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Dauphin County projectile point collection dates to the Ice Age

June 14, 2016

Filed under Archaeology Collections, Collections, Exhibits, Pennsylvania Icons, Pennsylvania Treasures

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Fluted points are the hallmark artifact of the Paleoindian period

This fluted projectile point collection from the Shoop archaeological site in Dauphin County includes some of the oldest artifacts kept by The State Museum’s Section of Archaeology.

This week’s Pennsylvania Treasure is the fluted projectile point collection from the Shoop archaeological site in Dauphin County. These artifacts, some of the oldest in the collections kept by The State Museum’s Section of Archaeology, hail from a site that made a significant contribution to our understanding of past cultural behavior in the Eastern United States.

Two fluted points from this collection, pictured above, are on display in Pennsylvania Icons at The State Museum.

Fluted projectile points are lanceolate in shape, averaging 4-to-8 centimeters long with a flute or groove extending from the base to nearly the entire length of the point. Fluted points are the hallmark artifact of the Paleoindian period and, arguably, the most difficult stone artifact ever to be made in North America. Dating to between 13,100 to 12,150 years ago, the points are unique to this time period and are only found in North America. The Paleoindian period dates to the Pleistocene or Ice Age. Although the glaciers had melted north into Canada by this period, average temperatures in Pennsylvania were 10 degrees colder than present and the commonwealth was covered by an open spruce/pine forest with only small stands of deciduous trees compared to the mixed oak forest found today.

Assisted by Sam Farver, John Witthoft, who was then Pennsylvanian’s State Archaeologist, investigated the Shoop site in the early 1950s. Covering roughly 35 acres, the area remains one of the largest Paleoindian sites in the commonwealth. Farver and Witthoft collected hundreds of stone tools, including fluted points and hide scraping tools.

Published in 1952, Witthoft’s analysis represents one of the first reports on a Paleoindian site in eastern North America. He identified the stone used to make 98 percent of these tools as Onondaga chert. The nearest source of Onondaga chert is western New York, 250 miles to the north of the Shoop site. Accordingly, Witthoft argued that the inhabitants of the Shoop site came from that region. As part of his hypothesis, he noted that the spear points and other tools were all re-sharpened several times because they are so far from the bedrock source. Interestingly, one of the points in this photograph (top row, right) is not Onondaga chert and comes from the Hudson Valley in eastern New York, which is also approximately 250 miles from the bedrock source.

No food remains were found, but it is difficult to attribute the high number of spear points and hide scraping tools on a ridge top setting to anything other than hunting. Witthoft speculated that this site was an overlook for the hunting of big game animals and was visited on an annual basis. Witthoft essentially established a model that characterized Paleoindians as big game hunters at the end of the Ice Age who followed migratory game over long distances and camped on ridge tops. In the 1980s, it became apparent that most Paleoindian sites in Pennsylvania do not fit this model as most sites are small and are found in river valleys. However, there are several sites in New England similar to Shoop suggesting that this site represents the southern extension of a caribou hunting tradition that existed at the end of the Ice Age. As it turns out, much of Witthoft’s original hypothesis holds true even after 60 years of research.

This Pennsylvania Treasure was written by Dr. Kurt Carr, Senior Curator of Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.


About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission houses artifacts hailing from all eras of the commonwealth’s past. These objects represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. PHMC curators continue to research the stories behind many of these rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.