The History Before Our History
Jasper Craftsmen Worked Here for Thousands of Years
Let's go back in time, several thousand years……
As we walk a well-worn trail toward the top of the treeless hill, we hear the clacking sound of stone against stone coming from several directions ahead.
We see smoke from a couple of small fires and smell the aroma of cooking meat. Above the almost rhythmic clacking, we hear occasional laughter and conversation.
At the top of the hill are great craters, 20 or even 30 feet deep and as much as 100 feet across. Men and women are working in many of these wide-mouthed pits, using nothing but primitive hand tools to break up massive boulders.
Working generation after generation, the ancestors of these people used the same kinds of tools to slowly dig out these large excavations.
Behind and below us, just above the creek, is a village of small wooden homes covered with bark. People pass us carrying chunks of rock in woven baskets down to the village, where men and women skillfully turn that stone into tools – scrapers, arrowheads, spear tips, knives and more.
They don't just make them for their own use, but trade them with others living up and down the eastern shores of this wild and rugged land.
Now come back to the future…..
Centuries of erosion have largely filled in the holes, leaving only leaf-covered depressions that many people might assume are just natural features of the landscape. Large trees have grown on the hill and in those depressions. Squirrels scamper through the woods and crows caw in the treetops. But the loudest sound is the unending rumble of cars and trucks on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, as it passes Jasper Park in Upper Milford Township.
Jasper is a wonderful stone. Colorful, shiny, smooth, sharp-edged, hard, yet workable. It almost has a warmth about it. It turns red, and weakens, when you heat it and produces a spark if you strike it with another rock.
It's not surprising that native Americans, perhaps wandering on the very ridge where the park now exists, saw the stone and picked it up. It might have been a flake or an outcropping. But once they discovered they could fashion it into sharp arrowheads, spear tips, knives, scrapers and other tools, a prehistoric industry was born.
November is an appropriate time to reflect on the fact that there is so much more to the story of American Indians than feasting with Pilgrims up in Massachusetts.
They quarried jasper in this area for at least 11,000 years, said Kurt Carr, senior curator of archaeology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. And they did it using nothing but their hands and the most primitive tools.
Carr said the jasper was some of the best quality stone available to make tools.
"Vera Cruz jasper has been found all over the Eastern seaboard, north and south, indicating a large trade network with neighboring people," said life-long township resident John Fegley, who occasionally gives tours through the wooded quarrying site in the park.
Carr confirmed archeologists have found jasper artifacts all over the mid-Atlantic region that came out of these quarries.
"They found this stone as far away as Oklahoma," said Bob Thomas, a jasper artifact collector who lives in Upper Milford.
"Three or four thousand years ago, the jasper was heavily used and traded all over the area," said Carr. "It still was used up to 2,000 years ago, then it died off."
Quarries not dug by Lenni Lenape
Carr said the name of the people who dug the jasper is unknown. He said the Lenni Lenape, whom most people consider the original inhabitants of this part of Pennsylvania, came into the area more recently. "The Lenni Lenape may have visited the jasper quarries but I don't know how much digging they did," said Carr. "They were not here when the jasper was being heavily used."
The quarries were pretty much abandoned by the time the first European settlers arrived in the early 18th Century. It wasn't just farmers displacing the Indians from their land that finished off the jasper industry. It was what those settlers brought with them ---brass pots and iron implements that could be fashioned into tips and tools that were better than any Stone Age implements.
Jasper Park largest remaining site
Carr said a half dozen similar jasper sites still exist, but Jasper Park is the largest one remaining. The township park also is the only public land where evidence of the ancient quarry workers can be seen.
Jasper was quarried in what is now Macungie, including right across the street from Eyer Middle School, as well as around Alburtis and in neighboring counties. Housing developments now stand on many of those sites.
Fegley said more than 100 pits were on the park site until the mid-20th Century. Most were destroyed when the Pennsylvania Turnpike was built next to the park in 1954-55. He said no more than 20 pits remain and worries that plans to expand the turnpike will destroy even more.
Most of the jasper in and around the park is yellow, brown or red, said Fegley. But other colors – green, blue, black and even white --- have been found in other locations, including another quarry site just two miles away.
While removing any jasper from the park is illegal, arrowhead hunters do get permission to seek artifacts on private land, such as a freshly-plowed farm field.
Thomas has nearly 200 artifacts, most of them jasper. "I found 15 last year," said the collector. "When you pick it up, you are the first human to touch it in maybe thousands of years. I like to think of the person who made it and why. These people were pretty intelligent. I really admire them. They survived for about 12,000 years here."