Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/September 1893/Prehistoric Jasper Mines in the Lehigh Hills

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 43 September 1893  (1893) 
Prehistoric Jasper Mines in the Lehigh Hills by H. C. Mercer



BEGINNING at Durham, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and following the trend of the Lehigh hills toward the Schuylkill near Reading, and generally in close connection with veins of hematite, occurs a series of outcrops of the hard homogeneous rock known as jasper. This many-colored stone with its smooth, conchoidal fracture stood somewhat in the same relation to the North American Indian that iron stands to us. With it he fashioned his best spears, perforators, knives, arrowheads, and scrapers. No less diligently did he seek for it than does the man of the nineteenth century search for that great lever of his power and progress, iron; and no less persistently did he quarry it, shape it to his needs, and transport it to great distances.

So Indians in the West had been known to quarry jasper at the now famous "Flint Ridge," in Ohio; novaculite at their great quarries in Garland County, Arkansas; jasper, or hornstone, again in the Indian Territory; quartzite at Piney Branch, in the District of Columbia; obsidian, or volcanic glass, in the Yellowstone Park and Mexico, and other workable stones at other places. But whence the jasper supply came from east of the Alleghanies has long remained a mystery. Even the State geological surveys did not seem to recognize the existence of jasper in the eastern Lehigh hills; so that the recent series of discoveries, by expeditions in the interest of the University of Pennsylvania, have thrown an unexpected light upon the story of ancient man in the Delaware Valley.

The thanks of the university are due to Mr. Charles Laubach, of Durham, who first introduced the explorers, in 1801, to the aboriginal jasper quarry on Rattlesnake Hill, at Durham, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and to Mr. A. F. Berlin, of Allentown, who, by a series of valuable clews, greatly furthered the work of subsequent research.

How did the Indian, armed only with tools of wood, bone, stone, or beaten native copper, make the excavations, sometimes quite twenty feet in depth and one hundred in diameter? Did he use pickaxes made of deer antlers, as did the ancient flint-workers of "Grimes' Graves" near Brandon, in England? Did he encounter the rock in solid ledges as in Arkansas, or in loose nodules? Did he reduce it by fire, splinter it with hafted stone hammers, such as are found at the prehistoric copper mines on Isle Royale, in Lake Superior, or by battering bowlder against bowlder? Did he finally chip the material into arrowheads at the quarry, or carry away lumps of the stone to be worked up elsewhere?

These and many other questions we asked ourselves on a first glance at the bramble-grown pits and refuse heaps on the lonely hilltop at Durham. And after a careful study of the place, several

Fig. 1.(19)—a, Cast of Pointed Wooden Digging Implement; b. Cast of Log sharpened by Stone Tools. Jasper Mines, Macungie, Pa.

expeditions sent out on this and the preceding summer, resulted in the discovery of eight new quarries lying in a continuous line from the Delaware almost to the Schuylkill.[1]

All, though varying greatly in size and quality of material, tell the same story.

In some, the excavations, filled with forest mold and overgrown with trees, would escape the attention of the casual rambler until the piles of flakes, yellow and rose-tinted, easily displayed by scraping away the leaves that concealed them, revealed the handiwork of the ancient quarryman.

But at others, as at Macungie and Vera Cruz, the passer-by would halt in amazement. The appearance is too unusual, the work too vast—one hundred to one hundred and fifty pits, some of them fifteen and twenty feet deep and one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet in diameter, is no every-day sight. Again, the tinted flakes and refuse heaps tell the tale, and the neighboring wheat field glistens with fragments, yellow, blue, purple, red, lavender, and veined in many hues. The forest, too, has set its stamp of age upon the scene, and an old chestnut stump growing on the side of one of the excavations, upon which we counted one hundred and ninety-five rings, proves that the workman must have abandoned his shaft to the growth of underbrush about the time (1682) that William Penn bought his first tract of land from Indians on the Delaware.

