Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
PennDOT archaeologist Susanne Haney demonstrates flintknapping for students at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Ben Ford, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

PennDOT archaeologist Susanne Haney demonstrates flintknapping for students at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Photo courtesy of Ben Ford, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Sitting in a folding chair in front of an informational table at the annual Danville Heritage Festival, PennDOT archaeologist Susanne Haney considers an inch-and-a-half-thick, dinner-platesized fragment of metarhyolite. Susanne is one of the most accomplished flintknappers I know. Flintknapping is the prehistoric art of producing stone tools by shaping various kinds of suitable rock with stone hammers and antler, bone or wood batons. It’s rarely seen these days, and it’s popular with the fairgoers who stop to watch her.

The metarhyolite, often though inaccurately shortened to just “rhyolite,” is metamorphic rock from the volcanic heart of the South Mountain Appalachians of south-central Pennsylvania and central Maryland. It is an inordinately tough and resistant material, but in the hands of a skilled practitioner like Susanne it can be fashioned into beautiful and durable stone tools. After turning the fragment over and examining it on all sides, she uses a quartzite cobble about the size of a fist to abrade an area along one edge, and then, after a pause during which her face reveals a fixed but relaxed focus, she firmly strikes the narrow and roughened edge with the same cobble.

There is a bright and sharp sound, somewhere between the crack of a baseball bat and glass shattering. That sound is an artifact, a thing so ancient that some of our hominid ancestors who lived before our species even evolved heard it and were familiar with it. In Susanne’s gloved palm is a thin, conchoidal flake of metarhyolite about the size of a 50-cent piece. As she works her way along the edge of the metarhyolite fragment, and more flakes are detached from two opposing sides of the rock, it becomes oval and thinner, with scars on both faces left behind by the removed flakes.

The piece of metarhyolite, now transformed into what archaeologists call a biface, is ready to be methodically reduced and shaped until a completed stone tool emerges. The small crowd of fascinated visitors that has gathered to watch asks the occasional question, and some of them inspect the sharp flakes she detaches. As I look at their faces, I see people whose families have come from nations around the planet, and every one of them has distant ancestors who would have been intimately familiar with what Susanne is doing. The production and use of stone tools has been with us so long and was so central to the success of our species that it’s one of the things that makes us human.

 

Found in Pennsylvania, these Kirk projectile points were manufactured from chert about 9,500 years ago. The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Found in Pennsylvania, these Kirk projectile points were manufactured from chert about 9,500 years ago.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania

The Right Stuff

A great variety of mostly sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, referred to as tool stone by archaeologists and flintknappers, were available to our predecessors. Most of these rocks are fairly smooth and finegrained, though there are exceptions such as metarhyolite and quartzite. They come in a range of colors, from coal black to shades of grey and brown, to yellow and red and even white. Some have swirls of contrasting colors, and some even contain the casts of fossils within them. Despite their variability, they share a few specific criteria.

They all contain high proportions of silica. Silica, the principal component of glass, tends to break in ways that are predictable, and the conchoidal fractures those breaks leave behind them usually terminate in very sharp edges. Other minerals present in good tool stone such as carbon, manganese, calcium and iron contribute to their toughness and durability. The working qualities of some types of tool stone improve dramatically when they are tempered with heat; other types show little change.

In precolonial Pennsylvania, tool stone of many kinds was widely available to native people. Some of our river systems begin in places affected by Pleistocene glaciers, and those glaciers exposed, eroded and rounded many kinds of rock from many geologic formations. The cobbles in the riverbeds of the Susquehanna, Delaware and Allegheny rivers came from glacial deposits and may have moved hundreds of miles downstream from their place of origin.

