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  • Archaeology without Excavation:Digging Through the Archives of the Pennsylvania State Museum
  • April M. Beisaw (bio)

The Scholars in Residence program afforded me the opportunity to undertake archaeological research on some of Pennsylvania's most important archaeological sites without conducting fieldwork or analyzing artifacts. Instead, I did my digging within the Pennsylvania State Museum. My research focused on field records from archaeological excavations, an important but underutilized form of historic document.1

Archaeology is a destructive science; to dig a site is to destroy it in a controlled fashion. To counteract this destruction, archaeologists are trained to document all they do with drawings, photographs, and written descriptions. As we excavate we record not only what we see but also what we think about what we are seeing at that time. In this way, archaeologists record the facts but also the biases of their experience, research interests, and contemporary method and theory.

Archaeological sites are also an irreplaceable resource. Although new sites are constantly being created by ongoing human habitation, the sites of those people who came before us are in limited supply. Sites that were once visible to the untrained eye were routinely disturbed by generations of collectors, if not completely destroyed by any number of cultural or natural forces, including archaeology. The sites that remain untouched are more likely to represent small camps than large villages. Exceptions continue to be found but they are rare. To conduct new studies on the large pre-Contact villages of Native Americans, archaeologists should do their digging in the archives.

Field records provide a means of revisiting sites and asking new questions of data and data collectors. Artifacts (pot sherds, stone tools, etc.) [End Page 467] housed in museums and other curation facilities are only one aspect of the archaeological site. The context in which these objects were found, the actual three-dimensional space in which the artifact once laid, tells its own story. Early archaeologists were more concerned with recovering objects than in documenting their context. The controlled excavation procedures that archaeologists use today only became widespread in the early 1970s. Highly controlled excavation may be a relatively new aspect of archaeology but documentation is not.

By reexamining the field records of a prehistoric site in New York State I was able to complete a dissertation2 on a site that was destroyed by road construction almost forty years earlier. Prior to my analysis, the Engelbert Site was described by Barry Kent as having the "largest concentration of clearly identifiable Susquehannock remains."3 After my analysis, I concluded that some of the individuals previously identified as Susquehannock were probably not Susquehannock and that Susquehannock use of the site spanned a time range much greater than allowed by the Witthoft hypothesis4 of complete group migration to Lancaster by 1580. The difference in the number of Susquehannock individuals was due to several examples of grave reuse. It appears that existing non-Susquehannock graves were reopened after the buried individual had decomposed, and a Susquehannock individual was then placed within the existing grave. This pattern was not evident to the archaeologists who excavated the site although they documented the evidence for it. The burials clearly contained more than one individual, what I call a "multiple burial." But close inspection of the field records revealed anomalies in the anatomical position of the human remains that suggested grave reuse. This interpretation was supported by soil data and by the positioning of the individuals and their artifacts within this soil.

As a Scholar in Residence at the Pennsylvania State Museum, I reexamined the field records generated during the excavation of several Susquehannock sites in Pennsylvania to determine if a similar pattern of grave reuse could be found. Was grave reuse, I wondered, a way that Susquehannocks symbolically represented their links to people who had come before them? My research focused on seven sites (Table 1) that span approximately three hundred years of occupation and contained more than seven hundred human burials. Approximately 39 percent of these burials did contain more than one individual. Close examination of the field notes and photographs of these burials [End Page 468] revealed that some, but not all, of these multiple burials...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-2109
Print ISSN
0031-4528
Pages
pp. 467-476
Launched on MUSE
2010-11-03
Open Access
No
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