And then, as, standing before the ancient works of the mound builders at Grave Creek, Marietta, and Newark, a strange feeling

Fig. 2.—Part of a, Fig. 1, enlarged, showing Stone Tool Marks.

born of awe steals over us, so here by degrees the scene assumes its true hue of wonder. We have had a glance beyond the boundary lines of history into the unillumined darkness of this continent's past, and for a moment heard the echoes of that vast forest mysterious with the fate of lost races that for ages darkened the New World before the coming of Columbus and De Soto.

It was important to learn that at Vera Cruz and Macungie, farmers, believing the excavations to have been the work of early Spanish gold-seekers, had dug deep trenches across several of them to find that some, judging from traces of disturbance in the soil, had reached a depth of forty feet; that one was square rather than round; that in those examined there had been no tunneling done, the lateral enlargements having been made from the surface downward.

In the bottom of two pits it was alleged that charcoal was found, and in one case, deep buried in clay at the very bottom, the remains of a textile fabric, and several decayed billets of wood about two feet and a half in length, with points at one end, blackened by charring. In all instances pure nodules of jasper were to a great extent wanting in the pits, but were found imbedded in the soil as soon as the unworked edges of the excavations were reached.

Our own preliminary work proved that in one of the diggings at least the miners had not attacked a solid vein of jasper, but, finding it in bowlders on the surface, had removed these, to work out others imbedded beneath them; and when in the undisturbed bottom of our shaft, at a depth of nineteen feet, we dug out a small, yellow-coated nodule, we were but continuing the long-suspended process of the quarryman, who, prying out the masses one by one, must have scraped away the surrounding clay till the pits were made.

That fire had been extensively used on the surface there was no question, whether in the clearing away of underbrush for mining at successive times, or, as seemed probable in one case, in reducing the large fragments, and coloring yellow jasper red.

But far more interesting was it to find fifteen feet down in our shaft an oven designedly made of large blocks of coarse jasper, in the hollow of which rested a mass of charcoal and ashes. To be satisfied that the bowlders had been thus cracked and splintered by heat, it was but necessary to notice their reddened sides and gather up the fire-fractured fragments of all sizes in their cavities.

Several holes in the clay near the bottom were no more nor less than the perfect molds left by objects of wood long since rotted to nothingness, and these enabled us by pouring in plaster of Paris to recover the forms of a piece of sapling about two feet in length, and the fragment of a larger tree, both pointed at one end, and plainly showing the marks of the stone tools that had sharpened them. (See Figs. 1, 2, and 3.)

That one at least of these billets (Fig. 1, a) was intended for use in quarrying there could be no doubt; still less that a large disk

Fig. 3.—Part of b, Fig. 1, enlarged, showing Stone Tool Marks.

of bluish limestone, chipped into the form of a heavy hoe, and well worn on its edges, if not a smaller fragment of quartzite, had been used as rough digging tools. (See Fig. 4, a, b.)

But as the pickaxe struck fire on the stones and glanced often impotently from the compact clay, our wonder at the ancient toiler's perseverance, challenged by this glimpse of his tools, increased. Still, even granting all the pits a depth far beyond their appearance, we little suspected the immense amount of work done, until the arrangement of layers in our shaft, the scattered bits of charcoal, the belts of stone-chippers' refuse, and the five distinct fire sites there encountered, proved beyond a doubt that our excavation had not caved in, but had been deliberately filled up by the prehistoric quarryman, who, realizing the economy of keeping the unworked ground free from excessive earth heaps, had evidently Fig. 4(211).—Stone Digging Tools. carried (in baskets or skins) the newly dug soil from the fresh diggings to the exhausted pits.

Turning to the surface refuse heaps, and from the artificially flaked fragments exhibiting no succinct design that strew the ground everywhere, we find (a) a series of well-battered quartzite hammer stones, not pitted on their sides, and varying from an inch and a quarter to five and six inches in diameter; (b) a mass of very interesting, artificially shaped blocks, that all tend in the direction of an ideal leaf-shaped form, and which in their various stages resemble the famous implements or objects from Trenton and Ohio known as "turtlebacks" and "palæoliths."

