Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Hatch Site: Underpinnings

Much, maybe most, human land use is ultimately a product of geology. Bedrock and the soils and land forms (e.g. floodplains, glacial terraces, etc.) that form on the bedrock often define where and how we live, and that’s always been true. At the Hatch site, geology largely explains the local landscape, and why the site is there.

The bike trail project area is situated in the Nittany Valley whose bedrock geology consists primarily of sedimentary rock of Ordovician (ca. 450 million years old) and Cambrian (ca. 530 million years old) age. The rock is of marine (oceanic) origin, and many of the formations are composed of the remains of various kinds of shellfish (limestones and dolomites) or of sands and gravels (sandstones, quartzites, and conglomorates). The bike trail project area sits atop two Ordovician formations: the Nittany (primarily dolomite) and the Axeman (primarily limestone). There are several SE to NW oriented faults located beneath and near the project area and the site. Faults are cracks in the sedimentary rock produced by movement of the earth’s crust and deep subterranean pressure. The project area is situated along the edge of a northwest to southeast trending narrow valley. This valley is likely a graben, a geologic term for a valley formed by a pair of parallel faults that produce a subsidence in the bedrock.

This geology has direct and very significant implications for the interpretation of the Hatch site. Without a doubt, the most significant of those implications is the association of the local geologic formations with a mineral known to geologists as goethite. Goethite is formed as hot subterranean water containing dissolved silica infiltrates iron rich formations such as the limestones and dolomites found in the Nittany Valley, through geologic faults. The nodules that precipitate from this hydrothermal reaction are a hydroxide of iron. The nodules that are richest in iron are known as bog iron, a type of iron ore. Goethite ores were used extensively in the 19th century iron industry that flourished in and near modern State College. The nodules that are richest in silica are jasper.

In this part of the Spring Creek Valley, those nodules appear as yellowish chunks of often smooth, even glassy material. The First Pennsylvanians discovered these jasper nodules at least 12,000 years ago, and exploited them until the arrival of the Europeans. The quarries where the nodules were mined from the soil are about a half mile away from the Hatch site, at the other end of the graben valley. The Hatch site is on relatively flat, well drained ground close to a tributary of Spring Creek, an ideal place to encamp and begin the process of converting chunks of jasper into tools.

At the Hatch site, understanding the geology helps us understand the site. While we rarely think about it, local and regional geology plays an equally important role in understanding our own communities today. Many towns and cities in northeastern and southwestern Pennsylvania exist because of their proximity to the roughly 300-million-year-old Pennsylvanian Epoch Anthracite and Bituminous coal deposits of the Middle Atlantic Appalachians. Limestone valleys (karst topography to a geologist) like the Nittany and Cumberland valleys have stable, valuable and reliable streams and very rich high PH soils that produced important agricultural market towns like Bellefonte and Carlisle. Iron-rich sedimentary and metamorphic rock and limestone and dolomite formations produced Pennsylvania’s innumerable 18th, 19th and 20th century iron furnaces and foundries, and the hundreds of communities large and small that grew up around them.

How we use and occupy the land here in Pennsylvania is largely a product of what lies beneath that land: the complicated and durable Appalachian geology beneath our feet. As the former residents of the Hatch site are teaching us, that’s been true for a very long time.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Hatch Site: Beginnings

Over the next month or so, I'll be sharing some thoughts, images and video from an archaeological excavation here in Central Pennsylvania.  I should state for the record that these observations are mine, and not those of any of the agencies, institutions or other folks involved in the project.  My goal is simply to share a little bit of the past with everyone, and to give readers who don't do what I do for a living an inside view of archaeology.

Here's the basics.

This site is in Centre County, Pennsylvania. It's one of a number of stone tool workshops used for millennia along the banks of a stream.  Just uphill from the site is a source of reddish yellow stone known colloquially as jasper, and to a geologist as goethite. It can be thought of as a kind of flint that is very rich in iron, and it's the iron that produces the ruddy color. It makes fabulous and durable stone tools.  Jasper from this quarry was traded through many parts of the Middle Atlantic region throughout pre-European times.

This site, the James Hatch site, was sealed under soil eroding from nearby hillsides when the land around here was initially cleared in the middle of the 19th century. As a result, it's more or less intact and not much affected by the decades of farming, artifact collecting, and land development that have compromised many other related sites in the area.  It's relatively pristine condition means the site can tell us an awful lot about how the nearby quarry was used, who used it, when they used it, where they came from, and where they went when they left. It's also the sort of site that can serve as a sort of Rosetta Stone for the interpretation of other, nearby related sites that are more disturbed and compromised. You just don't run into sites like this very often.

