Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In 1939, anthropologist Mary Butler identified and formally named the Monongahela Woodland Culture, a prehistoric Indian way of life centered in the Monongahela Valley of south­western Pennsylvania, west­ern Maryland and parts of northern West Virginia. Dr. Butler’s reasons for naming this prehistoric Indian culture were, in part, based on ar­chaeological investigations sponsored by the Works Prog­ress Administration (WPA), three of which were undertaken in Somerset County, that uncovered traces of villages, fortifications and burials characteristic of the unique cul­ture. Today, archaeologists, prehistorians and enthnohis­torians are endeavoring to unravel the culture’s anthro­pological-sociological dimen­sion, still a mystery, which developed in the Upper Ohio Valley region during a period of some six hundred years­ – and then vanished without a trace!

For reasons still unclear, during the beginning of the Pro­tohistoric Period, A.D. 1575-1630, the time span antedating physical contact between native Upper Ohioans and Europeans, most of the few surviving groups of the Monon­gahela Culture relocated their settlements from the main river valleys to extremely iso­lated regions nearby. One of these sites in western Greene County, known now as the Foley Farm, was extensively examined by both amateur and professional archaeologists to provide answers to numer­ous puzzling questions about the inhabitants who lived in the small village at the turn of the seventeenth century.

The questions posed were, indeed, manifold. For one, the composition of a Protohis­toric Monongahela settle­ment was, simply, unknown. This was, in itself intriguing and relevant to any serious archaeological study. Other questions baffled archaeologists: Did the people of the village live in the same type of communities as did their predecessors of Somerset County? Were their households markedly similar or differ­ent? Did the villagers erect a palisade wall around the settlement for protection? What kinds of animals were hunted and trapped as sources of food, as well as for raw mate­rials for implements and clothing? Did their edible plants grow wild, or were they cul­tivated in garden plots and nearby fields?

Previous research did dis­close that articles of European origin and manufacture – glass beads, brass kettle scraps, iron knives – found their way, curiously enough, into the hands of the Monongahela people who once inhabited places such as Foley Farm. But how did these foreign items arrive there and, more impor­tant, who brought them? Documentation suggests that small-scale trading between the early French and native pop­ulations was carried out in the Chesapeake Bay area as early as 1546, but would it be pos­sible to trace and untangle the complex networks through which European objects fil­tered to their inland settlements some fifty years later?

Only archaeological excava­tions and subsequent inten­sive analysis of the findings might provide possible answers to the inexplicable ponder­ings. And the Foley Farm site just might offer some con­clusive evidence ….

Archaeology at Foley Farm began accidentally in 1971 when owner Richard T. Foley, Sr., discovered unusual pot­tery sherds (fragments of broken day containers) and great quantities of animal bone and other debris during spring planting. Recognizing the significance of his discovery, Foley immediately contacted members of the Paul R. Stewart Chapter of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, who confirmed his findings. For three years the archaeologists coordinated excavations which eventually revealed that the area was used by the people of the Monongahela Culture for the disposal of trash. Butchered and smashed animal bones, stone implements and thousands of pottery sherds simi­lar to those originally uncovered by Foley were retrieved. Sev­eral items clearly of European origin and dating to the turn of the seventeenth century were also found, demonstrat­ing, beyond doubt, that the Foley Farm site was inhabited by people of Monongahela Culture at the beginning of the Protohistoric Period. These initial discoveries also revealed that the location of the vil­lage lay elsewhere and not where the trash deposit was found.

It was not until the autumn of 1982 that Foley Farm was seriously considered as a pos­sible source for addressing and interpreting crucial ques­tions about the Upper Ohio Valley’s distinctive Protohistoric Monongahela Culture, which continued to defy description and definition. Approached for permission to conduct further investigations on this property, an enthusiastic Foley encouraged archaeologists to continue their search to locate the settlement site and, if found, to discern through sys­tematic excavation, the types and sizes of community struc­tures that the inhabitants constructed, including dwell­ings, wall fortifications, court­yards or plazas.

The intensive seven week archaeological excavation was undertaken in 1983 by the Division of Archaeology, Penn­sylvania Historical and Mu­seum Commission, with fund­ing provided by the agency’s grant program for professional and program incentives. The project was administered by the Fort Pitt Museum Asso­ciates, and the actual field­work was carried out by a trained crew of professional archaeologists and university students. The archaeologists’ first phase involved the orderly mapping of the suspected village location on a structured grid system and establishing necessary reference (datum) point determinants using car­dinal points of the compass and existing landmarks. Through this technique, the entire area was carefully mapped and the grid correlated to the exca­vations undertaken eleven years earlier.