Our attention is further called to the facts that there are few, very few, arrowheads at these spots, and as yet no traces of pottery, no banner stones, net sinkers, gorgets, or grooved axes; that, in a word, these remote places, buried in the forest inconveniently far from water and arable land, were not fit for village sites. They were quarries—nothing more, nothing less—whither the jasper-using modern Indian, as known to Captain John Smith, Campanius, and Kalm, resorted, must have resorted, to quarry his material, knock it into portable shape, and carry it away to the distant village.

By a few blows of the pebble hammer the weathered surface of the nodule (Fig. 7) is chipped away and the thick block takes a pointed shape. A series of further blows, more careful and probably struck with the small hammers, produce a serrated cutting edge around the whole fragment, which now, well marked with the chipping that unmistakably proclaims the handiwork of man (Fig. 5), though still rude, clumsy, and an inch or two thick in the middle, has become the typical "turtleback" of Trenton. It may be that a final series of flakings, whether due still to the hammer or to pressure, results in a quite symmetrical blade, lightened to the desired weight and ready for transport (Fig. 6).

There the quarryman's work seems to have stopped, if it always went so far, and the hoard of blank blades ready to be finished or specialized by some local arrowhead maker into perforators, arrowheads, spears, or knives, as the case may be, is carried away. When for a time its owner is compelled to part company with it, he buries it in the ground for safe keeping or to render the material softer for future work,[2] and there for a dozen reasons

Fig. 5 (about 14).—Hammer Stones and Blocked-out Blades. Jasper Mines, Macungie, Pa.

it may remain for long years, to be discovered at last by a surprised plowman.

Such a cache of hitherto "inexplicable" leaf-shape implements, consisting of one hundred and sixteen yellowish argillite blades, we found, in 1891, on Ridges Island, on the Delaware; another of one hundred and seven of blue argillite was obtained for us by Mr. Doan, at Bridge Valley, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, last May, and another of nine blanks of chert was found by us in June of last year, on an island in the Susquehanna; while on the other hand that the material was sometimes carried away from the mines in the rough, was proved to us by the discovery of a large nodule partly chipped at the village site of Upper Blacks' Eddy, on the Delaware, ten miles from Durham, and another smaller mass on the river shore at Fry's Run.

The story of the Lehigh jasper quarries thus glanced at, but soon to be fully and carefully studied, is thus far a corroboration in main of the recent researches of Mr. W. H. Holmes at Piney

Fig. 6 (13).—Cache Blades. Bridge Valley, Pa.

Branch, in the Indian Territory, and in Garland County, Arkansas. Is it the story of all jasper (quarries in the United States? Is it the story as well of the argillite sandstone and quartzite quarry sites and the obsidian workings not yet discovered and studied? In a word, are we right in supposing that this process of passing from the shapeless block (Fig. 7) to the "turtleback," and from the "turtleback" to the thin, leaf-shaped blank, and thence to the spear or finished implement, represents the necessary steps through which all peoples in an age of stone have passed in the fashioning of their rock-hewn tools?

Thirty years ago Indians were chipping arrowheads of obsidian and hornstone on the shores of the Sacramento. Many of them still live in the United States and Canada who can doubtless explain the whole matter. Sometimes their opinion has been asked and their work described, but the accounts of their white questioners have been vague, contradictory, and unsystematic. None of them explain the quarry, the turtleback, or the cache implement. Caleb Lyon, who saw about 1860 a Shasta Indian arrowhead maker at work, refers only to a slab of obsidian one fourth of an inch thick, split from a pebble and flaked by blows. T. R. Peale speaks only of hammering a mass of jasper, agate, or chert with a Fig. 7 (about 1/2)—Natural Nodule of Jasper Flaked on One Side. Long Swamp, Lehigh, Pa. round-faced stone and finishing up the edges with a notched bone, as a glazier chips glass. Schoolcraft saw an anvil of wood or some hard substance placed on the thigh, upon which a piece of jasper was held at rest to be hammered by something undescribed. Captain John Smith tells how the Indian "quickly maketh an arrowhead of splints of stone in the form of a heart, with a little bone, which he ever weareth at his bracept." Torquemada and Hernandez briefly describe seeing Mexicans sending off long flakes of obsidian, with which certain Spaniards had their beards shaved, by pressing a wooden punch on a nucleus of obsidian held between the feet.