Among those cobbles are fist-sized and larger pieces of chert, a material formed when silica-rich water infiltrates primarily limestone and dolomite formations via cracks and faults in the earth’s crust. Chert cobbles also can be readily found in the vast plains and terraces of glacial till that dominate many of the northern counties. Cobbles of quartz, quartzite and argillite also appear in the same riverbeds and till plains, and some of these are good tool stone. Chert also occurs as isolated nodules that can be seen and extracted directly from bedrock exposures in many parts of the commonwealth. These varied sources of tool stone tend to be diffuse but also ubiquitous. Precolonial Native Americans living here would have been able to find at least modest amounts of good raw material to refurbish their tool kits almost anywhere.

But if they wanted larger quantities of tool stone for storage or trade, they had to journey to specific locations where large amounts of high-quality materials were available in the bedrock, or they had to trade with people who lived near those sources. These precolonial tool stone quarries are among the largest, densest and most spectacular Native American archaeological sites in the commonwealth and in the entire Middle Atlantic region.

 

Archaeologist Bob Bodnar, right, and soil scientist John Wah, left, observe drone photography during an archaeological excavation at one of the South Mountain metarhyolite quarries in 2020. Photo, PHMC

Archaeologist Bob Bodnar, right, and soil scientist John Wah, left, observe drone photography during an archaeological excavation at one of the South Mountain metarhyolite quarries in 2020.
Photo, PHMC

Quarries

Hidden in the forest, among the ridges and hollows of the South Mountain region in Adams, Franklin, Cumberland and York counties and extending south into central Maryland, is something quite remarkable. At a number of very specific locations, a careful observer may notice shallow pits in the ground. Unless you know what you’re looking at, they can be construed as the hollows left by toppled trees or as the weathered, possibly decades-old work of a backhoe or some other piece of modern machinery. That’s not at all what they are.

Just beneath the duff and decaying leaf litter that surrounds these pits are stone flakes — literally tons of them, in deposits feet deep and scattered over vast areas. In aerial view, the pits tend to cluster and even overlap in places with certain kinds of geology, in some instances covering acres of land. These are the South Mountain metarhyolite quarries, and those pits were excavated by hand with wooden and stone tools centuries and millennia before Europeans colonized North America.

Similar Native American quarry sites focused on other kinds of raw material are found in other parts of Pennsylvania. Jasper, a yellow or reddish-brown chert associated with iron ore deposits, was mined in quarries in the Lehigh and Nittany valleys. Argillite outcrops in cliffs along the Delaware River, ridgetop chert outcrops near the Lehigh and Delaware water gaps, and quartzite deposits in Berks and Lehigh counties all have substantial pre-European quarries associated with them.

These quarry sites are many things. For archaeologists, they are unique and invaluable sources of information about the First Nations in what is now Pennsylvania. For the descendants of the people who discovered and used the quarries, they are precious connections to their ancestors. To public land managers they are significant features of human land use — nonrenewable resources that require protection, planning and interpretation. To ordinary citizens they are historic wonders on a scale and of an age rarely seen.

 

Archaeology and Geology

As far back as the 19th century, archaeologists, historians and the public referred to the period of human history that predated metal tools as the Stone Age. The people who lived during this time were frequently depicted as the crude, dirty and slow-witted predecessors of the enlightened and cultured Western Europeans who “discovered” them. This was mythology.

In part, the term Stone Age, or the more sophisticated but still inaccurate terms Paleolithic (Old Stone) and Neolithic (New Stone) periods, are a product of the inexorable passage of centuries. The technology of people who lived before written languages was replete with complex and sophisticated objects, tools and weapons made of wood, antler, bone, ivory, leather, bark, sinew, shell, and other organic and ephemeral raw materials. The process of decay has left modern people with stone tools as nearly the only surviving evidence of millennia of human innovation, technology and interaction with the world. Everything else has to be inferred from archaeological evidence, oral traditions, and experimental and ethnographic observations. Those inferences have given us a much richer and more complete picture of ancient people and dispelled any idea that they were less clever or lived lives less consequential than their modern descendants.