More than 32,000 square feet of plow-turned soil were re­moved from the suspected set­tlement location with the aid of power equipment, and the surface was cleaned with handtools to remove any of the remaining plowzone. Dark discolorations in the soil un­covered by hand cleaning were duly recorded and mapped. Pits, depressions filled with refuse, were logged and photographed. Following excava­tion, soils from these features were waterscreened through one-eighth-inch hardware cloth to recover fragile objects dis­carded by the villagers, includ­ing fish bones and scales or bones of tiny mammals. Fre­quently, these “ecofacts,” or non-artifactual objects found at archaeological sites which offer clues about the environ­ment, are overlooked by ex­cavators, but they are exceed­ingly crucial in reconstructing various facets of prehistoric nutrition.

Constant volume samples of soil from the pits were also taken for laboratory proc­essing to identify the pres­ence of other ecofacts such as seeds and plant pollens which might have survived in the acidic soils. If found, the seeds and pollens would greatly enhance the possibilities of determining environmental change and thereby isolate the range of plants and animals available to the villagers for food and raw materials, for building shelters and tools.

Remnants of decomposed house-wall posts called post­molds were discovered at the site. These discolorations in the subsoil, traced by careful and painstaking excavation, aided in determining the original struc­ture dimensions. By connect­ing the postmolds – which can be likened to connecting dots in a child’s workbook – archae­ologists during the seven week venture reconstructed the village plan, which was made up of two concentric ar­rangements of houses. The smaller of the two configura­tions was designed to lie within a larger outer ring of structures, forming the center ring of houses and consti­tuting the main portion of the excavation area. The out­side circle forms the boundaries of the actual village settle­ment. The constellation of the structures’ remains exhibits remarkable neatness and order, implying a well-structured community organization and settlement pattern.

Postmold evidence also indi­cates that the typical resi­dential building averaged about 18 to 20 feet in diameter. Un­fortunately, methodology for determining the heights of such structures has not been adequately developed and can only be conjectured. Some archaeologists have implied that the Monongahela Culture’s houses were fashioned in wigwam style, or, when viewed at eye level, in a “beehive” configuration. Although this general arbor style may have been true at several sites, the postmold evidence at Foley Farm suggests that an alter­native style of house building was in vogue. Dwellings at Foley Farm had heavy pole frames interlaced with supports to provide greater strength over which bark or marsh grass was placed. Unlike wigwam roofs, the village’s structures appear to have been capped by conical roofing. Some of the dwellings had an attached unit in which families stored household goods and personal possessions. At the same time, these small units may have been used in much the same way as a modern sauna­ – archaeologists uncovered heat-shattered rock piles neatly placed within their boundar­ies. At sites similar to Foley Farm, these household com­partments usually had shed­-shaped roofs, dictated in style by the distinctive conical roofs of the structures to which they were attached.

Each household was equipped with a firebasin, a shallow depression in the dirt floor lined with hand­-plastered day. Through the careful techniques of archaeol­ogy several were discovered, some of which still bear their maker’s faint palm prints. Repeated use rendered the fire­basin brick hard, making cleaning of ashes and charcoal somewhat easier. As the focal point of each household, the firebasin provided not only warmth and a place for cook­ing, but it undoubtedly pro­vided light for crafting, games­-playing and other evening activities. Usually two, some­times three, circular pits were located near the central firebasin, often carefully lined with stones to prevent their walls from collapsing. Occasionally the excavated pits con­tained broken pottery vessels, although they most often yielded parched corn, wild plant seeds and other food­stuffs – mute testimony to their purpose as food storage pits.

Although the firebasin and accompanying small rock­lined food storage pits occu­pied the central section of the structures, the area was also used as a burial place by the Protohistoric Monongahela villagers. When a child died, the corpse was bundled in fringed buckskin and placed beneath the floor of its former residence near the firebasin. Personal possessions usually placed with the deceased commonly comprised a neck­lace or bracelet of glass beads or metal tinklers serving as noisemakers. Occasionally a small pottery container held a meal and, rarely, a few skill­fully crafted stone balls which may have been used by the child as toys. The placement of offerings with the deceased implies that the inhabitants had a complex cosmology which included belief in the supernatural and life after death.

