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 .

Friday, May 12, 2017

Meadowood Projectile Points

                This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology will focus on the Meadowood projectile point type. This projectile point type was originally identified and defined in central New York, primarily from cremation burials, but also found at habitation sites. The type is named after the estate of Delos Wray at West Rush, Monroe County, New York where the points and cache bifaces were found in a small cemetery excavated by Charles F. Wray in 1930 (Ritchie 1969: 179). 

Meadowood projectile points

The Meadowood point type is found at habitation sites associated with Vinette 1 and exterior cordmarked/interior smooth pottery. Some of these were used as projectile points, knives and scrapers. However, this type is best known from cremation burials and its association with banded slate gorgets, tubular pipes, popeyed birdstones, boatstones, copper beads shell beads and biface caches.  This assemblage seems to represent a distinctive shared belief system and an associated trade and exchange system found throughout the Middle Atlantic, Eastern Great Lakes and southern New England regions. 


tubular pipe and pop-eyed birdstone

According to Ritchie (1961: 35), the Meadowood projectile point type is a thin, medium to large, side-notched point averaging 57 mm to 70 mm in length and 5 mm in thickness. The base is straight or convex and about half are ground smooth. The side-notches are small and there are a few examples of double notched specimens. Kinsey (1972: 435) found that in the Upper Delaware about half display serrated edges. The final stages of production involved careful pressure flaking. This biface form is also found un-notched as cache blades, sometimes numbering in the hundreds in cremation burials. As one of its most distinctive characteristics, the lithic material type is almost always Onondaga chert. This chert is found in western New York and the bifaces were acquired through an extensive system of trade and exchange extending hundreds of kilometers. Richie (1961: 35) dated Meadowood points to between 3000 BP and 2400 BP. Kinsey (1972: 362) dates these between 2950 BP. and 2500 BP. This biface type generally follows Fishtail points in eastern Pennsylvania and the Meadowood phase represents the beginning of the Early Woodland period. 

Meadowood points are found throughout Pennsylvania although mainly in the northern sections of the main river drainages. Kinsey (1972) reported Meadowood occupations at both the Faucett (36Pi13A) and Zimmermann (36Pi14) sites in the Upper Delaware Valley where they are particularly common. They are also common on the North and Main branches of the Susquehanna river and Turnbaugh (1977) reports a concentration in the Williamsport area of the West Branch. The Meadowood phase in the Upper Ohio basin of western Pennsylvania is largely confined to the Upper Allegheny Valley and is poorly known. Other tools found at the habitation sites include scrapers, seed grinding stones, nutting stones, anvil stones, triangular end scrapers, Vinette 1 pottery and or exterior cordmarked/interior smooth wares. However, in all cases, Meadowood occupations seem to be small in area and in numbers of artifacts. 

Leibhart Meadowood cache

Vinette I ceramic vessel

            So, there seems to be a scattering of fewer than 200 habitation sites in Pennsylvania, but the Meadowood phase is best known for its exotic and cremation burials. Cemeteries are found in New York, but few if any multiple grave sites have been found in Pennsylvania. Kraft (2001: 166) reports a Meadowood cremation burial from Fairfield, New Jersey that dated to 2980+130 BP., but no Meadowood burial sites have been reported from the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. However, in the Susquehanna basin, at least six Meadowood caches have been identified. The Ferry site (36Pe10) in the lower Susquehanna basin, produced a cache of 20 Meadowood bifaces and a second cache 70 meters from the first, containing over 250 cache bifaces, steatite beads, a strike-a-lite, copper beads, a group of stemmed and side notched points, two of which could be Hellgrammite points and cremated human remains (Gramly and Kunkle 2003).  The Oscar Leibhart (36Yo9) cache included a group of eight or nine Meadowood bifaces, two large gorgets, one with two holes and one with three holes, a tubular pipe, a popeyed birdstone, and metarhyolite bifaces possibly Hellgrammites (Carr and Mayhew 2017; Kent 2001: 368; Kinsey 1957). Stewart (2003: 12) reports Meadowood points from a possible cremation burial that included red ochre and a “killed” Hellgrammite point from the Canfield Island site (36Ly37) on the West Branch (Bressler 1989: 78; Bressler et al. 1983: 51). A boatstone and a portion of a fireclay tube were also found. The Cremard site (36Lu58) on the North Branch produced a possible cremation burial associated with a blocked end tubular pipe, an incised celt/gorget, a boatstone, a metallic material, possibly galena and a date of 2520+50 BP. (Orlandini 2008).
            At least in the Middle Delaware, and the Lower Susquehanna basins, Meadowood points seem to be contemporary with Hellgrammite points (Hummer 2003: 46). At the Williamson site along the Delaware river in New Jersey, Hummer dates them to 2900 BP. Hellgrammite points also have small side-notches, but they are made from local lithic materials rather than Onondaga chert. In addition, they are usually thicker, not well flaked and more frequently seriated. In the Middle Delaware Valley, the Hellgrammite type, is predominantly made of argillite (64%), followed by jasper at 18% (Hummer 2003). In the Lower Susquehanna Valley, they are predominantly metarhyolite. It should be noted that Hellgrammite points found in Meadowood burials suggests that they are contemporary with one another and that the Meadowood points are part of a trade and exchange system while the Hellgrammites are being made of local lithic materials and represent the local group. 