In the next few months, construction will begin on a bike trail and drainage improvement project that will impact part of this site. Before that happens, an archaeological field school conducted by Juniata College in partnership with PennDOT, the FHWA, College Township, DCNR, and Penn State will be recovering some of the information and artifacts from the affected portion of the site.  The results will include an extensive amount of artifact, soils, and environmental analysis, an immense collection of artifacts, a substantial technical report on the results, a popular-level publication, local exhibits of recovered artifacts, public lectures and presentations, and most importantly, a window into the day-to-day world of the First Pennsylvanians.

The view from that window is, I think, the most significant result.  In my experience, when most folks hear the word "Archaeology", it conjures up  images of pyramids, Roman ruins, even Lost Arks.  I want to help everyone understand something rarely taught in schools and rarely discussed in the popular press: every place has a past, and every past matters. The past is our only available guide for interpreting and preparing for our future. From buried places as diverse and prosaic as the foundations of slave cabins to French and Indian War forts to small Native American encampments, to the ruins of iron furnaces, the stories of other lives and distant times come back to us.  Those stories are by turns instructive, inspiring, sobering, enlightening: we have only to look and listen, and hopefully learn.

A final note. I was involved in some of the identification and evaluation work that located this site.  My field director and I named it for my old teacher, mentor and friend Jim Hatch.  One of Jim's research interests was this complex of jasper quarries and workshops, and he did some of the first and best research on the subject back in the 70's and 80's.  Through Jim I discovered a career, and he also helped me out with a lot of other things as well. If you'd like to know more about him you might give this a read. 

I'll be posting again later this week.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Way Forward

This afternoon, for the first time since high school, I wove a Christmas wreath. I worked in a produce wholesaler when I was a kid, and during the Holidays I learned to weave wreathes. I cut some White Pine boughs and borrowed a little holly from a neighbor, and found a ribbon at a nearby greenhouse. It took maybe an hour, and I took great pleasure in the quiet methodical work. It now hangs on the front of my little house. It is a symbol of the renewal that comes with the winter solstice, and the promise of redemption that Christians ascribe to this oldest of holidays. Renewal and redemption are much on my mind right now, and the weaving of the pine and holly with my own hands was, for me, a reminder that those things come from within.

It is time for rebirth, starting here and now.

In my anger and disgust at the presidential election results, I have been seeking a way forward. To that end, I contacted a wide circle of friends in government, law, business, non-profits, the arts, the sciences, education, and most other walks of life. These included folks of both major parties, and no party at all. I wrote to them with questions, and I have considered carefully the many good answers I got back. All of the responses dwell on both active resistance in the very short term, and carefully laying the groundwork for positive change. It’s that second set of goals I find more interesting.

The short-term stuff is kind of obvious and about what you’d expect.

- The promotion and support of real investigative journalism. There’s too much bullshit out there, and given the character and history of the election winner and his cronies, there’s plenty to investigate. Actual reporting is expensive. I give to NPR and Pro Publica. Buying subscriptions to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other for profit papers with bona-fide journalistic standards is a good idea. Getting all your news from Facebook ain’t.

- Give money and volunteer time to environmental and human rights nonprofits that have lots of lobbyists and lawyers and a good track record for both working with and for suing the government. My money and time are going to immigrant advocacy, heritage preservation and environmental organizations. There’s lots of other folks and resources in great peril right now, and lots of fine attorneys ready to push back. For examples of all kinds of good non-profits:

o http://www.pbs.org/earthonedge/resources2.html

o http://www.guidetoaction.org/intlgrps.html

- Peaceful and active resistance. Works pretty well when push comes to shove: ask the folks in North Dakota. A good-sized march or strike can shut down a port, close a highway, defend a river or a clinic, even bring down a dictator. Images and video of storm troopers with water cannons and mace do wonders for public opinion: ask anyone who remembers the civil rights struggle or resistance to the Vietnam War. Art and music play important inspirational roles here. Writers can and should speak out. Satire’s useful too. Nothing disempowers a bloated ego better than poking at it. After all, provoking Trumplethinskin is pretty easy and mildly entertaining as he reliably demonstrates his character flaws and ignorance for all to see via 3AM tweets from the potty. Here’s a wonderful primer for afflicting the comfortable. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/opinion/the-art-of-the-protest.html?_r=0

These short-term suggestions are for me, just necessary evils. They may help get us through the next couple years by blunting and frustrating the worst excesses of the spoiled trust-fund brat about to take over in DC. Of much more interest to me are opportunities for positive change leading up to the mid-term election in 2018 and beyond.

One of my correspondents, a municipal official, reminded me of Tip O’Neil’s adage that “All politics is local.” The reality is: if you want to get rid of divisive, winner-take-all politics that favors demagogues, bullies, pathological liars, and flim-flam artists, you start at home. This will be especially important as long as the federal government is being driven off a cliff. The responsibility to protect the environment, the citizens, public health, and God knows what else is likely to fall to the states at least until sanity is restored. This kind of work is decidedly unglamourous, requires patience, and can be by turns infuriating and mind-numbing.

