Sharing the Common Wealth showcases objects, artifacts, documents, structures and buildings from the collections of PHMC.
the artifact, called “Face Rock,” is the earliest of its kind found in Pennsylvania.

Face Rock at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania/Photo by Don Giles

Is this face carved into a 5-inch-diameter river cobble a sort of ancient emoticon? Perhaps. It is more likely a ceremonial figure used by a shaman during tribal rituals. But it may be a purely decorative object. Archaeologists are not quite sure. What is known is that the artifact, called “Face Rock,” is the earliest of its kind found in Pennsylvania.

Face Rock was unearthed on Piney Island, Lancaster County, in the Susquehanna River, by a team of five PHMC archaeologists led by Barry Kent in 1973. The excavations on the island yielded a variety of projectile points dated to an age of between 2,700 to 6,400 years ago. Face Rock was found at a level later carbon-dated at 2,700 to 4,300 years ago, classified by some archaeologists as the Transitional period. Based on the contention of Pennsylvania state archaeologist John Witthoft in 1953, there was a unique period of transition between the Archaic foraging and Woodland agricultural paradigms that emphasized the use of river systems for trade and food gathering.

Face Rock may have been created by the Native Americans who lived on Piney Island during the Transitional period, or it may have come to the inhabitants by trade. The object may have been painted and even decorated with feathers, but this is just conjecture. Not a tool, not a weapon, Face Rock’s primary significance today is that it is the earliest nonutilitarian object to be found in Pennsylvania, indicating that three to four millennia ago people in this region were beginning to portray likenesses of human beings (or gods with human features) on objects, creating a form of art. Face Rock is currently on exhibit in the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.


Kyle R. Weaver is the editor of Pennsylvania Heritage.