Making a Future for the Past: New Dating Meets New Deal Archaeology

by Bernard K. Means and Laura J. Galke
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXX, Number 1 - Winter 2004

Visitors watch a WPA crew excavate Peck No. 2, an archaeological site in the infield of the Meyersdale Fairgrounds race track, Somerset County. Work continued through late winter and early spring of 1937.

Imagine a scene set about nine hundred years ago. It is early autumn in a small farming village in the rugged Appalachian mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania. A harried mother stands in front of her small, beehive-shaped house and watches two young men playing chunkey - a lacrosse-type game - in the central plaza of her village. She gazes wistfully across the plaza, which is surrounded by houses similar to her own. Distracted by the game of chunkey, and perhaps by her small children and their dog scampering about her feet, she drops her favorite cooking pot. Worn and old, with remains of burned meals clinging to its interior, the pot shatters on impact with the ground. Perhaps annoyed and a bit saddened, the young mother scoops up the broken pieces and tosses them into a nearby pit. She wants to make sure that her children do not cut their feet on the broken pot's sharp edges.

Consider now a scene from nearly seventy years ago. A blinding blizzard rages in the dead of winter. The country is mired in the unyielding grasp of the Great Depression. A dozen well-bundled men are excavating the remains of the nine-hundred-year-old village, located in what is now a farmer's cornfield. Periodically, they stop digging to warm themselves at a fire burning in an old oil barrel filled with coal that had fallen from passing trains. The oldest crewmember, jokingly called a salamander, tends the barrel fire. It is the worst winter in the memories of this man, who has "eighty summers on his head." Although numbed by the bitter cold, the men are grateful for this work - strange as it seemed to them at first - as they are for any work that they can find. The excavators know that this government-funded relief work is temporary and that, when the economy is finally back on its feet, they will return to more "normal" jobs. But they are happy to not be on the public dole and thrilled to be part of something so interesting.

On this cold winter day, they excavate the fill from a small pit, carefully remove all the artifacts they see, and place them in a paper bag labeled with the pit's number and location within the site. Among the pit's contents are the pot fragments, discarded nearly a millennium before. Tenaciously adhering to one sherd's interior are the burned remains of an ancient meal. The excavators will eventually dig many similar pits before they finish completely uncovering this village. They will also excavate and map hundreds of small holes, most of which held posts that formed the skeletal frameworks for the bark - or hide- covered beehive-shaped houses that once filled this village. The relief workers place a stick cut from a nearby tree into the center of the pit they are excavating, as they do for all pits and pestholes they uncover. This is their way of ensuring that the pit stays visible under the rapidly accumulating blanket of snow so that it can be mapped at a later time.

Both scenes are somewhat speculative, as are most scenarios that draw upon the archaeological record. In the first scenario, archaeologists know that American Indians who inhabited southwestern Pennsylvania began to regularly live in villages around nine hundred years ago. Local archaeologists refer to these peoples as the Monongahela, after the river that slices through southwestern Pennsylvania's bituminous coal fields. The name they had for themselves is not known, nor is it known if they represented a single tribe. Their villages usually consisted of beehive-shaped houses arranged in a large circle with an open plaza area in the center. Sometimes, a large post or fire is found in the center of a village's plaza, evidence that important ceremonies took place there. Most villages were surrounded by a stockade wall intended partly for defense from raiding parties and probably to keep out dangerous wild animals, among them wolves and bears. Accounts from historic tribes indicate that the thick stone disks found at Monongahela sites were probably used to play chunkey. And, finally, the ubiquitous pottery fragments found on Monongahela village sites are evidence of past daily meals prepared over small cooking fires.

Documented findings at Peck No. 2 include a burned corncob

The second scene is known with greater certainty, as witnessed by various historical documents, including personal correspondence, numerous photographs, and daily reports filed from the field. These sources relate that a crew of men excavated several village and rockshelter sites in Somerset County from 1934 until 1940, ending on the eve of World War II. Various federal work relief programs, primarily the Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded these archaeological excavations. Administrators of the work relief programs favored jobs in archaeology because they did not compete with more typical businesses, and, therefore, would not interfere with the economy's hoped-for recovery. Most workers could also bring the tools required for the job from their own homes, such as trowels and shovels, and standardized forms and procedures minimized the amount of training they needed.