Hellgramite points from 36Pe10

Metarhyolite, chert and  Hellgrammite points

Initially, Meadowood points were treated in a similar manner as other projectile point types implying that they were the projectile point used by a specific group of people along with other tools, pottery that included Vinette 1 and exterior cordmarked/interior smooth wares. These defined the Meadowood culture or Meadowood phase (Kraft 2001: 160). Ritchie (1969: 181-183) states that “Meadowood people pursued a fishing, hunting and presumably gathering subsistence pattern” similar to Late Archaic and Transitional times, but the “small cemeteries and storage pits point toward a more stable pattern of living”.

               However, Custer (1996: 242) notes that “Meadowood materials are isolated occurrences of exotic materials that are overlain on local Early Woodland cultures.” Kinsey (1972: 362) also implies that Meadowood did not have an effect on cultural evolution in the Upper Delaware and that it came from central New York by way of a travel/trade process. It seems as if Meadowood was grafted on to local Early Woodland cultural groups. Considering the way archaeologists name cultures and phases, in the Middle Delaware and Susquehanna basins, it may be more appropriate to identify this as the Hellgrammite phase or culture.

         Recently, Karine Tache summarized Meadowood sites over a broad area and defined the Meadowood Interaction Sphere (Tache 2011). She identified Meadowood sites that shared the same artifact assemblages extending from the eastern Great Lakes through Ontario and New England and into the Middle Atlantic region. Sites throughout this region were connected by a trade system involving Onondaga chert and a common belief system. It seems to include several different regional archaeological constructs that seemingly represent different “cultures”. The regional size of this shared belief system and the level of interaction is unprecedented in the Middle Atlantic region compared to previous times.

         As characterized by Tache (2011: 72), the Meadowood Interaction Sphere consists of a directional trading model involving Onondaga chert bifaces, native copper, banded slate gorgets, birdstones, tubular pipes, and marine shell artifacts. Custer (1996) suggests that the exotic items are controlled by important men dealing with long distance trade resulting in enhanced social status. Tache (2011: 42-43) characterizes the Onondaga chert bifaces as a commodity made by specialists. Long known for its high-quality flaking characteristics, the material may have acquired sociopolitical significance that was used to obtain exotic items that enhanced the power and prestige of individuals or kin based groups. She (2011: 71) also suggests that there were degrees of participation by local groups, some being more involved in the trade and exchange of Meadowood bifaces than others. In addition, Tache (2011: 72) notes the differential quantity and quality of grave goods in burials “suggesting the emergence of social inequalities”.

Typically, the only social distinctions thought to exist in Early Woodland groups are headman and shaman and these could have been held by either males or females. However, during the Meadowood/Hellgrammite phase, some groups were participating in the Meadowood Interaction Sphere. This means that some individuals were involved with the trade and exchange of these exotic items and achieved greater status. These are probably the individuals in the cremation burials. However, it is significant that the items in the burials are generally the same – a cache of Meadowood bifaces, a gorget, a tubular object, a boat stone, a few bifaces in local lithic material and red ochre. Therefore, it is likely that Early Woodland social organization was more complex than during Late Archaic, but not greatly so. How this was operationalized in the local egalitarian bands of Pennsylvania has not been specifically determined, but is very interesting to contemplate.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this insightful look at the past by way of an artifact.  We often remind our followers that understanding the past is not about a single artifact; it is what we learn from patterning the past and looking at “the big picture”.  These changes in the Early Woodland period are an interesting reflection of the changing cultural adaptation of this little-known time.  


