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Saturday Art and Archaeology: Unique Discovery in Pennsylvania Dig

Appearance of woven material in feature indicates fabric content.

Having access to the site of a dig that produced the rare find of what appears to be at least an 800 year old fabric remnant from late Woodland era tribal inhabitants, our FDL commenter, spudtruckowner, has provided us with pictures he was able to take on the scene and as the artifact was prepared for removal for further study. The find was covered to protect it from the elements, so was not visible after the original discovery.   In the picture, careful inspection shows a weave that is not part of the material surrounding the artifact, and a material at variance with the earth that surrounds it. The era has produced no other remnant of fabric, and the piece is regarded as a rare and desirable find. This is the second year of digging at the site, which has produced several pottery and tool artifacts, and may have further layers below those already excavated.

Fabric find, covered and encased in frame of stainless steel and concrete lining, to preserve the material for transport to lab for study.

More standard finds have also been brought out from the site, and some include pottery and tools, as well as charcoal from cooking that has been used to date the era that produced the evidence of life in times before the present, and farther back than the confederate tribes that were here when European settlers arrived on the scene.

Removal of surrounding dirt reveals pottery shape and characteristics, held separately from the pit and remaining shards for picture taking purposes.

An artifact discovered at the site, remnant of a pipestem discovered in the sifting process, to be studied at nearby labs.

Long hours patiently sifting through dirt and checking constantly for relics sometimes yield results that make those times golden, and that happened this summer in a dig in PA.  The archaeological society of Venango County has worked for the past summers on an inhabitated locale that has turned up finds of tribal pottery and tools, evidence of processing and cooking, post holes for lodges, and among those artifacts has produced a remnant of woven appearance now being tested for composition that may be fabric. If this find proves to be fabric, it will be the only such piece found in this state for the late Woodland period from which these relics date, around 1150 – 1300 A.D. Charcoal dating has already established that period as the time of inhabitation  from which the excavated relics originate.

Heady times in archaeology sometimes occur with no prior warning, and thanks go to Susette Jolley, who so delicately discovered, recognized, and brought the fabric to the attention of her fellows, so all concerned helped preserve the discovery.  Discovered and preserved, the remnants were collected and removed to study labs at MercyHurst College where they are now being analyzed. Fortunately, our fellow commenter here at MyFDL, spudtruckowner, was a participant in the dig and worked with his peers to stabilize the large piece of surrounding earth that contains the fabric remnant, to keep from disturbing it, encasing it in steel framing, and then a concrete bastion, so it could be loaded into a truck for removal.

As spud was on the site, the picture at the top was taken by him at its original discovery.   Later sources giving the find media coverage did not have the access he had to it when it first was unveiled in the ‘feature’ where it was found.

Not much of the artifact is visible, but based on initial inspection, “it looks like the edge of a carbonized plant fiber-based item – possibly a basket, a mat or some type of woven textile,” according to Edward Jolie, director of the R.L. Andrews Center for Perishables Analysis at Mercyhurst. “We’re cautiously optimistic it is an artifact, but we won’t know for certain until we clean it up.” The time period the object is thought to be from – between AD 1210 and 1280 – is poorly represented in terms of perishable artifacts, according to MAI Director James Adovasio, Ph.D. “The preservation of organic material is a rare phenomenon, not only in Pennsylvania but in the entire world,” Adovasio said. In wet, damp climates such as northwestern Pennsylvania, plant-based artifacts typically decay and few perishable artifacts remain, which is why a find such as this is so unusual. “This could be the only one from that time period in the entire state,” he added. Ironically, the item has endured so well because it was burned. “Once something is burned, oddly enough, it has greater longevity, and it will last thousands and thousands of years,” Adovasio said. In the next few days, students and faculty at MAI will begin analysis on the piece, which will include stabilizing the block of dirt, drawing maps of its surface, removing sediment from around the artifact and radiocarbon dating to determine its age.

The elements of a dig are less than romantic. Along with an abundant supply of drinking water, there will be shovels, axes, wheelbarrows, trowels, hoes, dustpans and whisk brooms for the less delicate removal, lots of buckets for the tons of dirt that will be removed with care.  A seive usually made of wire screen  on a wooden frame will be available for sifting the dirt. The working area can be all covered by a shade awning if diggers are well equipped and/or lucky.  This is supplemented with items the diggers have for comfort like cushions, their own devisings such as a scoop made from the side of a milk gallon jug (Suzette’s own creation), bandanas and gloves, brushes for the delicate work, and the hats, bug spray and sunblock, boots and of course, old clothes that will never quite come clean again after grubbing for days and days in the dirt.

Work site with great view of the dirt you get up close and personal with.

Discovery just emerging from the earth, which needs to be carefully dug out with delicacy and care as the individual pieces are removed.

Pottery shard showing complex design is from later time period and shows habitation in later times, early Mississippian like the nearby McFate site.


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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.