Digging for artifacts

Thousands of motorists pass every day on 17th Street and Valley View Boulevard, listening to their sports and oldies stations, intent on reaching doctors’ appointments on time, filling grocery lists and picking up kids – unaware of the real oldies stuff buried nearby.

Archeologists working as recently as Friday just a few hundred feet from the asphalt and concrete of one of the area’s busiest intersections have unearthed flakes of flintlike rock, the byproduct of primitive toolmaking there by native American hunter-gatherers 500 to thousands of years ago.

Hidden by scrappy woods and a couple professional office buildings, the dig was required by law before the Altoona Water Authority can begin construction of a pump station for its supplementary Pleasant Valley sewer line to eliminate wet-weather overflows.

“The law reflects the sense that the past is important,” said Paul Raber of Heberling Associates of Alexandria, the company that conducted the dig. “That we have a heritage.”

The law is the National Historic Preservation Act, and the authority’s application for a PennWorks grant and a Pennvest loan to help pay for the $6.5-million project triggered the dig requirement, because funding from either agency would include federal money, according to Don Verobish of Gwin, Dobson & Foreman, the authority’s consulting engineer.

The law required a Phase 1 assessment of the area where construction is to take place, then, if there seemed to be potential for the findings of significant artifacts, a Phase 2 evaluation to determine if the site would be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The main criterion for eligibility is a finding that contributes significantly to the general knowledge of the past – a requirement that could mean dating the site to a specific period of prehistory or connecting it to significant people, events or trends in American history, according to Heberling’s Paul Raber, director of archeological services, and Staci Spertzel Black, field director.

The work at the Authority site just south of the old McDowell Cemetery went to a Phase 2 evaluation and yielded not only the prehistoric toolmaking shards, but also pottery and other findings from a farmstead dating to the first half of the 1800s.

Still – pending lab analysis for a final decision – there was nothing likely to qualify the site for the register, according to Spertzel Black.

If the archeologists had found one of the actual tools that resulted from the chipping that produced the shards, they could have dated the site, based on toolmaking style, which would have qualified the site, she said.

But people tend not to leave behind what’s valuable, if they can help it, she said.

The chips themselves were waste materials from the fashioning of spear points, knives or projectile points, used for hunting or processing food, Spertzel Black said.

The archeologists started work on the site after identification of a small area of undisturbed virgin ground, Spertzel Black said.

The archeologists dug 20 “shovel test pits,” then nine one-meter-square “test units,” working according to state Bureau of Historic Preservation guidelines.

They discovered the prehistoric artifacts in undisturbed subsoil between 10 and 20 inches deep, reflecting the tendency in this area for non-alluvial soils to accumulate only a couple inches over thousands of years, Spertzel Black said.

The archeologists dug carefully, in horizontal layers of 10 centimeters, keeping track of what came from how deep, screening everything down to a quarter-inch to uncover artifacts.

They dig until they stop finding artifacts, Spertzel Black said.

The archeologists found “pearlware” ceramics near Pleasant Valley Boulevard at the farmstead site, according to Spertzel Black.

The company is doing historical research in hopes of relating those findings to an actual family, which might be connected with the McDowell cemetery, she said.

The company will make a final report and submit it to the bureau, which will endorse it – or not.

If the bureau agrees the site is not individually significant, the authority can go ahead with construction, she said.

Even if a site is historically significant, it doesn’t normally prevent construction because once the archeologists finish their excavations, they generally release it, she said.

Even though the Pleasant Valley site is unlikely to be an individually significant one, the artifacts and information it has yielded will become part of the overall record, according to Spertzel Black.

It’s “plotted on a giant map,” and as such has at least the potential to contribute to some major finding, to become part of the answer to a question that may not have been asked yet, she said.

It would have been “awesome” to be part of uncovering artifacts that were obviously and immediately significant, though, said Jared Smith, a Roaring Spring native who was doing the actual digging Friday for Heberling’s.

Spertzel Black has had that pleasure, having worked on a site in Tipton that was dated to the late woodland period, about 1,000 years ago.

Washington County is host to one of the oldest and most significant archeological sites in the Americas, Meadowcroft Rockshelter, which was occupied as early as 15,000 to 18,000 years ago, about the time of the beginnings of human settlement in the Americas, according to Spertzel Black.

Many young people nowadays think in terms of decades, when they think of history, according to Raber.

They tend to be “blown away” when they are confronted with evidence that people lived in the area 16,000 years ago, he said.

It’s still debated whether the first humans entered the Americas across the Bering Strait or across the North Atlantic, shrunk due to the ice age, in boats, according to Raber and Spertzel Black.

Sixteen thousand years sounds like a long time, but it’s really just a moment in the whole of human history.

What is even more shallow is our settled way of life, Raber said.

That began only about 6,000 years ago, in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, with the cultivation of crops, raising of animals and complex political arrangements, he said.

Far deeper – “99 percent of history – was the “hunter-gatherer” mode of life represented by the flakes found in Pleasant Valley.

People tend to think of that way of life as a “failure,” he said. That’s a mistake, because when hunter-gatherer societies have limited their population growth, they can last thousands of years, he said.

Those societies tended to be “egalitarian,” with emphasis on cooperation, minimal conflict, lots of exercise and a higher level of nutrition than for those in early agrarian societies, he said.

The shards of flint found near the busy intersection were tiny and individually, perhaps of little significance, but they connect us with something much bigger.

It’s all about making us “stop and think,” Raber said.