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VCU Archaeology

Summer Travels II: Monongahela Villages and the Birthplace of George Washington

by Dr. Bernard K. Means, director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory

Mural in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, focusing on the Maple Industry.

Mural in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, focusing on the maple Industry.

Last week I traveled to two locations located far apart in time and space, but linked through our activities in the Virtual Curation Laboratory. On Tuesday, July 28, 2013, I made the long journey from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to Somerset, Pennsylvania, winding my way largely along back roads through Virginia and West Virginia, before hitting U.S. 68 in Maryland, and, after crossing through Cumberland, turning north on U.S. 219 to cross into Pennsylvania.  I stopped first in Meyersdale before going on to Somerset. Meyersdale played an important role not only historically, as the center of an industry focused on maple syrup production, but also some key archaeology was conducted here in the 1930s, 1970s, and 1990s.

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Outside the Somerset Historical Center.

My ultimate goal was to give a public  talk at the  Somerset Historical Center about how technology has transformed our understanding of the Monongahela Tradition.  The Monongahela Tradition has been defined by archaeologists to describe American Indians who lived in southwestern Pennsylvania from about 1100 A.D. to the early 1600s A.D., and who are know for living in ring-shaped village sites. This archaeological construct was initially defined based on archaeological investigations conducted throughout Somerset County, Pennsylvania, as work relief projects in the 1930s. Details on this work can be found here.

Monongahela house model.

Monongahela house model.

As part of their mission, the Somerset Historical Center interprets farm-life through the ages, including the first farmers in this region, the people of the Monongahela Tradition.  They have a very nice exhibit that discusses Monongahela life, based on archaeological investigations from the 1930s to the 1990s, but especially the 1970s work at the Gnagey No. 3 village site near Meyersdale, and the cultural resource management archaeology that took place also in Meyersdale in the 1990s.

My talk, which was actually well received, discussed two forms of technology that have changed our view of the Monongahela: radiocarbon dating and virtual curation. Radiocarbon dating that I undertook as part of my dissertation research showed that the villagers lived in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, from about 1100 A.D. to 1530 A.D., as opposed to 900 A.D. to  1250 A.D., as had been previously thought.  Virtual curation is a much newer technology, and is only now beginning to transform the way we think about the Monongahela Tradition, and other archaeological cultures.

Holding a chunkey stone recovered from the Fort Hill village site, inhabited by the Monongahela in the 13th century A.D.

Holding a chunkey stone recovered from the Fort Hill village site, inhabited by the Monongahela in the 13th century A.D.

The 60 or so people that showed up to the lecture were interested in what radiocarbon dating could tell us about the Monongahela Tradition, but were even more interested in the plastic replicas of Monongahela Tradition artifacts I brought with me.  Although I showed them animated digital models as part of my lecture, it was the plastic replicas that grabbed their attention. After all, they could come up and freely handle the replicas —something they could not do with the actual objects.  Most of the plastic replica Monongahela artifacts that I had were from New Deal-excavated sites, although there were also some from other sites, such as the Consol village site in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. I plan to return another time to the Somerset Historical Center to scan some of the objects in their collection related to the Monongahela culture.

Two days after the lecture on the Monongahela Tradition I took the back roads of Virginia to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. This time, I was with the VCU students taking my field archaeology class, and details on that excursion are available here. While there, we did present National Park Service archaeologist Amy Muraca with a plastic replica of a wine bottle seal we had scanned from her site, which has the initials “AW” for Augustine Washington, who was George Washington’s father.

Ashley McCuistion holds the actual wine bottle seal (left) that she helped scan, as well as its plastic replica (right).

Ashley McCuistion holds the actual wine bottle seal (left) that she helped scan, as well as its plastic replica (right).

Digital model of wine bottle seal.

Digital model of wine bottle seal.

We also showed Amy Muraca a plastic replica of a historic smoking pipe that we scanned from this site.

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Actual pipe (left) and replica pipe (right).

We plan on returning at a future date to laser scan additional artifacts from this important site.

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