Lessons in Archaeological Provenience: Processing the George L. Fenner Jr collection of prehistoric Native American artifacts, 1000BCE-450BCE

Mr. George L. Fenner Jr.

Wilkes University Archives is excited to announce that Dawson Sensenig, a Junior majoring in Geology, has processed and digitized the Fenner Collection of Prehistoric Native American Artifacts, 1000BCE-450BCE in Fall 2021. Dawson is a member of the Geo Explorers and Wilkes Adventure Education clubs here at Wilkes. Additionally, he is a member of the Paleontological Society. He plans on attending graduate school where he can further his education in geology as well as paleontology and pursue a career in the field of paleontology at a museum or university.

Dawson created a finding aid which is located here along with the digitized artifacts. Below are his reflections.

For Fall 2021, I had the opportunity to process a collection of prehistoric Native American artifacts in the Wilkes University archives. This collection was generously donated to us by George L. Fenner Jr. in 2001 as well as a collection of  minerals that can be seen on the second and fourth floor of the Cohen Science Center here at Wilkes University. 

Jessie B. Fenner (center) and her children: (upper:Betz, lower left:Sally, and right: George Jr.)

Born August 8, 1913, George L. Fenner Jr. was the son of attorney George L. Fenner and Jessie Beers Fenner. He graduated from Wyoming Seminary in 1931 and furthered his education at Princeton University where he graduated in 1935. He proceeded to follow in his fathers footsteps and enroll into Dickinson School of Law where he graduated in 1938. In 1939 he was admitted to practice law before the Pennsylvania Bar. He specialized in real estate law and became a resident in the Wyoming Valley where he became a well known figure in the Wilkes-Barre legal and business communities for his entire professional career. 

In 1997, Mr. Fenner received an Honorary Doctoral Degree from Wilkes University and he became the schools first Honorary Trustee. Over the years Mr. Fenner gave gifts of financial assistance to a handful of students as well as donations of properties including the donation of both his home and office on South Franklin Street. These are now known around Wilkes campus as Fenner Hall and the greenway is now known as the Fenner Quadrangle. Wilkes University’s fourth president, Dr. Christopher N. Breiseth, was a close and personal friend of Fenner. Dr. Breiseth delivered a eulogy at George Fenner’s funeral where he recalled George’s support of the Wilkes community. Besides law, Fenner had other personal interests, which included fishing, photography, gardening, and geology. He passed away at the age of 88 on November 16, 2001.

During his lifetime, George would go on fishing trips which is where he initially discovered many of these Native-American artifacts. An avid fly fisherman, Mr. Fenner would notice the stone tools lying on exposed surfaces in the areas he visited while fishing; that is how he began amassing his private collection, according to Mr. Jim Harris, the Fenners’ attorney.

Unfortunately, no journals or records were found accompanying the collection and any loose provenience documentation the artifacts once had were lost by the time Theresa Kintz, former Archaeology professor at Wilkes, gained access to the collection to perform an archaeological report in 2002.  In Ms. Kintz’s opinion, the collection is so extensive and consists of so many perfect specimens of diagnostic tools that it suggests that Mr. Fenner probably had other means of acquiring artifacts in addition to chance encounters while fishing. Mr. Harris believed that the majority of artifacts were most likely collected in the state of Pennsylvania, or generally in the Mid-Atlantic region. This information fits with the type styles and materials represented in the Fenner collection. 

The Fenner collection includes artifacts that range from the late Archaic period (1000 BCE) to the late Woodland (450 BCE). The artifacts consist of cultural accessories, projectile points, knives, and tools. The Archaic period is often characterized by prehistoric Native American population growth directly resulting from the increased consumption of nuts, seeds, and shellfish. The ending of the Archaic period is defined by the adaptation of sedentary farming, which resembles a style of farming that is much more common today. This date or year can vary drastically throughout the United States as not all tribes had adapted to this way of life at the same time. Tools such as the projectile points were used for not only hunting, but they were used as knives too, such as for cutting crops.

Nancy Bishop painting featured on Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, “Early and Middle Woodland period,” September 10, 2015, accessed in December 2021.

The Woodland period continued many trends that had begun within the Archaic period, such as farming and hunting. What separates the Woodland period from the Archaic period is the fact that the Native Americans started to use a trade route that spanned across a large distance and is referred to today by many archaeologists as the Hopewell Tradition or the Hopewell Interaction Sphere. The Hopewell Interaction Sphere allowed Native American populations during the Woodland era to exchange tools to survive. These trade networks range from as far South as Louisiana and Florida, as far West as Wisconsin and through the Ohio River valley, and as far North as New York and even parts of Canada. That is why we can see the Lecroy Points, originally found in Tennessee, here in northeastern Pennsylvania, because it is highly likely that many prehistoric Native American tribes traveled long distances to exchange tools along the Susquehanna River and other river settlements.

The cultural artifacts found in this collection are items such as rim shard incised, body shard incised, prehistoric ceramic shards, gorget fragments, neckwear accessories, a portion of a white tail deer antler, non-cultural rocks as well as other unidentified stones.

The pottery shards were a part of a larger pottery piece that were used as cooking vessels, storage vessels, urns, sculptures, ceremonial items as well as other artforms.