Analysis substantiates that a fair number of the village’s children were victims of ac­quired iron deficiency anemia which may have been in­duced by the consumption of great quantities of corn. Tell­tale signs of Ute disease show up as reactive bone lesions (arrested bone abnormalities) inside the eye orbits of the skull and as unusual distorted enamel flaws in the teeth. Interestingly enough, adult remains at the site were not found, indicating that the corpses of the older villagers were disposed of in an entirely different manner, one which still eludes today’s researchers.

Areas surrounding the fire­basin, food storage pits and burial chambers were outfitted with bedracks, constructed by lashing a pole frame onto the wall and a square con­figuration of inner roof sup­ports that breached the center of each dwelling. The beds also served as platforms for sitting and lounging.

Archaeology has indicated that the Protohistoric Mononga­hela households were main­tained in less than sanitary conditions; archaeologists un­covered garbage or midden deposits containing both inor­ganic and organic remains: wood ash, potsherds, fresh­water mussel shells from the creek (used as a food source), and an abundance of charred plants and butchered animal bones. On one of the excavated living floors, the refuse was easily traced along the walls and even beyond the house­hold confines where it had been casually, almost carelessly, swept aside. The diversity of the butchered bones exca­vated from these garbage mid­dens proves, unequivocally, that the villagers were ac­complished gatherers, hunters, trappers and fishermen.

The butchered bones also yielded clues as to the types of animals the villagers hunted for food. Of the total identifiable bone remains, 48 percent were attributed to the white­tail deer, more than Likely slaughtered by scheduled mass drives and opportunistic harvestings. Elk, bear and most of the 33 mammal, bird, fish, reptile and amphibian species identified during excava­tion of the middens were also valued by the villagers as sources of protein, particularly because most – with the exception of reptiles, migratory fowl and amphibians – were available year-round. The middens also contained other butchered bones – those of dogs, whose presence not only signifies that they were raised but, on occasion, also eaten. Punctures and gnaw fractures noted on many of the other animal bones indicate that the dogs scavenged the village for carrion. In all probability, dogs were primarily kept by the villagers to sound the alarm at the approach of in­truders.

Without question, the most unusual and fascinating dis­covery made among the post­mold patterns at Foley Farm was the remains of a large, centrally located structure. This curious pattern of postmolds had many appendages that, in many respects, were not unlike the singularly attached compartments affixed to the individual households. The central structure incorporated the compartments in a sort of petal pattern – much like that of a flower – when viewed from above. Gutters were dug around the base of each appen­dage in which run-off water during rainy periods drained as a means to keep them dry.

Unlike the surrounding households, the central struc­ture contained neither food storage pits nor burial cham­bers, but it did feature a large centrally located firebasin lined with plastered clay. The absence of ancillary pits for storage and burial leads one to believe that it was not a dwelling, but several hypothe­ses regarding the structure’s utility have been offered. One possibility is that it may have served as a men’s house where priests and shamans congregated to perform such rituals as the rites of passage. Another possibility is that the structure may have func­tioned as a communal or council house during special times of the year as is ethnohistori­cally documented for the Creek, Cherokee and Chickasaw settlements of the southeast woodlands. Archaeologists will continue testing these and other hypotheses through future excavations and studies of Protohistoric Mononga­hela settlements.

Archaeological investiga­tions undertaken at Foley Farm have uncovered samp­lings of the Monongahela’s material culture which have, among other things, proven a long tradition of native technology. There seems to have been very little change in the culture’s ceramic, stone, bone and shell industries. The traditions span at least six centuries, from the Mononga­hela’s formative stages as a major prehistoric Indian culture of the Upper Ohio Valley to its final phase at the turn of the seventeenth century, when these long-lived techno­logies were eventually eroded by indirect European trade. In this case, the resulting accul­turation (interaction between two or more markedly different cultures) was caused by the dominant European culture which caused the subordinated native culture to alter or re­linquish most of its traditions.