Native Americans of about 8,400 years ago in this rendering create tools by flintknapping. The State Museum of Pennsylvania / Illustration by Nancy Bishop

Native Americans of about 8,400 years ago in this rendering create tools by flintknapping.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania / Illustration by Nancy Bishop

That said, an important part of their story begins with their tool stone quarries. Careful study of quarries and the tools that came from them have helped Pennsylvania archaeologists weave together parts of the remarkable fabric of Native American history and culture across the Middle Atlantic region.

The intersection of archaeology and geology known as geoarchaeology has provided some significant information and large-scale inferences about the people who used these quarries. Samples of tool stone can be subjected to an analytical technique known as spectrometry, which identifies the various trace elements present in the stone and the proportions of each. As it happens, these chemical signatures are frequently quite specific to individual sources of tool stone. This makes it possible to identify the origins of samples of tool stone found hundreds of miles from their sources. For example, Lehigh Valley and Nittany Valley jasper can be readily differentiated from each other using this technique.

South Mountain metarhyolite flakes and tools have been found at thousands of archaeological sites in the eastern United States, some as far away from the quarries as the Ohio Valley and southern New England. Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) geoarchaeologist Lara Homsey-Messer and colleagues from Shippensburg University and Juniata College have been working on a refinement to spectrographic analysis that might result in even more fine-grained data. Lara told me that her team is using a spectrometer that employs X-ray florescence (XRF) to measure trace elements: “XRF is great because it’s completely nondestructive.” That means it can be used to gather data from artifacts without damaging or altering them in any way. She explained that “the hope is to turn this into a citizen-science initiative and work with landowners and collectors as well as museums” to gather XRF data from a wide range of sites across the Middle Atlantic region. The current XRF technology lacks the sensitivity to provide complete trace-element data, but new, more sensitive versions are now available. When they come online it may be possible to trace metarhyolite samples directly to specific clusters of quarry pits. This would facilitate the rather precise reconstruction of the ancient routes of travel and exchange and the complicated regional interactions that attended the metarhyolite trade in the eastern United States.

While geoarchaeology can shed a lot of light on regional-scale questions, the work of modern flintknappers and experimental archaeology can bring some focus to smaller scale issues like exactly how specific sites were used at specific times.

 

What the Rocks Say

The mountain of flakes visible at some quarry sites can appear chaotic, and the prospect of a detailed analysis seems impossible to complete in a lifetime. But looks can be deceiving.

The flintknapper’s art proceeds through an orderly and precise series of stages. This begins with primary reduction, the rough work of extracting workable pieces from the bedrock and trimming away the cortex, or weathered outer rind, from the outer surfaces of the stone, typically employing large and heavy hammerstones. Following that, in secondary or middle-stage reduction, the rough pieces, termed cores, are carefully and methodically reduced with smaller hammerstones or antler, bone or hardwood batons to thin oval or oblong shapes worked on both sides, known as bifaces, blanks or preforms. Finally, in tertiary or final reduction, these objects are further thinned and shaped with smaller batons and even with simple pressure from antler tips into finished tools such as weapon points, knives, scrapers, awls, gouges and a variety of other tools that, in their metal forms, would be familiar to any modern carpenter, leather worker or outdoors person.

 

The stages of basic flintknapping, from quarrying to final production. The State Museum of Pennsylvania / Drawings by Jonathan Frazier

The stages of basic flintknapping, from quarrying to final production.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania / Drawings by Jonathan Frazier

Each of these successive stages of work produces enormous amounts of waste — piles of complete and broken flakes and shattered stone termed debitage, a word borrowed from 20th-century French archaeologists. The debitage produced by each stage has some distinguishing and distinctive features. In general, the flakes get smaller and thinner as the process proceeds, and certain aspects of their morphology change as well. A skilled archaeologist armed with the knowledge imparted by working with a flintknapper, or by becoming one, can look at a pile of flakes and see more order than entropy. As Susanne Haney observed when we discussed it, “knapping . . . gives you a first-hand experience that puts you in the mind of [a] person from the past.”

