DURYEA — It wasn’t only the stone tool — possibly more than 8,000 years old — that excited Al Pesotine.
It was also where volunteers with a local archaeology group found it — next to a fire pit at the group’s dig site in Duryea.
That context gave archaeologists with the local chapter of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology a rare opportunity. They could carbon-date the remnants of the fire pit to learn when prehistoric people were using that very tool. Added to other information archaeologists have pieced together from other sites, it shows when, where and how people were living thousands of years ago.
“If you tie all the information together found on different sites, you get a picture of who they were, what they did and how they lived,” said Pesotine, president of the local Frances Dorrance chapter of the state archaeology society. “Each site fills in more details.”
Pesotine thinks the tool is a “Neville point,” a type of spear tip named for the site in New Hampshire where it was first found. The triangular blade would have been attached to the tip of a sort of long dart and thrown at prey using a spear-throwing tool.
Finding a point is not rare. Volunteers have found dozens in their latest dig. But the type and location are unusual. It’s exciting for the group because in its 20 years of searching around the confluence of the Susquehanna and Lackawanna rivers, it has not found such a point before. The group doesn’t know exactly how old it is, but the location next to a fire pit allows for carbon-dating and they plan to send it for testing.
Vince Ephault was the volunteer who unearthed it. He was carefully working a patch of dirt with his shovel, skimming the surface to take off layers an eighth-inch thick at a time when his shovel clinked against something. He began to remove the ground around it, leaving it on a pedestal of dirt. Looking down on the square was like looking down at a topographical map as he scraped away more soil that revealed the tops of artifacts. Bit by bit, a large stone came into view. With an ice pick, he poked around it and felt more stones.
“It was a great sign. Now, we have a feature,” he said.
Not knowing what he might hit, he switched to his trowel for more delicate work. Moving down, he saw a stain in the earth, a sign that fire had burned there in the past.
He kept excavating, taking care to keep artifacts in place so the group could take photos and make a virtual reconstruction of the fire pit that future archaeologists could study.
Then, in the far corner of the square, he found the point.
When he finally pulled it from the dirt, he was the first person in thousands of years to hold it in his hands.
The archaeologists are sort of like exploratory geologists, but instead of natural resources, they’re looking for cultural ones.
Searching for a site worthy of intense excavation begins with probing the soil. If a search called a shovel test turns up some artifacts, archaeologists might proceed to more detailed work.
Once they’ve identified a site, they mark out a grid and begin a careful excavated. Pestotine and his team have excavated one-meter square blocks of soil, going down 10 centimeters at a time, sifting dirt through quarter-inch mesh to identify remains from the past.
Some of the items they’ve found are from 9,000 years ago, 8,000 years ago, 4,000 years ago and 300 years ago. Each helps fill in more details about the region’s history.
For example, the stone the point is made of is not from the area, so it’s evidence that whoever used it traveled here from somewhere else.
“It’s extremely rare that we find points that deep, that old,” said vice president Mike Smith.
Ephault has been volunteering with the group for about two decades. He started after he and his brother brought some suspected artifacts to a chapter meeting. They invited him to a dig, and he found a projectile point right away. He was hooked.
It’s not always that productive. Sometimes he goes weeks without finding anything substantial. If the Neville point had been a few inches deeper into the excavated wall, he would never have seen it.
Other times, hard work, smart decisions and luck combine to yield treasures from the Earth.
“Something like that, it’s just in the right place,” Ephault said. “It’s nice to find something like that.”
Archaeologists find all sorts of artifacts in their work. They call the variety of pointed tools that were attached to spears or arrows “projectile points.”
Those come in many shapes, sizes and materials. Named types have similar characteristics. A Neville point is a type of point first found on the banks of the Merrimack River in New Hampshire in 1976. It is mostly found in New England, especially in places that drain to the Merrimack River, but it can be found as far away as eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. These points have a broad, triangular blade and a short, narrow stem. It is similar to another point, a Stanly point, which has a wider distribution in the eastern United States.