It’s also the only rational way out of this fucking mess.

If you’d like to see better candidates and better ideas in both parties, real checks and balances at all levels of government, and an end to governing by a mean and inflexible minority, please consider these actions.

- Focus your time on your own local and state focused politics. This means attending township supervisor and city council meetings and maybe volunteering for a board or commission. Typically, if you ask good questions, aren’t mean to people, and volunteer to do some of the dirty work of local governance (like take the minutes, etc.), you’ll gain a measure of respect from your neighbors, and your opinions on things might be considered valuable, even if you’re in the wrong party, or the wrong faction of your party. You’ll also learn how complicated and nuanced actual governing in a democracy can be.

- Find successful examples of better governing and leadership, and promote them locally. Wondering how to encourage jobs, preserve and fix up housing stock, reduce crime, promote open space, provide services, improve the schools, etc.? Well, other people have done it. In Pa and every other state, many municipal and city governments have quietly found good, workable solutions to community problems, and others have failed miserably. Both kinds of examples are instructive, and they’re readily discovered with a little research. This is valuable information and should be shared. In these success stories, will be found not only ideas and examples, but real leaders who implemented them. God knows we need those folks now. We are not well led.

- Engage your local and regional legislators. Reach out to legislators you support, even if they don’t represent your district. They all hold public meetings. They all have phones and email accounts. If you want them to behave or vote in a particular way, tell them. If you want to know why they support some ideas and not others, ask them. Politely insist on a response. Thank them publicly when they’re responsive and helpful, and give them hell publicly when they’re dismissive, mean and dumb. They’re public employees. They work for you.

- Encourage voters and voting. Remember, the orange guy won the November 2016 presidential election with a minority of voters, and worse yet, more than 40% of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote at all. Volunteer to help at the polls. Drive folks to the polls. Work on voter education drives. In this country, people got their heads beat in and got killed trying to gain the right to vote. As I suspect we’re about to find out, bad leadership can cause economic, health and environmental catastrophes and also wars. Not voting and then becoming one of the victims is a kind of suicide.

Now if all this sounds like a lot of work for someone who is trying to raise kids, hold a job, take care of ageing parents, go to school, and so on…it is. But remember, all you must do is what you can do. Any regular effort on any of these fronts will pay off in ways large and small. How about an evening a month? How about two? Get something on the calendar.

A positive, reasonable and workable message is the high ground in this battle.  That's where you want to be.  Nobody is going to thrive in a mudslinging contest with the crowd coming to power right now. To quote Shaw: Don't mud wrestle with a pig. You'll get filthy, and the pig enjoys it. There are more good people in this country than assholes.

It’s also worth remembering that political engagement is the price of actual pluralistic and fair governance. When we get busy and lazy and disinterested and cynical and blow it off, more energized people have their say, and their ideas might be different than yours, and not so pluralistic and fair. Local engagement can lead to a better 2018 election result one congressional district and one state at a time, and can also build the foundation for much bigger and better things thereafter.

There is hard work ahead, but there is joy and satisfaction in working toward something meaningful. A reminder currently hangs on the front of my house.

Let’s do this…more later…

Sunday, November 27, 2016


Steve Benson, Az Republic

It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and believe it or not, there’s much for all of us to be thankful for. This includes those of us who are not very happy with the results of the election. Here’s a list of some things I’m thankful for!

The Orange Guy himself! I’m a progressive independent, so you can safely assume I wasn’t too happy with Reagan or with Pappy and W. Bush. I voted against them, and griped to my legislators, and wrote the odd letter to the editor, but that was as far as it went. That’s because they had social skills and didn’t invite actual fascists into the government, didn’t publicly belittle handicapped folks, didn’t brag about groping women, didn’t get endorsed by the KKK, didn’t write off climate change as a Chinese plot, etc. To me, the empowering of such a person is a Pearl Harbor or 9/11 event. So now I’m all fired up, energized, and budgeting time and money weekly to work against fascism. Turns out I’m not alone. This is how real and enduring populist movements are born…from the seed-stock of hateful, dishonest, thin-skinned, dumb, dangerous and repressive people.

Minority Government! Not only did the orange guy lose the popular vote by a couple million voters, it turns out his support even among folks that did vote for him is thin. Anecdotally, I’ve had a dozen folks tell me they thought the 2016 choices for President were awful, and they “held their noses” and voted for the orange guy; hardly a ringing endorsement. The legislative majority he enjoys in both houses includes lots of people he insulted during the election, and many more who are appalled by his public behavior and afraid of his impulsiveness and immorality. The legislative minority, while justifiably engaged in angst and soul-searching, is unified in its disgust with the orange guy-elect. He’ll have to be a Kennedy/Reagan/Roosevelt to turn that around. I suspect he’s really not that kind of material. His non-fan club includes organized labor, virtually every minority community in the nation, the environmental community, the scientific and academic communities, the wealthiest and most successful states, and a number of relatively well-moneyed interests who view him as an existential threat. They’re probably not going to be helpful to him. There are people in the streets already, and he hasn’t actually done anything yet. Just wait till he does!

