Transitional Period

Around 4,300 BP., at the beginning of the Transitional Period, there is some evidence of a climatic change to a warm, dry period that may have affected hunter-gatherer adaptive strategies. There is a significant change in artifacts and archaeologists identify this as the Transitional period. Sites dating to this period are more frequently located close to water, and some sites along the major rivers appear to have been occupied for longer periods of time than during the Late Archaic. Trade becomes important and stone for making tools is traded over hundreds of miles. Burial ceremonialism appears for the first time in the eastern US (although it has not been documented in Pennsylvania), and it is assumed that there are significant changes in social organization. However, it is difficult to interpret the specifics from the archaeological record.

A new spear point style signals the beginning of the Transitional Period. The points are large and broad-bladed and are known as broadspears. They are most often made from jasper or metarhyolite but some are made from other materials such as chert, quartzite or argillite. Broadspears are frequently used as knives or reshaped into scrapers or drills. Some of the so-called drills are over 6 inches long and very thin. These probably do not represent re-sharpened spears points, and many were not used as drills. Their function remains problematical as do other Transitional period artifacts. Some archaeologists believe that "broadspears" were never intended to be used as spear points and always functioned as cutting, scraping, or drilling tools. Stemmed and notched points like those found on Late Archaic sites also occur on Transitional Period sites, and some researchers argue that they may have been the only types used for spears.

Photo: Section of Archaeology Collections
Transitional Period Broadspears

Other artifacts in the Transitional tool kit include bannerstones, net sinkers and grinding stones for seeds and nuts. It is believed that fishing was particularly important although the same foods were being collected as during Late Archaic times. There is evidence, however, that more seeds were being collected such as knotweed, little barley and maygrass. These are common weeds that produce large quantities of small seeds. During this period in the Ohio valley of Indiana and Illinois, these were domesticated and grown in gardens. Along with squash and sunflower, this group of domesticated plants is called the Eastern Agricultural Complex. It is not clear that they were domesticated in the Middle Atlantic region during Transitional times but they were certainly being eaten.

Many sites from this time period are characterized by extensive scatters of fire-cracked rock, that is, rock that has been exposed to extreme heat, causing it to break into angular pieces. Some of this is the result of normal cooking, as rock was often used in fire pits to radiate heat for roasting meat and other foods. Also, heated rocks were dropped into holes in the ground, lined with hide and filled with water, as a method for boiling foods such as nuts or fish. The large accumulation of fire-cracked rock on Transitional Period sites suggests that food was being cooked for large groups, and possibly during relatively long periods of site occupation. Boiling, steaming and baking foods is a more effective method of cooking as it extracts more calories.

Frequently associated with fire-cracked rock features are bowls carved out of a soft stone called steatite or soapstone. These bowls were the first portable cooking containers and precursors to fired clay pottery. They vary in size and shape; many are flat bottomed and they often have simple handles at either end. Some steatite bowls are large and show evidence of having been heated. These are obviously cooking containers. However, some have not been exposed to heat and many are relatively small and not suitable for cooking. Because they are heavy and traded over long distances, steatite bowls may have held special significance during Transitional times. We know that when modern hunter-gatherer bands come together, they frequently hold "feasts" in celebration of marriages and childbirth or to reinvigorate belief systems. Some of the fire-cracked rock was also probably used in sweat lodges which would be compatible with the ceremonial/feasting scenario. Some of the large fire-cracked rock features may be the remains of these feasts, and steatite bowls may have played a special role in these activities. In addition, steatite was sometimes used to make ornamental items. Small perforated steatite disks, likely beads, and scalloped pendants have been found on Transitional Period sites in Pennsylvania.

Photo: Section of Archaeology Collections
Roasting Pit (note the charcoal and fire-cracked rock in the wall of the excavation)

The presence of steatite and tool stone such as metarhyolite and jasper on sites throughout the Middle Atlantic region and into the Ohio Valley indicates that these materials were extensively traded. Steatite comes from eastern Lancaster County, jasper from Lehigh Count and metarhyolite was quarried from western Adams County. These materials were traded all over Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. It is generally agreed that this was part of a trade network probably relying on dugout canoes for transportation. Trade indicates inter-band dependence and larger social networks. This type of exchange suggests the development of alliances and trading partnerships with neighboring bands. Considering the changes in the environment, these arrangements could represent a "safety net" that led to food sharing during difficult times.

While there is no evidence of burial ceremonies in Pennsylvania, there are Transitional Period cremation burials in New York and New Jersey. In southern New Jersey, at the Savich Farm site, a cemetery has been found that contains cremated burials and grave goods in the form of atlatl (spear thrower) weights and large numbers of broadspears. Many of the artifacts have been burned and broken, likely during the cremation process. This is the first evidence we have for burial ceremonies in the Middle Atlantic region, and we assume that similar activities were taking place in Pennsylvania.

Photo: Section of Archaeology Collections
A Steatite Bowl on Exhibit at the State Museum

In western Pennsylvania, the change from the Archaic Period to the Transitional Period was less dramatic, and did not include the variety of technological changes documented for the Susquehanna and Delaware Valleys. Fire-cracked rock features are found, but broadspears and steatite bowls are less common. It is interesting that steatite bowls found at a site just west of Pittsburgh originated in the steatite quarries of Lancaster County. In this region the Archaic adaptation seems to have continued through the Transitional Period with only a few of the distinctive artifacts from eastern Pennsylvania being observed. Following the Transitional Period, however, cultural evolution in the Ohio Valley of Pennsylvania is heavily influenced by developments to the west in what is now Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Towards the end of the Transitional period, at approximately 3400 BP., broadspears are replaced by fishtail points, although there continues to be a preference for metarhyolite and jasper. Also, fired clay pottery appears in the Middle Atlantic region. It is poorly made and steatite continues to be used for approximately 200 years. Fishtail points, large fire-cracked rock features and the extensive trading system end around 2900 BP.

For archaeologists, the Transitional Period is an exciting but perplexing time in Native American cultural development. It appears to represent sudden and significant technological, economic, and social change. For the first time in the archaeological record of Pennsylvania, it seems that changes in social organization were a significant element in the adaptive strategy. Simple egalitarian bands were no longer sufficient to exploit this environment. A more structured society was required. Unfortunately, the specific nature of this social system is not known and additional archaeological research is necessary.

It seems unlikely that all of the changes that occurred during this period were the result of a slight change in temperature and precipitation. It is more likely that changes had been building during the Late Archaic that are not visible in the archaeological record. In addition, the Transitional Period of eastern Pennsylvania may have been influenced by the significant developments in the Mississippi Valley. Finally, it is perplexing that, for the most part, the following Woodland Period is also very different from the Transitional Period. The Transitional Period appears to be very different from any cultural developments before or after. To understand why will require a great deal more research.


Painting by Nancy Bishop