Bressler, James P.
1989    Prehistoric Man on Canfield Island: (36LY37) Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. Presto
            Print, Williamsport, PA.

Bressler, James, P., Ricki Maietta, and Karen Rockey
1983    Canfield Island Through the Ages. Grit Publishing Company, Williamsport,

Carr, Kurt W. and Melanie Mayhew
2017    Auctioning the Past: Attempts to Preserve the Archaeological Record of the Donald
            Leibhart Collection (36Yo9). Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for
            Pennsylvania Archaeology, April 9, Harrisburg.

Custer, Jay F.
1996    Prehistoric Cultures of Eastern Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Anthropological Series Number 7, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Gramly, R. Michael and Les Kunkle
2003    Working with Cremains: An Example from the Ferry Site, South Central Pennsylvania.
            The Amateur Archaeologist pp 43-52.

Hummer, Chris C.
2003    Hellgrammite Points and the Early Woodland in New Jersey. Bulletin of the
            Archaeological Society of New Jersey 58: 45-48.

Kent, Barry C.
2001    Susquehanna’s Indians. Anthropological Series, (with Addendums, x-xvi) Number 6.
            Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

Kinsey, W. Fred
1957    A Susquehannock Longhouse. American Antiquity 23(2): 180-181.            

1972    Archeology in the Upper Delaware Valley:  A Study of the Cultural Chronology of the
            Tocks Island Reservoir. Anthropological Series Number 2, Commonwealth of
            Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

Kraft, Herbert C.
2001    The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 B.C. – A. D. 2000. Lenape Books, Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Ritchie, William A.
1969    The Archaeology of New York State, Revised Edition. Natural History Press, Garden City.

Stewart, R. Michael
2003    A Regional Perspective on Early and Middle Woodland Prehistory in Pennsylvania. In Foragers and Farmers of the Early and Middle Woodland Periods in Pennsylvania, edited by Paul A. Raber and Verna L. Cowin, pp. 1-33. Recent Research in Pennsylvania Archaeology Number 3. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Tache, Karine
2011    Structure and Regional Diversity of the Meadowood Interaction Sphere. Memoirs of the
            Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Number 48, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Turnbaugh, William
1977    Man, Land, and Time.  Lycoming County Historical Society, Williamsport.
            United States Department of Agriculture
For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, April 28, 2017

Items of Personal Adornment: How Small Objects Make a Big Impact

As archaeologists, we are often asked to describe the best or oldest artifact we have found. People want to see the nicest point or the complete pot. But sometimes the small and insignificant objects can also give us important information on the people who have come before us. Two such objects are buckles and buttons. These objects mean little to us in today’s world, other than as functional items to hold our clothing together, but in the 18th century buckles and buttons were symbols of wealth and status.

First we will look at buckles, which were the primary type of fastener for both shoes and clothing through most of the 18th century. Metal buckles were largely produced in England and exported to America to be sold, although a small number of buckles were made by local silversmiths and clockmakers. Buckle frames were made most commonly of copper alloys, tin, and gilded brass; however, they were also produced in silver, gold, iron, blued steel, Sheffield plate, pinchbeck (a form of brass resembling gold), and close-plated iron (silver foil plated), as well as being embellished with wood, glass accents, gems, and ceramic inlays. They could be found in a wide range of shapes and sizes, in an almost limitless range of designs and decorations. Buckles were worn by men, women, and children to secure knee breeches, girdles, spurs, boots/garters, hats, sword belts, stocks (a man’s neck cloth), and most commonly, shoes.

Iron Shoe Buckle with Scalloped Decoration (Photo by PHMC)

Buckles are commonly found on archaeological sites from the 18th century because they were so widely used by all ranks of society. In addition to being a way to hold together clothing and shoes, buckles were considered to make an important fashion statement. Social status can be noted in the type of material and extent of decoration on buckles, with more expensive metals and ornate decorations being attributed to the wealthy. Portraits of the time period, which could normally only be commissioned by the rich, show large and ornate buckles on the shoes, knee buckles holding the breeches to silk stockings, and luxurious textiles decorated with expensive buttons.

