Students dig for Native American artifacts

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WEST HICKORY — As she troweled through a newly visible layer of earth Wednesday, an anthropology student’s hand brushed across a sharp object.

She had found an intact arrowhead used between 1200 and 1550 A.D. The artifact is one of many the group of Clarion University of Pennsylvania students has found as they slowly piece together the history of the people who once lived in what now is the Allegheny National Forest.

“We are learning how they used the land and how they interacted with other groups,” said Clarion anthropology professor Susan Prezzano.

She said the people who once occupied the area were most likely Iroquoian speakers, but it is still too early in the process to pin down their identity.

The class finished a monthlong excavation season Thursday of a site near West Hickory, about two hours northwest of Pittsburgh in Forest County.

For years, the land was used as a working family farm before the Allegheny National Forest purchased the property in the 1980s to protect the floodplain area. When the forest service decided to till the land to remove an invasive species, archaeologists conducted a survey and found that there was enough evidence of a significant amount of historic remnants to merit an investigation.

“When they turned over the soil, the archaeologists collected the material on the surface and recognized that there were fairly substantial archaeological remains on the different fields,” Ms. Prezzano said.

Through a partnership with the National Forest and Clarion’s anthropology program, eight students dug 1-by-1-meter test pits and were able to uncover occupations dating to a period known as the terminal archaic, about 4,000 years ago, as well as from the late woodlands era, about 1,000 years ago. From her students’ findings of arrowheads, bi-pitted hammer stones and flakes, Ms. Prezzano believes the site, about a mile from the Allegheny River, was where tools were manufactured and where some people lived.

“This probably was not just an area where you would come, stay for a couple of days and use the resources,” Ms. Prezzano said. “They were probably living here for awhile.”

She said she hoped to uncover post molds — areas a post once filled — to suggest a longhouse was built on site, but because it is a fairly shallow site, most of the artifacts were in the plow zone, the top layer of soil that has been plowed repeatedly. Because artifacts and soil from different periods are mixed together in the plow zone, the amount of historic data archaeologists can draw from it is limited.

There are several thousand years of history in the plow zone, and Ms. Prezzano helps students identify the likely period of the objects they find.

As Liana Thies, a junior from West Erie studying anthropology, pointed out, archaeology is a destructive practice. The evidence is taken out of the ground, and the arrangements of objects and soil strata that allow archaeologists to identify different periods of occupation are lost.

“Future generations will never be able to come back and see what we saw,” she said.

Because of that, archaeologists are very careful in documenting what they find to preserve the record.

Senior Hannah Biddle of Tyrone and junior Gariella Oglietti of New Castle spent Wednesday afternoon inspecting a soil stain they thought could be a post mold of a longhouse.

They eventually determined by plotting a wavy pattern of the stain that it was most likely a path a rodent dug years ago.

Ms. Prezzano said that when the dirt is darker in color it means the ground had rotted there indicating a feature, such as a hearth, fire pit or house post, was once there.

She has her students inspect each potential feature not only so they don’t miss anything but also for learning purposes.

When they find an object they believe to be an artifact, they often bring it to her to inspect.

“Not only is it pottery, it’s a rim,” Ms. Prezzano said to a student who eagerly brought over a chip of ceramic.

She explained that one of the pieces of pottery had signs of surface treatment, meaning the clay was coiled and then a paddle wrapped with cord was used to flatten the clay.

“That made it easier to grasp and also probably improved its thermal shock resistance,” Ms. Prezzano said.

She can also chronologically date the pottery, which she believes to be from cooking vessels, to before 1300 A.D. just by looking at the pieces.

Like all ceramic makers, the Native Americans added material to the clay to make it easily workable. All of the pottery the class has found had grit added to it that was used about that time, when the potters switched to shells.

Another piece of pottery is made of rhyolite material, which is found in Eastern Pennsylvania, which could suggest trading goods.

After the class finishes, the students will clean and identify the artifacts during the next school year. They will then research the pieces and present their findings.

Archaeology is very painstaking work, and Ms. Prezzano said she is not done with the site and hopes to continue work there for several years.

“We really just got started,” she said.

Sarah Schneider: First Published July 3, 2014 12:00 AM

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