Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office


The Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey (PASS), A Look Forward and Back


Did you know that Pennsylvania contains over 25,300 recorded archaeological sites? That’s not counting several hundred archaeological finds, such as isolated projectile points, which we don’t count as sites. And it goes without saying, this doesn’t include the sites that are yet to be found and documented!

Annual PASS Report

Each spring we take a look back at site recording activities during the previous year. This gives us a sense of who is recording sites, where they are located, and how and why they are being discovered.


Higher numbers of new sites were concentrated in Warren and Forest Counties, although Greene, Allegheny, McKean, Center, Delaware and Philadelphia were close behind. 17 counties recorded no new sites in 2018.

We just finished the 2018 report, so what did we learn?

  • As of January 1, 2019 there were 25,318 recorded sites, and the number has already grown since then! 285 sites were added during 2018, but that is down from previous years.
  • The majority of new sites continue to be recorded as part of cultural resource management surveys, consistent with site recording trends that have been in place since the 1990s. New sites also come from SPA chapters, university research projects, and other organizations, but in significantly lower numbers.
  • In processing old archaeological information (whether in paper files or artifact collections) we are rediscovering sites that were never added to the PASS files. One example is the Broomall Rockshelter in Delaware County (now 36DE0170), which was excavated by the University of Pennsylvania in the 1940s, but the information about this site became lost in our historic resource files without a PASS number! Similarly, as the State Museum of Pennsylvania continues to process the Fred Veigh collection, we could potentially add hundreds of sites to the PASS files. While these can’t be considered “new” sites, these discoveries represent a valuable opportunity to make more site information available for research and modelling.
  • The greatest numbers of new sites are being added in the counties covered by the Allegheny National Forest, and the majority of these stem from management surveys. Larger increases were also seen in Delaware County due to SHPO survey efforts in Ridley Creek State Park, and in Philadelphia, where ongoing work for the I-95 improvement project has led to the identification of many complex, multi-component sites.
  • Portions of northern and central Pennsylvania continue to be underrepresented in the PASS files, especially Sullivan, Potter, Columbia and Cameron counties.
Stone ruins

Workers’ housing ruins (36DE0175) located in Ridley Creek State Park, Delaware County.

Previous Trends

Last year, when I was digging into the history of the PASS files, Jim Herbstritt suggested that I create a graph representing side recording trends over the past few decades. I did just this, using data extracted from CRGIS to track site reporting since 1950 in the following categories: informant/avocational survey, PHMC-supported research, non-PHMC research, and compliance survey.

There are a couple of points to consider in viewing this graph:

  • The data includes updates to existing sites as well as recording new sites.
  • Recording sources and dates are not available for all sites.
  • Recording reason was not recorded on PASS forms until the early 2000s. For sites recorded prior to that time, the reason was added to CRGIS by whoever was doing data entry. On sites recorded since that time, the reason for site recording was self-identified by the recorder. In both cases, the recording reason may not have been applied consistently.

Site reporting trends since 1950, focusing on sites recorded or updated through CRM surveys, avocational archaeologists, PHMC projects, and other institutional research.

Regardless of these considerations, the graph illustrates a few preliminary trends:

  • Sites recorded based on information from collectors and avocational archaeologists generally dominated until 1988, the year in which CRM survey began to outstrip all other sources of site recording. CRM has dominated site recording since that time.
  • The late 1970s and early 1980s saw high numbers in overall site recordation, very high numbers of sites coming from avocational archaeologists, and frequent spikes in sites from PHMC projects and research conducted at other institutions. This period encapsulates the time when the PHMC ran an active regional survey program.
  • Recording trends are choppy into the 1990s and 2000s, mirroring periods of growth and decline in the development and energy sectors. Notable spikes include: 1993 – when hundreds of sites were revisited by archaeologists with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History through a PHMC-funded grant project, and 2015 – when survey was conducted for a handful of large pipeline projects.

Much more analysis is needed to draw any conclusive observations, but in the meantime we welcome your insights into these trends!

Why does recording matter?

We have explored several reasons for recording sites in previous blog posts, and these touch on themes such as consideration in planning and learning from the past. Since I don’t wish to sound like a broken record, I would simply add a couple more reasons here:

  • Site recording is a means of sharing – While a PASS form is never a substitute for an archaeological report or publication, the PASS files represent a distillation of our archaeological learning in Pennsylvania. Submitting new sites and updates places summary information in a place where it can be used by students, researchers, planners, and the interested public, and this is important for understanding the archaeology of Pennsylvania, synthesizing existing data, and planning new research. Incorporating bibliographic references to published books and articles further enhances the files’ usefulness.
  • Mitigating sample bias – It is well-recognized that archaeologists find sites where we are looking for them, but we also look for sites where we already expect to find them. This becomes a problem when considering the effectiveness of probability models, as well as appropriate strategies for testing them. Considering that CRM has dominated our site recording activities since the late 1980s, this factor is compounding our methodological sample bias in the sense that where survey occurs (and therefore where sites are recorded) is predominantly guided by development trends rather than research goals. I write this not to undermine the significant contributions of CRM archaeology, but rather to encourage other portions of the archaeological community to contribute to a more balanced geographic understanding of our state’s archaeological record.

How can I be involved?

This is a call-to-action to all who are interested in Pennsylvania’s archaeological heritage. 2018 saw the lowest site recording numbers since 2008, but this is something that we can change!

Site recording is not just a requirement for CRM surveys, it is an activity that should be part of every archaeological project, large or small, no matter who is conducting it. I would encourage universities and SPA chapters to work with local collectors to document sites. Recording should always be incorporated into student research projects and theses. And it is important to consider new partners among local museums and historical societies—organizations which are gathering places for information about artifact collections and sites. Remember: site updates are an important part of this process, too!

While the PASS form has provided a standard for consistent site documentation, it is not meant to be a barrier to the exchange of information. SHPO archaeologists are always available to answer questions about sites and recording, and to provide technical assistance when documenting findings, but the job cannot be left to a few of us. Let’s make 2019 a better year for PASS!

Author: Hannah Harvey

Hannah Harvey is an archaeologist and GIS specialist working with CRGIS and the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey.


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