The flakes recovered from sites become like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. If enough of them are recovered and subjected to thoughtful analysis, a picture of life in the past begins to resolve itself. For example, in 2017, during the excavation of a Native American site in Centre County called the James W. Hatch Site, a project necessitated by the planned construction of a new bicycle trail near Penn State University’s campus, the debitage from the site was compared to that recovered from a jasper quarry a quarter mile away. The material at the quarry, located on a gentle hill slope, was large-sized and rough with weathered cortex and thick and blocky in shape. Large hammerstones were found there. The flakes at the Hatch Site, along the banks of a nearby stream, were smaller, thinner, detached at shallower angles, and lacking cortex. No hammerstones were found there at all. As the data from these two sites were compared, the events that created them and the relationship between them became clear.

Flakes removed from this metarhyolite core to create a tool fit together like a puzzle. Photo, PHMC

Flakes removed from this metarhyolite core to create a tool fit together like a puzzle.
Photo, PHMC

For thousands of years, Native Americans visited the quarry, located and extracted jasper nodules from a limestone outcrop, and conducted all the rough work right there at the quarry. They then took the jasper cores they produced at the quarry downhill to a comfortable streamside camp at the Hatch Site. There, sitting by small campfires and working with antler, bone or wood tools, they reduced the cores into bifaces and into finished tools, refurbishing their toolkits. They also disposed of worn and broken tools, often made of material other than jasper, tools that archaeologists would later recover.

And that’s not all we know about what they did at the Hatch Site. The jasper flakes and discarded tools had more tales to tell. The working edges of stone tools can sometimes be cleaned or coated with various materials and examined with high-power optical or scanning electron microscopes. This reveals distinctive wear and polish that comes from their use. As it happens, the wear patterns resulting from some activities look a lot different than those resulting from others. This microwear analysis revealed that activities ranging from woodwork to hide tanning to food preparation took place at the Hatch Site. The pulse of day-to-day life at the site extended beyond simply manufacturing tools. The site was, for millennia, a regularly visited place where food was gathered and prepared, where a variety of mundane but important tasks took place, where people camped, cared for children, laughed, and talked around the fire. Although the campsite was undoubtedly used because the quarry was nearby, it was more than just a stone tool factory. It was a place where people lived.

 

Caring for the Past

Roughly 12,000 years old, this Clovis, or fluted, projectile point was manufactured from Lehigh Valley jasper. Photo, The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Roughly 12,000 years old, this Clovis, or fluted, projectile point was manufactured from Lehigh Valley jasper.
Photo, The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Tool stone quarries occur on both public and private land. Some of the Lehigh Valley jasper quarries are in a municipally owned park, and some of the Nittany Valley quarries are on Penn State University property. The metarhyolite quarries are situated on both private land and the 85,500-acre expanse of the Michaux State Forest. Wherever they are found, tool stone quarries present real management and stewardship challenges to the landowners and land managers.

Quarries have enormous scientific and heritage value. Threats to them come primarily from two sources. They are among the most visible and obvious kinds of archaeological sites. They attract people, and some of those people want to take artifacts home. In some cases, their motive is simply wonder; they are amazed by and interested in the sites and the people who used them. In other cases, it’s profit driven. There is a brisk and sometimes lucrative trade in Native American artifacts.

It’s also true that quarry sites that occur in the path of infrastructure projects or extractive industries are at great risk. Roads, construction, timber sales, mines, oil and gas extraction, and pipelines and power lines are all significant threats. Digging in and disturbing quarries in search of artifacts, or implementing infrastructure or resource extraction through quarries, damages the context they’re found in and can utterly destroy the significant scientific and historic value of these sites. To Native Americans, disturbing or damaging quarry sites can be viewed as hurtful and deeply disrespectful. These competing interests all complicate the management of these sites.