Portrait of Maryland Governor William Paca, Showing Shoe and Knee Buckles and Cloth Covered Buttons from Maryland State Art Collection, Maryland State Archives  (

(Top row left to right:) Brass Stock Buckle Fragment, Knee Buckle, Brass Buckle Roll, Brass Buckle Tongue; (Bottom row:) Plain and Fancy Brass Buckle Frame Fragments (Photo by PHMC)

Account books from the late 1700s from two stores in Pennsylvania indicate the difference in price between ornate buckles and more ordinary buckles. A pair of “plated buckles” sold for £0-3-5, while a pair of “Silver Diamond Cut Shoe Buckles” was bought for £2-15-0. In a time period of constant change, especially during and after the Revolutionary War, when different forms of currency were used, buckles could also be exchanged for goods and services as a form of money.

By the end of the 18th century, buckles were beginning to go out of style in America and would be replaced by ribbons and shoe strings in the early 19th century.

Another small item that can provide information when found on archaeological sites is the button. As with buckles, buttons served as clothing fasteners and as a fashionable form of personal adornment through the 18th century. Buttons were used as early as the 12th-14th centuries but did not become common until the 16th century. Again as with buckles, most buttons were produced in England and exported to America. Buttons were made of numerous materials including various metals, ivory, pearl, conk shell, wood, bone, inlaid glass, horn, porcelain, leather, stone, and tortoise shell.

Examples of 18th Century Buttons: (Left to right:) Shell, Wood, Brass, Gilt Tombac Crown, Tombac, Brass, Silver-plated Copper (Photo by PHMC)

 In the 18th century, buttons were worn primarily by men on their breeches, coats and waistcoats, sleeves, cloaks, stocks, and handkerchiefs. Women would begin using buttons more commonly in the 19th century. Types of material and quantities of buttons on a man’s outfit could indicate social status. Buttons were purchased separately from the garment and added on later, so personal taste could dictate how the garment was decorated. A wealthy gentleman may have purchased large quantities of expensive metal, bejeweled, or thread or cloth-wrapped buttons to line his coat and waistcoat, while a poorer man may have settled for a few pewter buttons. Along with expensive cloth and buckles, buttons were a visible expression of wealth for a man in the 18th century. Buttons were also utilized by the military as a form of decoration on the uniform but also to identify the service branch and often the regimental designation. 

(Left to right:) Brass Stamped , Crown with Floral Design, Flat Pewter with Floral Design, Shell Crown with Brass Shank , Glass Inset Sleeve Button, Brass Sleeve Button Marked “1773”, Octagonal Brass Sleeve Button (Photo by PHMC)

 Buttons can often be dated by type of manufacture. Early buttons produced between 1700 and 1760 were cast as one piece with the eye drilled out afterward. Later, the shank was added by attaching or soldering to the back of the button. This process altered over time and is traceable, allowing the button type to be dated. Because buttons are very often recovered archaeologically, this can assist in the dating of a site.

Types of Button Shanks: (Left to right:) Cast and Drilled Shank, Cone Shank, and Alpha Shank (Photo by PHMC)

 With changing fashions and styles, buckles would pass out of high fashion by the mid-19th century and today are used mainly as belt fasteners. Buttons, although still in use, are no longer indicators of wealth or status. The advent of the zipper and the use of plastic buttons on pre-made garments have relegated the button to the simple status of a closure. Today’s fashions are ruled not so much by quality of materials and decorative embellishments, but by brand label and celebrity endorsement. So, we can see the importance of finding these types of artifacts on historic archaeological sites.

18th Century Gentleman with Spur Buckles, Fancy Coat Buttons, and Knee and Waistcoat Buttons (Photo by PHMC)

Hopefully, this has given our readers a new respect for some of our smaller and less visually exciting artifacts. To the archaeologist, all artifacts are significant in some way for what they can tell us about a site - and buckles and buttons have their own stories to tell…

Hume, Ivor Noel
1970   A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.

Maryland State Archives
2017   Maryland State Art Collection website. Maryland State Archives, Found at

White, Carolyn L.
2005   American Artifacts of Personal Adornment; 1680-1820. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, MD.

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