New discoveries: researching prehistoric site distribution in the Allegheny Mountains. Part II

By Chris

The previously Blogged project in the Alleghenies resulted in the excavation of over 2000 shovel tests documenting prehistoric artifacts from across the entire survey area and including stone projectile points or knives, bifacial tools, end-scrappers, core fragments, angular debris, and sometimes dense clusters of debitage from the primary and secondary stages of tool production as defined, graciously, by Jack Holland (BSM). Material types for these stone artifacts, once again courtesy of Mr. Holland, included ubiquitous gray Onondoga and Huronian cherts (including some heat-altered pieces) and a few pieces of Upper Mercer chert imported across the mountains and up the river from South-Central Ohio.

A total of 4 new rock-shelter & 12 open habitation sites containing fire-altered rock, charcoal, and lithic debitage and various tools were newly recorded. Our tentative analyses have suggested that open habitation sites were common along the edges of the seeps and seasonal drainages at the heads of larger drainage systems within broad open upland plateaus (11). These areas would have had more open canopy prehistorically as they do in the present. Rockshelters containing tool making debris and evidence for hearths (4) were similarly clustered near boulder fields or upland swamps also offering the potential for an open canopy.

PA Fish & Game Researchers working around the Alleghenies have documented these seeps as present-day locii for edible early spring plants and attractants to large game from the deep woods. The presence of prehistoric sites in these locations suggests that these micro-environments were exploited seasonally by prehistoric societies. These may be special procurement stations within areas formerly thought to be inhospitable.

Notably, the plateau doesn’t seem to have been used in our survey area as a way-station between lowland valleys to the east and west as no sites were found on any of the intensively surveyed saddles or east-west running ridges.

The tool assemblage from these sites show that the period of use has extended far intoprehistory. Tools included endscrapers, stemmed points, ear-notched points, and a fluted point with evidence of serration and corner-notch modification suggestive of the early archaic curation of a paleoindian tool! The final analysis is pending.

These sites, though often small, are significant in that they reflect cultural practices beyond the function of the material remains contained therein. The sites locations alone may reflect resource procurement practices and give us a broader prehistoric occupation sphere. Further testing has been recommended for select sites and will add more information on site functions and chronologies and we feel seeps are sensitive.

This survey for the Alleghenies and the ongoing rockshelter testing highlights the importance of establishing economical and effective strategies. In the case of the Alleghenies, we developed an economical research design which, when strictly adhered to by a great crew, recorded 16 new prehistoric sites where there had been but one despite decades of small tract and roadway surveys.

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