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PennDOT Archeologist Connects Past, Present, and Future

April 10, 2024 08:00 AM
By: Steve Harmic

​Just as many people may only think of plow trucks on winter roads when they think of PennDOT, many may only conjure images of mummies and lost temples when they picture an archeologist. Scott Shaffer, a Penn DOT archeologist for Clearfield-based District 2 and Montoursville-based District 3, does work that brings highways and history together in a representation that is much closer to reality, and arguably even more interesting.

“Most people don't know we do this," Shaffer said.  “But archeology is underground, and we are required by federal law and the state historical code to investigate any activity that may cause a disturbance to a significant historic or precontact site."

Shaffer explained that the construction of new highways and bridges can often be planned for areas inhabited in the past by historic or culturally significant people. To understand how, and to what extent, preservation measures on these sites should be implemented, Shaffer and outside consultants, coordinating with representatives from 16 Native American tribes, will often be among the first people on a site that is slated for future construction. They'll begin with small excavations, probing for artifacts or the existence of past activity, ramping up or halting excavation efforts depending on what is uncovered.

“Significant Native American sites are something that could reroute a project. We are at a point on the state and federal level where we will avoid certain sites, and that's how it should be," Shaffer explained.

Other sites may call for a mass collection of artifacts before transportation projects move through.  This preserves the artifacts that may otherwise have never been discovered, as well as the stories they tell. One such project is currently happening in the city of St. Marys in Elk County, that Shaffer said is the largest archeological operation undertaken in District 2 in a decade.   

“At the location of the Route 120 connector project in St. Marys, we uncovered a site occupied by a family of one of the earlier European settlers to come to the area. It dates back to the mid-19th century, and was inhabited by a Bavarian Catholic family. We've found close to 20,000 artifacts, many of which haven't been touched since the 1850s."

The discoveries include everything from a rare solid silver double-eagle coin dated “1844", to children's toys, clay smoking pipes, tableware, jewelry, buckles, buttons, building foundations, and a stone oven once used by early settlers for baking. Most artifacts will end up on public display in museums or other locations yet to be determined, for members of the public to learn from and enjoy.

“This is important because it's intact, undisturbed. Nobody has done historic period archeology near St. Marys on groups like European-Americans. St. Marys is still largely a catholic strong hold. This is their history. What can we learn about the family that lived here; their way of life?"

Shaffer said the people of St. Marys are eager to learn what lies beneath the surface in their city. He shared, “It's their history. It's important for people to learn their own history, and people in St. Marys recognize that."

Shaffer said once collection and cataloguing of artifacts from the St. Marys dig is complete, a public website will be launched detailing the excavations and artifacts, and a public lecture will be planned on the subject.   

Schaffer is working with archeologists from civil engineering firm McCormick Taylor's Harrisburg location on the St. Marys project.

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