The principal supervisor for the federal relief excavations in Somerset County was Edgar E. Augustine (1898-1973), of Addison, in southern Somerset County, a civil engineer by trade. Augustine was acutely aware of his duty to the men under his supervision and strove to keep them continuously employed. He also made sure that the archaeological work he oversaw was conducted with considerable care and accurately documented. To keep an experienced crew together, he drove his men to the archaeological sites throughout Somerset County in his personal automobile, which he nick-named "Seabiscuit" after Charles Howard's famous little crooked-leg horse that raced from long shot to legend, capturing the hearts of Americans. Augustine's correspondence amply evidences his wry sense of humor; he signed letters to his superior as "archaeologist 0.0000001." On several occasions, he and his crew stayed with families who owned the farms where they were digging, eating sauerkraut and sausage prepared by the Pennsylvania German homemakers.

Thanks to Augustine's meticulous records, archaeologists working in southwestern Pennsylvania today are able to use his findings to reconstruct the lives of American Indians who built and lived in farming villages that vanished long before the first Europeans settled the area. In fact, modern archaeologists must turn to findings from the Somerset County relief excavations if they hope to understand these village-dwelling American Indians. During the Great Depression, Augustine's crew excavated a greater number of Monongahela village sites more completely than had ever been done before - or since.

An excavation map shows the relationship to the fairground race track around the right.

Some archaeologists have been reluctant to turn their attention toward detailed analysis of these decades-old excavations, partly because they assume, albeit incorrectly, that the methods used by Augustine and his field crew could not have been as exacting and accurate as those employed by modern practitioners. In 1999, aided by a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) scholar in residence grant, field records at The State Museum of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg were examined. These records proved that Depression-era archaeologists in Somerset County used relatively sophisticated techniques, which compare favorably to those used by today's archaeologists.

A greater problem plaguing these excavations is that they took place before the development of radiocarbon dating, introduced by American chemist Willard F. Libby (1908-1980) in the late 1940s. How the American Indians who lived in these villages maintained vital and vibrant farming communities in the sometimes-hostile terrain of southwestern Pennsylvania, and for how many centuries, would remain a mystery without firm dates for the village sites.

The fairly recent development of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), a form of radiocarbon dating, offers a solution to determining the ages of the dozen American Indian villages excavated during the Great Depression. Because the procedure requires a much smaller sample size than needed for conventional radiocarbon dating, AMS dating minimizes the destructive nature of radiocarbon analysis. Without AMS dating, it is unlikely that dates would have been obtained for the Iceman, a Copper Age man discovered by accident in 1991; the Dead Sea Scrolls, the first of which were discovered by a young shepherd in a cave in Jordan; and the Shroud of Turin, first mentioned in the fourteenth century. AMS dating is also well suited to analyzing organic remains that have been preserved accidentally. Now the question arose: Were any organic remains preserved from the 1930s village excavations in Somerset County?

While studying field records at The State Museum, researchers determined that artifacts from the 1930s excavations had, indeed, been collected and preserved. These artifacts represent only a small portion of the artifacts recovered from village sites - most artifacts were returned to the farmers on whose property the sites were excavated. The whereabouts of many Depression-era artifacts are unknown. More extensive remains from village sites excavated during the mid-1930s near Meyersdale are located at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. These remains originally came to the attention of a modern generation of archaeologists working on another village site in the Meyersdale area during the 1970s. A local farmer approached the director of the Carnegie Museum's investigations, and told him that there were bags of artifacts in the attic of an abandoned house on his property. These were found to represent original field bags and were filled with artifacts recovered during the 1936-1937 excavations of two village sites!

Stone discoidals from the Meyersdale area.

Archaeologists conducted intensive examinations of artifact collections at The State Museum and at the Carnegie Museum between 2000 and 2003. Organic remains from several village sites excavated in the thirties were discovered. The organic remains included bone tools used for making clothing and bone beads worn as necklaces, wood charcoal from past cooking and heating fires, and the remains of past meals in the form of burned corn kernels and cobs, burned beans, and charred food residue sticking to the inside of cooking pots. Support from the National Science Foundation made it possible to obtain AMS dates from nine village occupations uncovered by the Somerset County relief excavations.