From the very beginning, the acculturating trade ven­tures favored the Europeans, who exchanged worthless trinkets of glass, low grade metals, even foreign diseases, for the natives’ valuable furs. Among the first to actively participate in the New World trading negotiations were the French and the Spanish, who were shortly followed by the Dutch, Swedes and Eng­lish in grasping for the new frontier’s untapped resources. European trade objects filtered into the Upper Ohio Valley through native middlemen at the opening of the seventeenth century. The middlemen were entrepreneurs, as shrewd, per­haps, as their European coun­terparts. Susquehannocks of the Lower Susquehanna Valley may have been foremost in these inter-tribal ventures, but others who probably partici­pated may have been the Pow­hatan Chiefdom and the Siouan cultures of Tidewater Virginia.

Forty-five years ago, Dr. Mary Butler noted relationships between the Monongahela and an Indian culture located along the Ohio River known as Fort Ancient, whose settle­ments were large and popu­lous. According to archaeologi­cal analysis, some of the native shell objects and Euro­pean glass beads found at the Fort Ancient settlements may have been carried by native middlemen, whose rela­tions with the Europeans were firmly established, into the region through trade routes along the James and New rivers. Similar objects have been discovered at the sites of Protohistoric Monongahela villages. Occasionally, the Monongahela villages also contain late Fort Ancient pot­tery types and brass baubles fashioned from kettle scraps and cut into unusual zoomor­phic shapes. Consequently, these artifact associations indi­cated that there was, indeed, contact between the two cultures.

Sometime during the first quarter of the seventeenth century, or shortly thereafter, the Monongahela Culture faded into oblivion. The point in time was a crucial one-it was hallmarked by dissension, pestilence and, ultimately, the extinction of the Monon­gahela and many other North American native cultures.

The final path trod by the Monongahela people will doubtless never be known. Some archaeologists and ethnohistorians favor theories that they moved south to the Potomac Valley and be­yond to become the eastern Shawnee of historic times. Others theorize, based on similarities discerned in mate­rial things, that the Monon­gahela were absorbed by the populous and powerful Fort Ancient culture. Nevertheless, the careful and systematic archaeology at Foley Farm pro­vides a glimpse of one of the last Monongahela settlements. But, above all, what was learned during the tedious and painstaking process?

Most important, a major Protohistoric Period occupation of the Upper Ohio Valley was identified and described. It has been proven that the composition of a late period (Protohistoric) Monongahela village is comparatively dif­ferent from its earlier counter­parts of the Upper Ohio Valley where a courtyard and plaza were important considerations in settlement design and lay­out. Household function is also distinctly different; not only were the structures residential, but they also served for the burial of children. The appen­dages of the structures con­tained the carefully arranged burned rock piles which were used, in conjunction with water, to induce sweating.

Although a fortification or palisaded wall could neither be confirmed nor refuted due to unavoidable time con­straints on the archaeologi­cal project, the unique central structure situated within two rings of encircling house­holds was an unanticipated and exciting discovery. The vil­lage layout demonstrates, to the very end, that Foley Farm’s villagers had a well­-structured social organization. The village design, together with the household architecture and burial accoutrements, demonstrates that their cosmo­logical beliefs and world views were important aspects of life. Despite several centuries of progress, the maladies plaguing the juvenile popula­tion of Foley Farm still affect modern Third World societies.

For certain, all facts re­garding the Monongahela Cul­ture are not – nor ever will be – known. New information, perhaps, will be gleaned by subsequent archaeology at Foley Farm and sites similar to it, but much will remain forever lost, vanished much like Mary Butler’s Monongahela people.


For Further Reading

Kent, Barry C. Discovering Pennsylvania’s Archaeological Heritage. Harrisburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical and Mu­seum Commission, 1980.

Kent, Barry C., Ira F. Smith III and Catherine McCann, eds. Foundations of Pennsylvania Prehistory. Anthropological Series of the Pennsylvania His­torical and Museum Commission, no. 1. Harrisburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1971.

Mayer-Oakes, William J. Pre­history of the Upper Ohio Valley: An Introductory Archaeologi­cal Study. Annals of the Carnegie Museum, vol. 34; Anthropological Series, no. 2. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Institute Museum, 1955.

Wallace, Paul A. W. Indians in Pennsylvania (rev. ed). Anthropological Series of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, no. 5. Harrisburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1981.


James T. Herbstritt, director of field operations at Foley Farm, has been associated with the PHMC’s archaeology program since 1975. His research interests include Monongahela Culture sys­temics and paleonutrition; he has authored articles on the archae­ology of Pennsylvania and its native Indian cultures. Presently, he is engaged in computerizing the Commonwealth’s archaeologi­cal site survey files at the Com­mission’s Division of Archaeology.