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The mystery of 2 Lenape rock shelters

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Kristin Lapos, assistant curator at the Museum of Indian Culture examines a large bowl reassembled from pottery shards found at the Broomall Rock Shelter.
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Kristin Lapos, assistant curator at the Museum of Indian Culture examines a large bowl reassembled from pottery shards found at the Broomall Rock Shelter.
Published October 01. 2011 09:01AM

For over 3,000 years, hunter gatherers plied eastern Pennsylvania looking for game and edible plants. Along the way, they sought protection from the cold and rain.

Some of these Lenape ancestors found refuge in rock shelters, two of which were discovered in 1947 in the Broomall section of Marple Township, 10 miles west of Philadelphia.

After many years, the Museum of Indian Culture in Allentown has acquired the collection of artifacts from the Broomall Rock Shelters and is featuring them in an exhibit, Mystery Unearthed: The Extraordinary Story of Two Lenape Rock Shelters.

In 1942, Frank Sterling, Paul Delgrego, and W. W. Venney, amateur archeologists interested in collecting local Indian artifacts, excavated two rock shelters near the town of Broomall. Their romp in the woods turned serious when they uncovered a skeleton in one of the rock shelters.

This led to contacts with the Society for American Archaeology and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Because of the human remains, the suggestion of a long period of use, and the large quantity of pottery shards, in 1943 the Museum assigned archeologist Mary Butler to supervise the excavation.

Kristin Lapos, the assistant curator at the Museum of Indian Culture is in charge of the exhibit. She explained that these rock shelters had been used for thousands of years, having evidence of stone tools and projectile points to pottery shards that spanned a period from pre-agricultural times to a period nearing the time of Europeans coming to Pennsylvania.

"There were well over 1,000 pottery shards, 300 arrowheads and stone tools, and a number of ornaments," Lapos explained. "The big attraction was the body they named Princess Suzy."

"Mary Butler contacted Dr. J. Lawrence Angel, a prominent osteologist, who aged the female body at about 37 years old. At the time of her death, she had arthritis and had lost a number of teeth."

Following the excavation, the collection of artifacts was kept in Frank Sterling's basement. Upon his death, the materials were divided between the Marple Township Library and a Philadelphia archeology researcher who had planned to use the pottery shards for his dissertation.

In 1991, the Marple Township Library donated to the Museum their portion of the Broomall Rock Shelter collection, including the remains of Princess Suzy.

The museum contacted the Delaware tribe in Oklahoma.

"They didn't want it because there wasn't enough evidence proving it was native American in origin," Lapos said. "In 1991, it was reburied in a donated plot at a Northampton church site."

After starting at the museum, Lapos was asked to organize the existing Broomall collection. Two months ago, she acquired the balance of the collection from the Philadelphia archeology researcher.

The earliest artifacts found in the Broomall rock shelters are estimated to be 3,000 years old, but could be twice as old. Because the ground inside the rock shelter was shallow before hitting bedrock, unlike many sites the Broomall site did not have distinct layers.

"When they had looked at the tools in the 1940s, in the years before radiocarbon dating, all they could do was look at the tool styles and compare them with other sites," Lapos explained.

The Broomall site is most important because of the large number of pottery shards, many of which had been reassembled into vessels by Sterling. Lapos believes the pottery dates from the Middle Woodland period between 500 B.C. to 700 A.D. The arrowheads at the site may be dated to the Early Woodland period that began 1,000 B.C.

Much of the pottery found at the site was cord-marked.

"Broomall has a very good clay." Lapos noted. "They would have a plant material like yucca weed, an organic fiber wrapped around a stick. Then a stone would fit in their hand. Then they held the stone inside and used the stick to shape the pot. You can see where the fibers pressed against the pot."

The pottery was likely fired in a pit where it was slowly warm and slowly cooled to prevent cracking.

Why were there so many pottery shards and why was there a burial at the Broomall Rock Shelter? Lapos is trying to answer those questions. For the moment, it remains a mystery.

The Museum of Indian Culture is located at 2825 Fish Hatchery Road in Allentown. For information, call: 610-797-2121, or see: The museum is open Friday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Exhibits include: Beadwork of The Great Plains, Kachinas: Spirit Dolls of The Hopi, and Custer's Last Stand: Relics of The Little Bighorn.

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