One of the village sites dated by this research was known as Peck No. 2. In the late winter and early spring months of 1937, a WPA field crew dug a number of narrow, shallow trenches in the infield of a racetrack at the Meyersdale Fairgrounds, searching for traces of an American Indian village. Pottery jar fragments found by fairground employees and patrons had hinted at a major American Indian village site in this location. Some of the excavators were local residents who likely recalled earlier years when they sat in the bleachers and watched with feverish anticipation as horses raced through the area that they were investigating.

Little did these men know at the time, but their archaeological relief work would inspire an "Indian Pageant" at that year's Somerset County Fair, To the Beat of the Tom Toms, in which volunteers dramatized how American Indians may have once lived in the Meyersdale area. Artifacts from the village sites discovered bv the work relief excavations were featured as part of the program by a prominent local citizen, Flora Snyder Black (1870-1951). A member of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, precursor of the present-day Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, created in 1945, Black was instrumental in securing federal funding from the Civil Works Administration to conduct a "paper" survey of Somerset County's archaeological resources beginning in October 1934. This paper survey was apparently limited to interviews with collectors, farmers, and property owners, and to surface investigations of archaeological remains. The largely anecdotal accounts of landowners provided little systematic archaeological data. However, the information demonstrated the county's archaeological importance and guided the relief excavations throughout the thirties and forties. In 1989, the PHMC dedicated a state historical marker at Black's former farmstead, Holland Farm, in Summit Township, three miles northwest of Meyersdale, honoring not her contributions to the field of archaeology but, instead, commemorating her role in organizing the Society of Farm Women in Pennsylvania in 1914.

Documented findings at Peck No. 2 include wood charcoal from a fire pit.

Augustine and his crew of WPA workers arrived a few days before the opening of the Somerset County Fair to uncover several pits from Peck No. 2, including burials, they had excavated earlier that year and to mark with stakes pestholes associated with houses and the village's stockade. The September 2, 1937, edition of the Meyersdale Republican duly took note. "This extra special feature at the Meyersdale fair was arranged for educational purposes. No charge will be made for this added attraction. This may be the first and only opportunity for the general public to view a rare discovery of this nature. The Meyersdale fair ground is probably the only fair ground on which an ancient Indian village has been discovered."

On the racetrack itself, adjacent to where Peck No. 2 was excavated earlier that year, Mary Wiggins and her Hollywood Daredevils, a seemingly fearless team of daring women stunt drivers, thrilled audiences with a variety of spine-tingling acts. Their repertoire featured a head-on collision between two burning cars, four women crashing through flaming walls on motorcycles, a car overturning three or four times, and Margaret McLean making a sixty-mile-per hour flying leap with her car and crashing it through a solid wooden wall!

The fieldwork undertaken by the Somerset County relief excavations was certainly sedate in comparison to the escapades of the Hollywood Daredevils, but their findings at Peck No. 2 have had a more lasting impact. After the excavators removed the overburden covering the Peck No. 2 village site, the WPA crew discovered that there were, in fact, two distinct village occupations present within the racetrack, one partly on top of the other. The eastern end of the smaller village was partly destroyed by the racetrack itself, while the much larger - and later - village was largely unscathed by the racetrack. Based on the size and number of houses at the smaller village occupation, archaeologists estimate that at least one hundred and twenty people lived there, with anywhere from two-to-eight people per house. At the larger occupation, where as many as two hundred and thirty people made their homes, the houses tended to be larger in size, with as few as two people living in the smallest houses and as many as nineteen people living in the largest building.

Stone discoidal illustration was drawn in 1935 by Bob Colvin, a WPA crew member.

One of the major questions about Peck No. 2 concerns how the people who lived in the smaller village were related to those who lived in the larger Village. Did the smaller village become too crowded, with neighbors rubbing elbows too closelv, prompting them to build a new and larger village? Was the small village enlarged to accommodate new families who had moved into the area? Or, were the builders of the larger village distant descendents of the families who lived in the small village and were returning centuries later to farm again in the home of their ancestors? Without knowing precisely when the small or large villages were inhabited, none of these questions could be answered.