Admiral Sir E. Belcher (about 1858–'60) saw Eskimos, California Indians, and Sandwich Islanders fracturing chert blocks with slight taps of nephrite hammers, and then flaking the splinters wedged in a spoon-shaped cavity in a log, with a point of deer horn.[3] And so on. Lieutenant E. J. Beckwith and Catlin tell of flaking small pieces and thin slabs of quartz and obsidian, by direct pressure and indirect pounding upon a bone punch; and certain white men have recently made arrowheads out of curiosity or to palm them off upon collectors; but neither the conflicting accounts nor the amateur experiments explain the leaf-shaped hoards (Fig. 6), or the inchoate forms (Fig. 5) that litter the quarry refuse. Evidently some of the chief underlying features of the first and greatest of man's primeval arts have not been grasped. The living Indians who remember the process must be questioned again.

Turning back to the quarries and refuse heaps, and passing by the many problems of deep archaeological interest that they suggest, suffice it here to say that for one fact already mentioned they claim attention among the foremost fields of American research.

Here, at a distance of from forty to fifty miles from Trenton, are scores of jasper specimens closely resembling the forms of argillite found there buried fifteen and twenty feet in the glacial gravels; imitations, so to speak, of the so-called "palæolith," or

Fig. 8 (12).—1, Flint Palæolith from St. Acheul, France, 2, 3, 4, 5, Turtlebacks of Argillite, Delaware Valley. (Found on the surface.)

implement of the savage ice man, who, seven thousand years ago, chipped river pebbles on the freshet-swept banks of the Delaware.

We have been told that this object from Trenton, this "palæolith," is a finished implement, a type of an epoch; that the savage who fashioned it was little better than an ape in culture, ignorant even of the use of the bow, and a slayer of his prey with clubs and stones. And science has willingly stolen into the by-paths of wonder and speculation to suggest his origin and fate. Akin it was said to the river-drift man of Europe, he crossed the North Atlantic on an isthmus that in preglacial times stretched from Britain to Greenland to dwell on the cold shores of the Delaware when the great glacier stretched its coping of ice from the Hudson's mouth to Oregon, and while the Niagara River yet tumbled its cataract into Lake Ontario at the site of Lewiston.

At first, as we take up these shapes from the quarry (Fig. 5), rude as the rudest from Trenton, yet geologically an affair of yesterday, doubts assail us on all sides. What if the Trenton specimens, after all, are modern too? Did they slip downward into the drift through the fissures of earthquakes, root-holes, the cavities left by upheaved trees, or by the deceptive readjustments of strata that sometimes puzzle geologists on the face of bluffs and banks? The supposed lapse of ages between them and the Trenton implements seems to fade away. We are almost startled. The doors of archæology's wonder chamber have been thrown open, its treasures displaced, and the strange form of palæolithic man, slipping out of our grasp, seems ready to vanish into the limbo of chimeras.

But pondering long over the work of the quarries, and comparing it diligently with the workshop refuse on the pebbly shores of the Delaware and Susquehanna (see Fig. 8), where argillite "turtlebacks" (Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5) are often found at Indian village sites, ideas suggest themselves that may well efface all bias from our minds, and effectually disincline us for a premature conclusion.

What if these modern stones (Fig. 5) do resemble "palæoliths?" What if the Trenton forms like these were only steps in the process of fashioning blades not yet found? What if the Trenton "palæolith" were not a finished implement, as has been declared?

What if glacial man, in a word, was not a "palæolithic" man at all, ignorant of the art of stone-polishing, but the equal in cultivation of even the modern Indian?