These interests are currently being addressed in all their complexity at the metarhyolite quarries on the Michaux State Forest. The Michaux is one of a network of state forests managed by the Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR) Bureau of Forestry. The stewardship responsibility for the metarhyolite quarries falls on District Forester Roy Brubaker and his staff. He is advised and assisted in this responsibility by a network of archaeologists and earth scientists from IUP, Shippensburg University and the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, as well as volunteers from the nonprofit Friends of Michaux State Forest. The collaborative approach they’re developing is a model for managing similar tool stone quarries on public lands.

The threats to the quarries on Michaux State Forest include some from infrastructure and resource extraction. The Michaux is a working forest with an active timber program and an extensive network of gravel roads that require maintenance and care. By far, however, the greatest threats to the metarhyolite quarries come from generations of unauthorized digging and artifact collecting. Roy’s approach to stewardship addresses both sources of threats using a variety of tools and resources and the help of his university, agency and nonprofit partners. In some ways, the easiest threats to address are from resource extraction and infrastructure. By working with geoscientists and archaeologists, the Michaux State Forest is engaged in carefully mapping the locations of quarries and potential quarries. As Roy noted when I talked with him about it, “We can’t protect these things if we don’t know where they are.” As the mapping has progressed, it has made it possible to better design timber sales, road improvements, and oher projects to avoid sensitive locations.

Attacking the problem of unauthorized digging is more complex. Unauthorized removal of artifacts from commowealth-owned land is a violation of state law. Law enforcement rangers from DCNR are engaged in monitoring and patrolling certain locations to catch some of the looters in the act. Volunteer site monitors have begun to spread out and regularly visit locations where sites have been looted to record their condition and look for signs of new digging. Although enforcement is certainly part of the solution, an even bigger part is education and outreach.

 

Students carefully exposing a stone tool workshop at the James W. Hatch Site in 2017. Photo, Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Students carefully exposing a stone tool workshop at the James W. Hatch Site in 2017.
Photo, Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

To help enlighten forest visitors, interpretive signs are going up at some specific locations that explain the significance of the quarry sites, encourage visitors to respect these special places if they encounter them, and to report any signs of unauthorized excavation. Other signs are being erected near some quarry sites to inform and remind visitors that unauthorized digging or the removal of artifacts are illegal activities. There are also plans to reach out to the community and the region with presentations and online content to explain the importance and value of these special places and the need to keep them safe.

That public outreach will emphasize the value and significance of heritage and stewardship on a macroscale. Ross Owen, a young archaeologist currently working in California, wrote his 2018 master’s thesis at IUP on the management of the quarries. He argued for thinking about and managing the quarries in broad context as part of a large historic landscape. South Mountain was an early and prolific center of iron production since the iron ore, timber for charcoal, and limestone for flux were all available in great abundance. That extractive use of natural resources actually began in pre-European times with metarhyolite extraction, and it’s this heritage of resource extraction that binds the region’s entire land use history together. The evidence is everywhere and includes Native American quarries and workshops, charcoal hearths and colliers’ huts, the ruins of iron furnaces, and miles of abandoned tote roads and trails. As Ross noted when I talked with him, “Thinking about the region as a historic landscape allows . . . [managers and visitors] to see all the historic resources and what connects them, rather than seeing . . . [quarries] as distinct things.”

 

First People

Sid Jamieson discusses Haudenosaunee culture as he explores the metarhyolite quarries. Photo, PHMC

Sid Jamieson discusses Haudenosaunee culture as he explores the metarhyolite quarries.
Photo, PHMC

This landscape is managed by a public agency for all the commonwealth’s citizens, but in a deeply personal and visceral way it belongs to the descendants of the people who discovered the metarhyolite. The role it played in their lives is only partly understood. When I talked to Joe Watkins, the past president of the Society for American Archaeology and a member of the Choctaw Tribe, he told me that quarries everywhere may have had an important social function largely invisible in the archaeological record. “Since people from multiple tribes and territories may have visited the quarry, quarries likely became important meeting places. You may have bumped into people you rarely saw and exchanged news, traded and otherwise interacted.” In this way, quarry landscapes may have played an outsized role in the exchange of goods, news and ideas.