Fortunately, burned organic remains were preserved in museum collections from both village occupations. These were submitted in December 2002 to the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry laboratory in Tucson, Arizona, jointly run by the National Science Foundation and the University of Arizona. AMS dating of three pottery fragments with charred food remains show that people built and lived in the small village around AD 1150. Two pieces of wood charcoal from cooking fires, and a burned corncob, perhaps used as fuel or accidentally dropped into a fire, provide AMS dates of around AD 1530 for the larger village. Since nearly four hundred years separate the two fanning communities, archaeologists speculate that descendants of the small village, as successful fanning allowed their numbers to grow, established several other villages located up or downstream along the banks of the nearby Casselman River. As centuries passed, these small villages - linked by the bonds of kinship and friendship - may have decided to return to their ancestral homeland and reinforce social networks by reuniting into a single, large community.

The dates from Peck No. 2 and other village sites uncovered by the Somerset County relief excavations help archaeologists working in northeastern North America to better understand the changing relationships between village lifeways and farming. This research also demonstrates that new concepts and methods can be applied to artifacts in existing museum collections and allows questions to be answered that were undreamed of by the site's original excavators.

Many people mistakenly believe that archaeological collections once placed in long-term storage are rarely - if ever - accessed, studied, or exhibited, much less analyzed. New radiocarbon dates and improved interpretations obtained from the decades-old Somerset County relief excavations demonstrate the value of revisiting earlier collections. Museum staffs work tirelessly to preserve our heritage, acting as stewards of the past and educators for the present. Museums provide invaluable resources for researchers who, armed with newer technologies and techniques for analysis, breathe new life into ancient artifacts and draw fresh insights from well-cared-for collections.


WPA field crew for the 1936-1937 Meyersdale excavations - interesting employment during the Great Depression.

Bernard K. Means, a resident of North Beach, Maryland, earned his bachelor's degree in anthropology from Occidental College, Los Angeles, and is currently completing his doctoral studies in anthropology at Arizona State University, Tempe. His dissertation research involves applying new theories and cutting-edge technologies to American Indian village sites excavated during the 1930s by New Deal archaeologists in Somerset County. He has written extensively about Pennsylvania's American Indian past, drawing often on the work of his predecessors, especially the New Deal excavations conducted by Edgar E. Augustine and his field crew of fellow Somerset Countians. The author's scholarly pursuits include the history of New Deal archaeology in the Keystone State and across America, the research potential of archaeological collections, and American Indian village life.

Laura J. Gaike, of North Beach, Maryland, received her bachelor's degree from George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and a master's degree in anthropology from Arizona State University, Tempe. Her master's thesis research involved a computer-intensive analysis of the Colonial-era Jonas Green Print Shop in Annapolis, Maryland. Her research interests include African Amemerican religion. She has written about African American ritual caches at Virginia's Manassas National Battlefield Park and at the Charles Carroll House, Annapolis, Maryland. The author has also studied artifact assemblages from American Indian residential sites inhabited about the time of contact with European settlers.


For Further Reading

Augustine, Edgar. "Important Research on Peck and Mart: Rock Shelter Site in Somerset County." The Pennsylvania Archaeologist 8, No. 4 (1938), 83-84.

Butler, Mary. Three Archaeological Sites in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

Means, Bernard. "Archaeological Past and Present: Field Methodology from 1930s Relief Excavations in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and its Relevance to Modern Archaeological Interpretations." Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology No. 14 (1998), 39-63.

____. "Archaeology in Black and White: Digging Somerset County's Past During the Great Depression." Pennsylvania Heritage 26, No. 3 (2000), 6-11.

____. "Mapping a New Future for the Past: Further Insights into Depression-Era Archaeological Investigations in Southwestern Pennsylvania." Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology No. 16 (2000), 155-166.

____. "An Archaeology of Archaeology: Recent Investigations into the 1938 Martz Rock Shelters Excavation." Pennsylvania Archaeologist 70, No.1 (2000), 45-80.

____ "'... To Reconstruct These Houses of Men Who Lived in a Stone Age': Modeling Village Community Organization Using Data from the Somerset County Relief Excavations." In Northeast Subsistence-Settlement Change: A D 700-A D 1300, edited by John P. Hart and Christina Rieth, pp. 43-71. New York State Museum Bulletin 496. The University of the State of New York, Albany, 1999.