Is he any the less old? Is he any the less interesting because we can no longer pick up a stone, like the American specimens in Fig, 8, on the surface and say, "This is a palæolith"? Is he any the less a glacial inhabitant because modern Indians have duplicated one of his stone relics, and we are obliged to reform our American definition of the word "palæolithic"?[4]

As we tread the rough, hilly roads and clamber the rocky slopes that often lead to the jasper mines, nothing strikes us more forcibly than that man must have been a long time a dweller in the Delaware Valley before he discovered them, and that his first stone implements would have been fashioned, not from jasper, but from the material first at hand.

The shores of the large rivers, where no one denies that he made his earliest habitation, are strewn with pebbles of convenient size and conchoidal fracture, and from these (who can doubt it?) he made his first tools, whether already elsewhere taught the value of jasper or not.

From Belvidere to Chester, from Beach Haven to Havre de Grace, the river beaches may be looked upon as one great pre-historic

Fig. 9 (1/1).—Two Views of a Specimen from the Trenton Gravels.
(See Abbott's Primitive Industry, page 500.)

quarry littered with the chips, the hammer stones, and the refuse implements of vanished peoples; and while the remote jasper quarries were disassociated of necessity with abundant traces of village life, here were quarry and village sites combined, where the relics of the stone-chipper must needs lie within a few feet or yards of those of the potter, the fisherman, and the hunter. It is here rather than upon the hilltops of Durham and Macungie that archæology may look for man's earlier and intermediate handiwork in stone, the telltale sites whose relics more or less deeply buried shall carry us back to the morning of his first coming.

Meanwhile, with eyes wider open, we are ready for another ransacking of the gravel pits of Trenton and Madisonville. More sharply than ever shall we look for a bit of pottery seven thousand years old, an arrowhead or grooved stone axe, and without unjust doubt ask the questions: Have we been deceived? Have the classic stones slipped down into the gravel through Nature's channels? Has a landslide tricked us with its mastodon's tooth and human skull? And then, where are the hammer stones, and the chips, and the signs of use on the "turtlebacks," and the thinned-down blades, which shall prove for what purpose glacial man might have made these leaf-shaped forms—whether like the modern Indian he treated them only as blocked-out types of more specialized tools, or whether, still a child in the stone-chipper's art, he halted at the second step in the process, and, unskilled to go further, used the now famous "turtleback" as a finished implement sufficient for his primitive needs?

It is well that we have this new light from the jasper quarries on the great art of arts that most concerned man's life and happiness in the untold ages of his childhood. One source of error and confusion has been cleared away from the subject, and we fully realize that what shall in future determine the age and nature of these stones is not their "type" or their form, or their resemblance to European specimens, but their geological position.

  1. At Coopersburg, Limeport, Saucon Creek, Vera Cruz, and Macungie, in Lehigh County and at Long Swamp, Bowers, and Leimbach's Mills, in Berks.
  2. But the flint "knappers" at Mr. Robert Snares's gun-flint works at Brandon, Suffolk, England, told me that they always dried the nodules by the fire or in the wind, as the hammers would not "take hold" of flint wet from the mines. Argillite, on the other hand, so say the quarry men at Point Pleasant on the Delaware, flakes better when wet, as, in my experience at Macungie, jasper does also.
  3. See for these narratives, except Beckwith (Pacific Railroad Survey, vol. ii, p. 43), E. T. Stevens's Flint Chips, p. 57.
  4. We speak in America of "palæoliths" and "true palæolithic implements," as if the terms could mean nothing but the rude forms here discussed. But the cave men of France, who, it is said, did not polish stone, though they polished bone and produced realistic animal carvings superior to anything done in the bronze age, were no less palæolithic than the drift savage who made Fig. 8, No. 1. And if Sir John Lubbock's definition means anything, the delicate blades of chipped flint from Solutré and the caves of Laugerie Haute, Gorge d'Enfer, Grotte de l'Eglise, etc., skillfully worked as the beautiful obsidian knives of California, Tennessee, and Mexico, are true "palæoliths." (See De Mortillet, Musée Prehistorique, classification.)