Dig at Indiana County ghost town unearths prehistoric past | TribLIVE.com
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Jeff Himler

The proof, it seems, was in the dirt.

Fragments of tools and ceramic ware rested mere inches under the hillside cover where Native Americans scratched out a living until the 1820s in a village overlooking the Conemaugh River in Black Lick Township.

This summer, 17 Indiana University of Pennsylvania archaeology students dug and sifted their way a few inches below the remains of that southern Indiana County river town and uncovered thousands of years of earlier Native American history.

They unearthed a few hundred artifacts where the village of Newport once stood. In addition to ceramic ware that may have been sold at the community’s combined post office and store, they discovered stone fragments that represent either portions of prehistoric tools or excess flakes left behind in making them.

“It tells us that people have been living on this landscape for a long, long time,” said IUP anthropology professor Ben Ford, one of the team’s two faculty leaders. “We found a wide variety of chipping debris and pieces of tools and pieces of projectile points.

“Most of the stone tools are coming out of an area that is flatter and overlooks the river. It would have been a good place to camp. You could see anybody that was coming and you had access to the water.”

The newly uncovered site adds to the story of human occupation in Western Pennsylvania — a story that stretches back at least 19,000 years, to the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County.

Ohio stone shaped into tools

The IUP team pieced together three fragments of a piece of Flint Ridge chert, a type of stone originating in Ohio that many Native American tribes used to make tools. Stones with cracks in them may have been heated by Newport’s prehistoric occupants to, in turn, heat liquids, Ford said.

Excavations were completed during a six-week field course at the Newport site, located near the confluence of the Conemaugh and Black Lick Creek, on property the Army Corps of Engineers leases to the state Game Commission. Natural springs also are close at hand.

“These were things that attracted European Americans to the area and also would have brought Native Americans here for probably millennia before the Europeans showed up,” Ford said.

A press release from IUP suggested that the prehistoric Newport artifacts could date from up to 8,000 years ago, but Ford said they need to be tested and examined more closely to arrive at a probable time frame.

Army Corps to curate artifacts

“There’s a lot of things we’re going to answer down the line,” Ford said. “In a couple of months, we’ll analyze and research the material and write a report. We’ll turn the artifacts over to the Army Corps to be curated, so somebody could look at them in the future if they wanted to.”

The prehistoric artifacts found at Newport could be contemporary with some of the more recent items unearthed at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter.

Retired anthropology professor James Adovasio, who led the initial excavation of the Meadowcroft site in the 1970s and continues as lead archaeologist at the National Historic Landmark, said the IUP finds likely “post-date the first folks who were here but encompass a time when you have population growth in the direction of settled village life.

“About 3,000 years ago, you begin to see real transformations of Native American societies. They become more numerous and more settled. They start living in more residential communities and begin to resemble what they were like when Europeans arrived and described them.”

Adovasio spent most of his academic career at the University of Pittsburgh and Mercyhurst University in Erie. In more recent years, he has been involved in excavations at the prehistoric Old Vero Ice Age Site in Indian River County, Fla. He said studies there indicate human activity as early as 7,000 years ago. He believes humans might have been at other sites in the area as early as 15,000 years ago, but he said more work must be done to establish a prehistoric record.

Region rich in excavation sites

In contrast, Adovasio said, much more is known about prehistoric activity in Western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley, largely because of extensive excavations and research that have been completed by area universities and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

That activity has been “pretty continuous,” said Amy L. Covell-Murthy, archaeology collection manager at the Carnegie Museum. “There are a lot of sites. Meadowcroft is the oldest that is carbon-dated.

“From around 1000 to 1500 A.D. is the Late Woodland Era,” Covell-Murthy said. “That’s when distinct cultures lived around Pennsylvania’s three major river systems — the Delaware, the Susquehanna and the Allegheny-Ohio.”

While discoveries of prehistoric human remains are rare anywhere in the world, Adovasio said, the Meadowcroft excavations have yielded remains of more than 900,000 animals — including species that are still in existence locally and others that aren’t.

One of the puzzles still to be solved regarding the region’s prehistoric period, he said, are the factors that contributed to the demise about 10,500 years ago of Ice Age animals such as saber-tooth cats, giant bears and mastodons in favor of species like white-tailed deer that have continued to thrive into modern times.

About a third of the Meadowcroft site has been left untouched, but officials don’t expect they would find any additional artifacts older than 19,000 years since completed excavations have penetrated down to shale bedrock, said site director Dave Scofield.

The excavations have been “intentionally left incomplete because archaeology is a destructive science,” he said. “You destroy the site as you work on it.”

With advances in technology, he noted, undisturbed areas of the site may yield more valuable information through less invasive techniques.

New technology, in fact, soon will be used at Meadowcroft. Advovasio noted a researcher from the University of Oxford is slated to search for human DNA in the soil deposits there.

“There will be markers whereby we can distinguish aboriginal DNA from our own,” he said.

‘Faded away’

Ford has assisted with research at Historic Hanna’s Town, the first seat of government in Westmoreland County. He noted Newport was settled a generation later, in 1787, as a transportation stop where passengers and freight transitioned from the early Frankstown Road to the Conemaugh, riding waterways downstream to the Allegheny and Ohio rivers.

At its height, he said, the town was populated by about 30 families, and it had developed blacksmith shops, taverns, a hotel and a boat-building industry.

But, Ford explained, just upstream on the Conemaugh, Blairsville had more flat land for development and was the spot chosen for the routes of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal and later rail lines.

“The transportation network changed,” Ford said. “Blairsville became the hub and Newport faded away.”

Ford hopes to renew a permit with the Army Corps so a new team of IUP archaeology students can continue examining the Newport site two years from now.

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