Professor: Excavation of American Indian village points to advanced society
Jewelry fashioned by Native Americans who cut pieces of kettle straps and used the ornaments to weave into clothing as fringe were not the stuff of a primitive culture on the decline.
Instead, these objects and others – found through archaeological pursuit of a long-lost multinational Indian village near the mouth of the Loyalsock Creek – reveal an advanced society, one that traded regularly, intermingled and used what Europeans provided in fur, clothing and metal to enhance their own lives.
That was one of the main points made Saturday by Mary Ann Levine, associate professor of anthropology at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. She revealed clues about her discoveries at Otstonwakin, a multinational Indian woodland village near the mouth of the Loyalsock Creek, site of an archived dig since 2006.
An enraptured audience packed the Thomas Taber Museum, 858 W. Fourth St., to listen to Levine’s presentation. At times, it was spellbound as Levine presented a slideshow of artifacts found at the village once inhabited by “Madame” Catherine Montour, the famous interpreter and frontier diplomat who helped preserve the Long Peace established by William Penn.
Levine showed dozens of examples of the artifacts and clothing and their meaning, which she claimed didn’t distance but rather drew a closer bond between the natives and European society and settlers.
The natives selectively modified trade items – such as brass kettles – to make something more meaningful to their culture, she explained.
For example, a thimble became a part of a garment, a brass saw-toothed object likely was used to crimp hair, and tiny lead pieces probably were part of a brooch.
More evidence of a society that was not backward or declining but thriving and trading with multinational cultures and Europeans was depicted in an image of Montour’s son, Andrew, seen dressed and looking dapper in britches, neckerchief, stockings, shoes and a hat. The only semblance of his native culture face paint.
Evidence of the village’s location first surfaced when bead rings and skeletal remains were found in 1907, she said.
The village had been listed on maps, one of which was dated 1749. It was a waterway junction rivertown and on the Great Shamokin Path along the Susquehanna River.
One of the discoveries Levine spent time on was fabric that made up a coat of fine blue wool that was believed to be on a 10-year-old boy buried at the site. The discovery of the fabric was made in the 1930s at a cemetery excavated at the JT Roberts property that was torn down by the state to construct a highway,
The fabric on the boy’s coat of fine wool included decorative brass braids. Analysis of the fabric was done at another university in Ohio.
Closer examination shows brown sewing thread of silk fiber joining the seams and attached metal wrapped as trim holding it and the seams together.
“It’s very possible it is lapels of a waistcoat the boy was buried in,” she said.
The pieces of fabric identify the importance of early trade in textiles and one of the least known aspects of early European and Indian trade.
Trade of clothing played a part in negotiations and diplomacy, she explained.
The fragile peace, established at the colony’s founding in 1681, was accomplished largely through frontier diplomats such as Montour, who was able to speak several languages and traveled to places such as Philadelphia.
While in that city in 1727, Montour was paid for her service as a skilled translator and intermediary – with clothing, such as a shirt and matching coat.
The river town also was not a singular place but rather a dispersed settlement that spread out for miles.
It may have consisted of log cabins built in clusters separated by cornfields. One tiny hamlet after another may have made up the river towns, she explained.
In fact, before smallpox wiped out most of the population, one town was Oneida, but other Indians arrived and traded. It was not a walled or fortified place.
Archaeological pursuit by Levine and her students recovered brass finger rings, glass trade beads and other forms of jewelry.
Levine said her passion for Otstonwakin began with her attention and study of Montour Falls, N.Y., also known as “Catherine’s Town,” from where she was introduced to one of Catherine’s relatives, “Madame Montour.”
Since 2006, Levine said she and an “army of students” have rediscovered Montour’s village, revealing significant artifacts, and the discoveries keep coming.
Colonial lifestyle can be reconstructed by examining the artifacts recovered at the village and by studying the life one of the most significant women translators and frontier diplomats of her time.
Levine credited her ability to discover the site as happening with the assistance of local archaeologist James Bressler, whom, she said, provided 50 years of experience and knowledge. She also thanked her “army of students in the laboratory, field and archives and hospitality of the people of Williamsport, Montoursville and the museum staff.
Levine was introduced by Tank Baird, president of the Northcentral Chapter 8 Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, who said the discovery and work by the professor and her team is among the nation’s most significant in terms of early 18th century Native American and European interaction.
For her part, Levine doesn’t appear to want to leave Otstonwakin any time soon.
“It’s my home away from home,” she said.