The other cultural artifacts such as the gorget fragments, neckwear accessories and a portion of a white tail deer antler were used for appearance, these pieces allowed other members of the tribes to know their rank, historical background and it allowed them to showcase their individuality.

Nancy Bishop painting, found on Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Pennsylvania Archaeology, “Late Woodland,” September 10, 2015. Accessed in December 2021.

This collection also has projectile points, which are objects that are hafted to become a weapon capable of being thrown. Projectile points were used for hunting and differ from traditional weapons used during this time, such as knives that were used for cutting fibers, food, leather and so on. They would be tied to the end of a throwing spear or a small handheld throwing stick called an atlatl. Not only were they used for spears, but they were also used just like knives.

Featured below are Otter Creek Points, Normanskill Points, Lecroy Skill Points, Port Marthland Points, Jack’s Reef Pentagonal Points, Jack’s Reef Corner-Notched Points, Side Notched Projectile Points, Corner Notched Projectile Points, Broken Corner Notched Projectile Points, Non-Diagnostic Points and Rhyolite Points. Some projectile points have special names because of where they were initially discovered by archaeologists.  

Otter Creek Points which were originally discovered in 1971 by Thomas Daniels in Otter Creek Valley in Otter Creek, Vermont. These points were then named by William A. Ritchie, a professional archaeologist in 1971.

Otter Creek Projectile Point

The Normanskill Points were named after the Normanskill watershed when William A. Ritchie found this type of point within the Hudson River Tributary in eastern New York in 1965.

Norman Skill Projectile Point

 Lecroy Skill Projectile Points get their name from the initial site that they were found in at the Lecroy site in Hamilton County, Tennessee by Madeline Kneberg, a famous archaeologist in 1956.

Lecroy Skill Projectile Points

 Jack’s Reef Points were named after the site where they were found by none other than Wiliam A. Ritche in 1961. He discovered both types of points in the same year at the same site, but the corner notched and side notched separate the two. Corner notched means there is a small incise in the corner that Native Americans used to tie them to a spear compared to the Side Notched Projectile Points which have an incise on the sides instead of the corners.

The other projectile points in this collection are named after the material that they are made out of such as the rhyolite points. There is no real known significance of this point other than the fact that the point itself is made up of the rock rhyolite. These points were used just as any other Prehistoric Native American projectile points such as a point on the end of a spear or used as a knife to cut objects as well.

Another highlight from this collection are the handful of tools that prehistoric Native Americans used in the mid-Atlantic region. These tools include Side Notched Net Sinkers, Flaked Stone, Debitage, Scrapers, Hammerstone (Untyped), and Drilled Rocks. While some tools, such as the net sinker, were used for the hunting and gathering of food sources, other tools like the scrappers, bifaces, flaked stone, and black chert were used to carve more tools such as axe heads and the handles for them. 

Greg Harlin, “Tool Making,” created by the studio of Wood, Ronsaville, Harlin, Inc. Annapolis, MD. Accessed in December 2021.

Side-notched Net Sinkers are artifacts that are typically flat pieces of stone that have notches on the side where the rope would get tied around it. The net would be thrown into a body of water and the net sinker would allow the net to stay in the same place and not flow downstream. Native Americans would tie the sinkers to a net so that the net would not float away while they collected fish. Below is an image of one and how it was used.

Nancy Bishop painting featured on Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission website, “Pennsylvania Archaeology: Archaic Period,” Accessed in December 2021.

Additionally we have a small and large mortar and pestle within the collection. Mortar and pestles were typically used in prehistoric times for grinding up flowers, leaves, and other herbs to add to food sources or produce teas and other remedies for sick members of the tribe. Unlike other artifacts in this collection this artifact is one that has survived thousands of years as in we still use this item today for some of the same uses such as in medicine as well as making teas and other food. 

Additional tools featured in this collection are Flint, Drills (Whole and Broken), Scrapers and Bifaces (Untyped), Knives (Untyped), Flaked Stone, Black Chert, and a bunch of broken and intact axe heads, some of which are featured below.

The limitations of this collection is the lack of provenience; specifically, we do not know where Mr. Fenner collected the specimens and that information is crucial to understanding the artifacts as well as the indigenous peoples who used them. If he had recorded where he collected the samples, we could have had archaeologists perform their own digging and research to get a better understanding of the area. The samples collected would also be a much more credible and a significantly more valuable contribution to the understanding of prehistoric Pennsylvania.

There are many locations in the Wyoming Valley on the Susquehanna floodplain that are known to be rich in prehistoric Native American artifacts. These sites are still excavated by local artifact hunters although there’s been more opportunities to educate the public on best archaeological practices from groups like the Frances Dorrance Chapter of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology. They advise that it’s incredibly important that if you collect, collect responsibly and record your findings. 

Despite the lack of provenience, the George L. Fenner Jr. collection may still be educational to geology students and provide researchers with an understanding of various types of tools and artifacts used by prehistoric Native American populations in the Mid-Atlantic region. At the very least, the wide range of projectile points and tools gives us a glimpse into the Hopewell Interaction Sphere’s influence within the Wyoming Valley. It is my hope that now that the Fenner collection is processed and digitized, it can contribute to archaeological research on prehistoric populations.

One thought on “Lessons in Archaeological Provenience: Processing the George L. Fenner Jr collection of prehistoric Native American artifacts, 1000BCE-450BCE

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s