FieldWork 2016

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Purpose of the work

In 2016 during the fall semester, the Muhlenberg College Field Archaeology class conducted fieldwork on Pennsylvania State Game Lands 217 under the direction of Dr. Benjamin Carter, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Department Chair and an archaeologist at Muhlenberg. The purpose of this research was to identify charcoal hearths (a.k.a. "pits"), the people who worked them, and the interrelationships of people and place with the industrial landscape of the Lehigh Valley’s iron industry. The aim was to provide insight into the lives of colliers working in the area, as well as, the processes for making charcoal and iron and the impact the industry had on the local community.

By initiating this research, the class wanted to address possible reuse of hearths, the area of timberland needed for each charcoal hearth, and the possible existence of a temporary living structure for the colliers. In attempting to identify and study charcoal hearths in this area, the class hoped to illuminate the role of colliers in Lehigh Valley industry and provide some insight into their lives. Through LiDAR data, pedestrian survey, and shovel test hearths, we attempt to demonstrate the presence of the charcoal industry, colliers and the way colliers used the landscape.


Possible charcoal hearths were identified using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). LiDAR is a form of remote sensing that measures the height of the land surface and vegetation across an area using a plane containing a combination of GPS, sensors/lasers, and an IMU (inertial measurement unit). The next step was to confirm that the anomalies identified in the LiDAR data are the remains of charcoal hearths. The class utilized a GPS-guided pedestrian survey[1]. The first day in the field, the class used GPS on iPads and Android devices in order to learn and see how well the LiDAR matched with charcoal hearths. Locations identified as charcoal hearths in the LiDAR were loaded onto the devices. Using GPS, the class walked to these locations to assess if they were charcoal hearths. In two days of work, 12 LiDAR-identified hearths were located and assessed. Two to three additional charcoal hearths were also identified that were not present in the LiDAR data. In order to complete the survey, a web-based form through Kobo Toolbox was used. Using the form, the class recorded: 1. Recorder; 2. Number from the LiDAR identifications; 3. Whether or not it was a likely charcoal hearth; 4. Condition of the hearth; 5. Location (GPS); 6. Size and orientation of the hearths; 7. Presence or absence of a path/ road; 8. Presence or absence of ferns (this was originally thought to be an important signifier- it is not); 9. Any additional notes[2].


During the 2016 fieldwork, several different methods, including the examination of LiDAR maps, pedestrian survey, shovel test hearths, and metal detection were utilized. In order to identify charcoal hearths not identified in the LiDAR, an area was chosen that was accessible and lacked LiDAR. In order to locate these hearths, a systematic transect survey (a survey done by walking in lines across the area of interest) was performed. Once the locations were chosen, the site was cleared using a combination of rakes, clippers, and a machete. The debris was then placed several meters away from the hearth so that it would not interfere with future shovel test hearths.

The general area of fieldwork consisted of two main parts: an upper portion of the mountain with steep, rocky slopes, and a lower area that was wooded with fairly dense vegetation. During the survey, approximately 100,000 meters of land was covered. Four previously unidentified sites were recorded during this process. Two charcoal hearths were identified (1003 and 1004) during the survey and an additional charcoal hearths (1005) was identified[3]. One unusual site (2001) was also recorded and due to its concave nature it was hypothesized to be a collier's hut[4].

Two of the locations identified in the systematic pedestrian survey, confirmed charcoal hearth (1004) and the potential colliers hut (2001), were chosen for further investigation. This included detailed mapping, shovel test pits and a metal detecting survey. On October 30th, 2016, three metal detectorists, Glen Gunther, Tim Reno, and Bob Gunther, from BRAVO (Battlefield Restoration and Archaeology Volunteer Organization), arrived to assist the team in identifying cultural remains. The metal detectorists swept both 1004 and 2001. When they located a possible artifact, the metal detectorists dug a small hole. As they dug, they utilized a tool called a pinpointer which is a smaller metal detector with a narrower magnetic field than the full-sized metal detector. This ensured that the metal detectorist was able to hone in on the original signal.


This research has produced a new understanding of the charcoal and iron industry in Lehigh and Carbon Counties of Pennsylvania. A total of four artifacts were collected at all of the sites as a collective, however the relevance of the objects to the history of charcoal production is inadequate. Three of the artifacts found, a bullet round, and two (likely) shaft fasteners, were found at site 1004. A forth object was found at site 2001 and this object was a curved piece of iron[5]. However, these artifacts reveal little about the site and the function of the charcoal hearths.

The background research of charcoal production has revealed the many individuals and families involved in the production of iron. In particular, it has shown the power and influence of The Balliet Family in the Lehigh area. Second, this research highlighted the less visible colliers, who were the backbone of the charcoal industry. Thirdly, over 670 charcoal hearths were identified on the slopes of the Blue Mountain and have ground-truthed some of these hearths. While it remains possible that there are LiDAR-recognized charcoal hearths that are false positives, the vast majority of these hearths are remnants of the charcoal industry. Lastly, the class tested and confirmed that the features identified in the LiDAR data are in fact charcoal hearths. However, no collier’s huts were identified.

This research has opened the avenues for further research, although many questions still remain. Where are the collier huts? What were the lives of the colliers like? How did roads and path connect the charcoal hearths to the furnaces? Were forests managed? And if so, in what way? What additional remnants of this vast industry remain in the wild woods of State Game Lands?

Refer to Field Work 2018 for updates on this research.


  1. Burke, Smith, and Zimmerman, 2009, 70
  2. Carter and Backenstoss 2019, 17
  3. Carter and Backenstoss 2019, 19
  4. Carter and Backenstoss 2019, 18
  5. Carter and Backenstoss 2019, 21


Burke, H., Smith, C., and Zimmerman, L. J. 2009. The Archaeologist’s Field Handbook. United States: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Carter, Benjamin and Backenstoss, Morgan. 2017. Charcoal Lands: A report on archaeological investigations in State Games Lands #217 Fall 2016. Submitted to: John Papson, Manager, Pennsylvania State Game Lands #217