When Dr. John Nass led students to a new archaeological field
school site in 2009, he didn’t realize they would be uncovering a mystery.
“Some people thought it had been a Civil War fort, and others thought it could have been a historic cattle pen or an early settlers’ fort,” says Nass, an archaeology professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Society at Cal U.
“We were not sure what we were getting into.”
Once owned by a Catholic priest, the Father Angel site is nestled along Ten-Mile Creek, near the small community of Old Zollarsville Fort in Washington County, Pa.
With a natural creek bordering one side, the land sits nearly 40 feet above any surrounding formation and is fortified with an earthen wall.
“I thought the site would be interesting to study, because it is so rare to find an earthwork formation,” Nass says. Native Americans used earthen walls for defense, but the structures aren’t typically found in this region. Nass says he knows of no similar sites in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Alumnus Doug Sahady ’93 recommended the site to Nass in 2008. Sahady, now an archaeology instructor at West Virginia University, suggested that Cal U and WVU hold a joint field school at the site.
Uncovering the past
Cal U has been using field schools to give students firsthand experience in archaeological field methods since the late 1960s.
Students prepare sites for digs, excavate them, process and classify artifacts, and give presentations about their research.
“The best part of field school is not only learning the many techniques to apply to archaeology, but also getting to play in the dirt all day with people who become your close friends,” says Lindsey Space, a senior archaeology major.
“It was a wonderful learning experience that was well worth a month out of my summer.”
The field school participants document their findings, and Nass takes photographs each summer to use as teaching aids.
“The slides are helpful, but they aren’t the same as having experience in the field,” he says. “If students have already participated in a field school, they can relate better to the material we are covering in advanced archaeology classes.”
Nass has directed field schools at four other Pennsylvania sites: the Sorn site in East Millsboro, the Red Stone Old Fort in Brownsville, the Jones site in Greensboro and the Pitt Gas Mound in Pitt Gas.
None of his previous digs was as puzzling as the Father Angel site, he says.
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Cal U students excavate a portion of the Father Angel site near Old Zollarsville Fort in Washington County, Pa.
45 Students from Cal U and WVU began excavations in 2009.
They soon ruled out the notion that the site had been a Civil War-era fort.
Other historical connections were dismissed, “leaving us with two possible functions,” Nass explains.
“We were able to determine it was either a prehistoric fortified village or a ceremonial site for religious purposes.”
If the site was indeed a fortified village, Nass believes it was occupied during the period known as the Late Prehistoric Era, roughly between 1000-1580 A.D.
Although he usually organizes a field school every other year, Nass led students back to the Father Angel property in 2010. The students again joined WVU students at the site.
Excavations revealed little, however.
The archaeology students recovered only a few arrowheads and some “debitage,” or fragments from the creation of chipped stone tools.
Still, the lack of artifacts was itself another clue to the site’s past.
“We are pretty close to eliminating (the notion) that it was a fortified village site,” says Nass. “If we were looking at a fortified village, we would tend to see the outlines of houses and all manner of things.”
Hoping to provide a more fulfilling educational experience for his students in the upcoming summer field school, Nass has submitted a proposal to conduct magnetometry mapping of the Father Angel site.
Magnetometry measures and maps subtle changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. Activities such as burning, or even digging, leave evidence that can be found using this technique.
“We want to use specialized equipment to completely map the extent of the earthwork and the parts of the land that we cannot see,” explains Nass.
He believes that only one-fifth of the earthwork is visible. Time and weather likely have buried the rest.
He also hopes that the magnetometry mapping will reveal areas that may contain artifacts.
One last look
Targeting these spots for digging will be a key component of this summer’s joint Cal U and WVU field school — the final excavation at the Father Angel site.
“Digging can negatively impact the preservation of a site and ruin a rare piece of land,” Nass says. “In archaeology, we always like to leave a portion of the site intact for future archaeologists.”
It has been difficult for students to learn critical skills with so few artifacts on the site.
“We usually like to find refuse-filled trash pits, so that students can develop a full range of archaeological skills and learn field methods,” Nass says.
“It has been impossible to do that at this site.”
This summer’s field school may yet show results. If the magnetometry is approved, the archaeologists will have a better idea of where to search for artifacts.
Otherwise, the Father Angel site will have fended off archaeologists just as it may have protected its people nearly a thousand years ago.
Whatever those earthen walls were protecting may always remain a mystery.