Excavations at the Late Monongahela Squirrel Hill Site

  • In 2016, IUP Anthropology field school students, under the supervision of William Chadwick and Lara Homsey-Messer, used a combination of geophysical survey, shovel testing and test excavations, and geomorphic augering to investigate the prehistoric Squirrel Hill Site (36Wm0035), located along the Conemaugh River near the modern town of New Florence, Pennsylvania. It is believed to be a Johnston-phase Monongahela village (ca. 1450–1590).

    The site has been known to archaeologists since the 1950s, but little systematic investigation of the site has taken place since then. And, because it has been heavily collected by local residents for decades, the Archaeological Conservancy purchased the property in order to protect it from further damage.  

    IUP archaeological investigations at the Squirrel Hill site

    IUP archaeological investigations at the Squirrel Hill site

    Although the site is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, previous investigation is extremely limited; with the exception of a small geophysical survey in 2013 by IUP graduate student Lydia DeHaven, most of the work conducted at the site occurred decades ago, and not to modern excavation and analytical standards. Many research questions remain to be answered, such as 1) verifying occupation and cultural affiliations; 2) characterizing the internal arrangement of houses, plaza, and stockades; 3) contextualizing its relationship with other Johnston Phase sites in western Pennsylvania; and 4) reconstructing the paleo-landscape and environmental change through time. 

    In 2016, and in partnership with the Midwest branch of the Archaeological Conservancy, IUP Anthropology began to investigate these questions as part of our annual Archaeological Field School. Field school students working under the supervision of William Chadwick and Lara Homsey-Messer used a combination of geophysical survey, shovel testing and test excavations, and geomorphic augering to address the above research questions. During the first field season, we opened 10 1x1-meter test units in areas that previous geophysical survey identified as “hotspots.” We also conducted additional ground penetrating radar survey and shovel-tested around the Conservancy’s property line. We found pottery, lithic flakes, a lot of fire-cracked rock, and over 80 features (such as post molds and storage pits).

    Perhaps most intriguing, we now suspect that there may be more than the one Johnston-phase occupation at the site. Many of the post molds intersect and intrude other features, minimally suggesting some rebuilding. Interestingly, we discovered several features (including a large rock cluster), nearly a meter below the surface. Fortunately, we were able to collect charcoal from them for radiocarbon dating; it will be very interesting to see if these enigmatic features are contemporaneous with, or pre-date, the Mon occupation.

    Students taking Archaeological Lab Methods this fall with Chadwick are analyzing the artifacts recovered, and students taking Geoarchaeology with Homsey-Messer in spring 2017 will analyze the soils and microartifacts. Our first field season let us with more questions than answers, but, of course, that is half the fun and challenge of archaeology. We anticipate that many master’s and undergraduate theses will be directed toward answering these questions in the years to come.

    Excavation units at Squirrel Hill. Features are clearly visible in the bottom right photo.

    Excavation units at Squirrel Hill. Features are clearly visible in the bottom right photo.