Susanne Haney noted that quarries may have played a significant part in the education and training of young people: “It appears as though those who were learning to flintknapp did so at or very near quarry locations, which makes sense, since you didn’t want a novice to go through all your available material far from [the source]. We know this because we see more flakes and bifaces with errors near quarries than we typically see at sites far from quarries.” So, quarry landscapes may also have been pre-European technical schools of a sort. As it happens, they continue to be places where modern people can learn something important.

On a gentle spring afternoon, I walked down an old trail through the forest to look at some of the metarhyolite quarries in the company of Sid Jamieson. Sid coached the Bucknell University lacrosse team from 1968 to 2005, leading the Bison to a national championship in 2001. He was the only Native American head coach in the history of NCAA Division I lacrosse. Sid’s family is Cayuga, one of the six Native American nations that form the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy. Now retired and still living in Lewisburg, teaching remains in his blood. He spends a lot of time doing presentations for university students and the public throughout the region on the remarkable history, culture and political organization of the Haudenosaunee. Sid was interested in visiting the quarries as a place of some significance to his ancestors, and for my part, I was hoping he could help me find the words to explain that significance to people whose ancestors came from somewhere else.

Before long we found the first signs of unauthorized digging. There were patches of freshly turned soil here and there and piles of flakes and broken blanks in various stages of manufacture. Sid shook his head: “So disrespectful.”

Disturbing a place of so much significance and of such accomplishment to generations of native people for millennia is sacrilegious in the same way that defacing a house of worship or a center of learning might be. We wondered at people’s motivations. The rarity of finished and potentially valuable objects at quarries caused us to ascribe it mostly to simple curiosity. But unfocused curiosity can be harmful. As Sid observed on the drive in, “You know, you don’t necessarily have to know or explain everything. You can still respect things that you don’t completely understand.”

We talked about what likely happened to the things people took home from the quarries. I ventured that “people probably take these things home as curiosities to show their kids.”

Sid finished the thought, “And they sit on a shelf somewhere, and then when the owner passes away, the family doesn’t know what to do with them, and they wind up in a landfill. Such a shame.”

As we talked about what the solutions might be, we kept coming back to education. So much of the destruction and damage we see in this world comes from ignorance and unfamiliarity. With knowledge comes understanding and with understanding, grace. Visitors to the quarries should understand that they are walking in a landscape of great importance that deserves their respect and forbearance. A place that preserves the long record of humanity’s dependance on the things the earth provides us. They can learn some of that lesson from archaeologists, historians, geologists and land managers, but the story really begins with the descendants of the First People to visit these places.

On the hike back out to the car, I asked Sid if he’d be willing to be one of the voices that helps to tell that story. We paused on the trail, and he smiled at me and said, “I’m sure you could talk me into it!”

 

Further Reading

Baker, Joe, Katherine Peresolak and Jonathan Burns. The James Hatch Site (36CE0544): A Native American Stone Tool Workshop in Centre County, Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, 2021. / Callahan, Errett. The Basics of Biface Knapping in the Eastern Fluted Point Tradition: A Manual for Flintknappers and Lithic Analysts. 5th ed. Milwaukie OR: Thunderstones, 2013. / Carr, Kurt W., and Roger W. Moeller. First Pennsylvanians: The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, 2015.

 

Joe Baker is an archaeologist, writer and editor. His previous articles for Pennsylvania Heritage include “High on a Mountain: Pennsylvania’s Legacy of Country Music” (Winter 2020), “Backcast: Pennsylvania’s Legacy of Split Cane Fly Rods” (Spring 2019) and “Digging Deep: 50 Years of Preservation Archaeology in Pennsylvania” (Fall 2016).