counties suggest actual inroads by the famous Mound-Building people of Ohio.

In the next period, the Late Algonkins show the effect of the infiltration of the long-headed Iroquois in mixed racial types, in mixed pottery types, and the appearance of the characteristic Iroquois triangular arrowhead. It is generally held that the Iroquoian tribes started to move northeast from the Mississippi Valley sometime before the tenth century which allows a tentative date for the Late Algonkins.

A skeleton in an excavated grave and a shovel with 'Montague 13' on it
Plate IV — Iroquoian Burial, Montague Site, Somerset County, 1936.

As the Iroquois pushed on into the north, their numbers and strength increased to such an extent that the Algonkin were eventually driven out altogether. The Iroquois did not take over the fine tools and ornaments of their predecessors, probably feeling that they were tabu since they belonged to an inferior people. They perfected their own types of axes, pipes, pottery and fine triangular arrowheads, and, farmers like the people before them, lived on corn, squash, and beans, supplemented by game and fish. They built rectangular bark houses that held as many as twelve families, surrounding their villages with stockades of poles set upright in a ring of earth, and shifting to a new site every fifteen or twenty years. At the time the white men came, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, northwestern Pennsylvania was occupied by the Erie, an Iroquoian tribe. In 1654, they were wiped out by the Five Nations, the Iroquois of New York, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca, a confederacy whose aim was to further universal brotherhood by offering its neighbors membership on a dependent basis, or extinction. Though after that the country was Seneca territory until white settlers moved in at the close of the eighteenth century, they seem to have used it chiefly for hunting, with no permanent villages west of Warren County.

In southwestern Pennsylvania there is as yet no trace of the early nomadic population found further north. There are Early Algonkin villages up and down the Monongahela, and village sites along the Youghiogheny where Iroquoian people lived on their way northeast almost a thousand years ago. Although most of Pennsylvania felt the power of the Five Nations, who conquered the Erie, the Iroquoian Andaste-Susquehannock tribes along the Susuquehanna, and the Algonkian Delaware to the east, there is no evidence as yet of their having penetrated the southwestern part of the state.

For the last phase of Indian history in western Pennsylvania, we turn to historical records. From them we learn that there was during the eighteenth century a stream of Indian migration from south and east, north along the Susuquehanna, across to the Allegheny, and west down the Ohio. Delawares from eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Mahicans from Connecticut, Nanticokes from the Chesapeake, and Shawnees from Carolina, pushed through Pennsylvania, driven on by the pressure of the white settlements behind them. But the great villages they built in western Pennsylvania are covered by modern towns and villages since the white man was quick to take advantage of the strategic and beautiful sites that they chose.

M. B.

Cite This Article

B., M.. "Archaeology in Western Pennsylvania." Museum Bulletin VI, no. 5 (November, 1936): 10-. Accessed July 23, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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