Digging the 18th Century

Franklin & Marshall Associate Anthropology Professor  Mary Ann Levine is quick to point out that her interest  in archaeology “predated Indiana Jones.”

Amused by the cinematic portrayals of cowboy archaeologists in films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Levine says she has been fascinated by anthropology—and specifically its archaeological aspect, the study of material remains of past human life—since childhood.

“As a teenager I read every entry pertaining to the ancient world in my Encyclopedia Britannica,” Levine says of the reference book that has followed her through every move she has made since then.

A native of Huntingdon, Quebec, Levine grew up near three Mohawk Indian reservations, something that initially stoked her interest in Native Americans. At McGill University in Montreal, she studied under Bruce Trigger, a well-known archaeology professor, who further ignited that passion.

Much of Levine’s early undergraduate and graduate-school research focused on hunter-gatherer populations, where she found a “spirit of communalism and a greater sense of equality in these societies.” An academic struggle that tugged at her, though, was a “difficulty addressing issues pertaining to women and gender in a way I found satisfying,” she says. Simply put, Levine wanted to find a project that allowed her to research the life of Native American women.

Over the last two decades, this search has led her to at least one remarkable Native American woman with a life story that is narratively as rich as any that Steven Spielberg, director of the Indiana Jones movies, could have imagined.

Madame Montour Comes to Life

In her research about hunter-gatherers and the areas they inhabited, Levine discovered a woman who was born in Quebec in 1667 to a French man and an Algonquin woman. This woman became known as Madame Montour, living a colorful life as a frontier diplomat in New York and Pennsylvania in the 18th century.

Bilingual in French and Algonquin, Montour married an Oneida Indian chief and worked as an interpreter for the then-governor of New York. Eventually Montour helped preside over land settlements between Native American tribes and the Pennsylvania governor.

For Levine, a professor whose courses include Queens, Goddesses and Archaeology as well as Archaeology of Colonialism in Native North America, stumbling upon a figure such as Montour was pay dirt.

It was a happy accident that Montour, like Levine, came from Quebec, she says. An even bigger draw for Levine was the fact that her village in Pennsylvania, Otstonwakin, could be located and might provide some cultural answers in Levine’s research about indigenous tribes.

Uncovering a Historical Village

To “locate” the historical village, Levine zeroed in on the coordinates through Google Earth and saw open land. “I could plainly see that the landscape that I thought would require archaeological investigation was not a Wal-mart or a parking lot or a housing development,” she says. “It was not developed, so it would likely have some good archaeological potential.”

In 2007, Levine and a team of F&M student researchers began excavating the area that is now known as Montoursville, Pa., about 2½ hours north of Lancaster. To date, more than 50 F&M students have participated in the several-weeks-long excavation, which has taken place every summer for the past five years. Levine and the students live together in a residence hall at a local college, eat together in the dining room and hit the grounds at 8:00 every morning to start digging.

More than 50 F&M students have participated in the dig at Otstonwakin.


Last summer, one student found a perforated brass thimble. “That was cause for great delight, largely
because objects like these were willfully modified by Native Americans into something else,” Levine says. “Sometimes brass thimbles were just thimbles, and other times they were perforated to become a pendant. These European trade goods were not necessarily acquired for the reasons that immediately come to mind.” Other significant objects that have been found include a brass ring, a kettle, musket balls, arrows and beads.

Claire Dalton ’11, a double major in biology and anthropology, was on the dig last summer and says it “laid the foundation for what I would go on to do.” This fall, Dalton will pursue her graduate degree in biological anthropology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

The Otstonwakin dig helped Dalton understand that “the idea that you’re just going to pick up a handful of dirt and find something is not realistic.” It is long, hard work, she says, and you learn to work in teams. “What happened at Otstonwakin didn’t happen in isolation,” she says, “and archaeology doesn’t happen in isolation.”

In July, the F&M team’s excavation at Otstonwakin came to a close. Next up for Levine is her sabbatical—often the time when a professor will write a book, which is exactly what she is doing. She is writing a seven-chapter book on the role that women played as diplomats in the 18th century, focusing on how Montour helped maintain peace between newcomers and natives at the Otstonwakin village.

Levine will no doubt miss the thrill of being in the field, but, after all, even Professor Indiana Jones needed some quiet time to analyze his findings.

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