Sleaze/Corruption! Our boy has a track record. You can expect scandals both great (mixing private business with governing, extra and quasi-legal executive orders, manipulation of the press, encouraging violence and bigotry via 2:00 AM tweets, etc.) and small (lots of jiggling silicone, embarrassing diplomatic gaffes, public rows with theater people and comedians, unfortunate videos and images, etc.). He simply won’t be able to help himself and his gang of enablers won’t be able to stop him.

American Institutions! Given the high caliber of folks who seem to be appearing on the orange guy’s dream team, the federal courts, the military and the bureaucratic agencies won’t be very well led or well treated. This is a collection of very wealthy committed ideologues who will espouse and do dumb, cruel and unsuccessful stuff. You can expect the hateful crap that they will shove down the throats of their agencies to leak copiously and wind up on-line, in headlines, and in court in very short order.

Investigative Journalists and Attorneys! There will be lots to work with (see above).

These many festive gifts emanating from the spectacular election of 2016 are, of course, all potential tools to be used to begin the long, patient, and honorable process of building an actual representative democracy. That will take a lot of work from a lot of people, and a good deal of courage. More on that in another post. Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Facing the Facts

As this is written, the cabinet that will implement the orange guy elect’s policies is beginning to take shape. We are beginning to see what the incoming government will look like.

So far, they include a fascist propagandist:


See also:


An old school racist and homophobe:


An islamophobe and apologist and lobbyist for nice folks like Putin and Erodogon


…and a Tea-bagger said to be a big supporter of domestic surveillance and “enhanced interrogation” …


If you were thinking the orange guy is a pragmatic businessman who won’t do anything too crazy, you were mistaken, evidently…

I view this growing assemblage of thugs and bigots with substantial alarm. I work in history and heritage, and I’m familiar with lots of examples of what happens when minority governments undertake coups. I am also hopeful and confidant that following a great deal of damage, we can overcome this and build a better country and future.

Understand this: I think the orange guy has autocratic and despotic tendencies. He likes power and wants to keep it. His business record is a clear indication of the kinds of measures he is prepared to resort to. His rise to power in this country is in no sense a normal transfer of government from one democratically elected government to another. It is an attempt by the extreme right to seize power, in no way substantially different from the rise of fascist governments in mid-20th century Germany and Italy, or the modern Philippines. I would assume that this crop of goons will try to manufacture a crisis or take advantage of one (think the Nazi’s burning down the Reichstag) and then try to use it to seize more power. American institutions including the police, military and legal system will be taxed to and perhaps beyond the breaking point. There will be an attempt to silence any dissent or opposition. The heavily armed mob of True Believers will be called out to help shut up and punish the opposition. At least one dangerous ideologue will be seated on the US Supreme Court. There will be a big infrastructure bill coming out of the legislature, something the country desperately needs, but it will be laced with poisonous tax and environmental provisions that greatly enrich the top earners in this country at the expense of middle class and poor folks, and exacerbate global climate change, further pollute the air and water, damage our historical and cultural heritage, and help make us an international pariah. All regulation of the cheerful folks on Wall Street will be removed, and the crowd that brought you 2008 (remember 2008??) will be running the economic show unfettered. There will be a well-funded attempt to make conceal carry permits transferrable between states, thus empowering the armed mob of True Believers even further than it is right now. Muslim, African-American, Hispanic, LGBT and other minority communities will see and feel real persecution. We will be torturing people.

I’ll re-post this next November, and we’ll see if I was incorrect.

Now I’m sorry to be so dark here, but as noted in my last post, I’m interested in fixing things. Like the orange guy, I want to make America great again. The first step in addressing a festering wound is to rip the bandage off, and get a good look at it. So there it is…take it all in.

Now, take a deep breath.

I believe this is a time of existential crisis for this nation. I believe we are all called on to do our part to help overturn this dangerous minority government. The lives and futures of our kids and the planet are at stake. This is a time for real Americans, real patriots, to stand up and defend our country and our way of life. This is a time to speak and to act. If you are filled with disquiet, anger and fear, the only way to make those emotions dissipate is to channel them in positive and transformational directions. Like my parent’s generation who were forced to confront a depression and a fascist alliance, we’re about to find out what courage means.

Fortunately, there are lots of paths forward. There are lots of tools at hand. More than there have ever been. I’ll discuss some of them in my next post.