By Verna L. Cowin

This fall, an eight-foot-long model of a Proto-Iroquois "longhouse" will be unveiled on the third floor in Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The original longhouse, dating near A.D. 1125, was replicated in fine detail over a three-year-period of research and construction by Fred Crissman, an avocational archaeologist and a member of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology.

The road that led to the model began in the mid-1970s, when Carnegie archaeologist Stanley W. Lantz excavated the pattern of the house along the Allegheny River in Steamburg, New York. Crissman's model is based upon his own research into Lantz's archaeology and subsequent studies, and from research by other museum archaeologists who studied written historic accounts about the homes and villages of historic Iroquois groups.

Originally occupied by a group of Allegheny Valley Iroquois, the Steamburg longhouse measured 50 by 17 feet and provided shelter for an extended family. The archaeological team found the pattern of the house by tracing the stains of the decayed posts of the house (postmolds) in the modern subsoils. Lantz mapped the outer framework of the house by tracking 165 postmolds, measuring two and one-half inches in diameter and spaced at six- to 12-inch intervals. Thirty-one larger interior postmolds averaging six inches in diameter indicate that internal posts supported the roof and the framework for living and storage areas.

Most historic Iroquoian longhouses were built with a hearth in each living compartment, but the Steamburg Proto-Iroquois structure contained only one hearth, suggesting that the modern Iroquois social organization was still in a formative stage at the time the Steamburg site was occupied.

In addition to studying Lantz's findings and the published works of other scientists, Crissman received suggestions by Iroquoian scholars, including Dean Snow (then at SUNY, Buffalo; now at Penn State). Snow provided copies of Jesuit manuscripts from 1610-1791 that describe the houses encountered by the earliest missionaries into the New York/Pennsylvania area.

During the course of the model construction, the team of scientists and historians debated a topic that has been argued among museum professionals many times: whether the bark covering the outside of Iroquois longhouses was positioned vertically or horizontally. Excavations such as Lantz's have not revealed bark position, but most scholars argue for horizontal placement on the basis of early European records. Proponents of vertical orientation claim better drainage possibilities.

In pursuing the subject of bark covering, I uncovered references in the missionary papers that some historic natives used sharp stone adzes, or wood-working tools, to remove the roughest outer surface from the slabs of elm bark when preparing them for use on a structure. The trimming removed portions of the bark that were havens for insects and would likewise remove the channels that would affect drainage. This information put to rest the drainage issue, and the Carnegie's miniature bark slabs were therefore mounted horizontally.

When the Carnegie archaeological team excavated the remnants of the Steamburg longhouse, they found only one entry and, because it seemed unlikely that such a large structure would have had only one door, they assumed that a second one existed, but was masked by a confusion of postmolds on the southeastern corner of the structure. Repeated rebuilding of that corner was probably necessary to repair damage from recurrent flooding experienced during the five to 10 years that the house was inhabited. Although the house was subject to periodic damage, the location on bottom-land alongside the Allegheny River was ideal for growing crops, as recurrent flooding provided the refertilization necessary to sustain fields of corn.

Some clues about the foods eaten by the Proto-Iroquois were discovered in soil samples archaeologists removed from cooking and trash pits found in and near the longhouse. Lantz and his team processed the soil samples in tanks of water and then skimmed the surface of the water to recover charred, lightweight seeds and nutshells. The washed samples were also dried and sorted. These processes produced deer teeth, fish scales, charred corn kernels and nut fragments. Pottery, flint and stone artifacts found at the site provided the evidence for the miniature reproduction of utensils and tools that the Iroquois used to gather, prepare and serve their foods.

Exhibited with the longhouse model will be a model of a Monongahela house that Crissman built and donated to the museum in 1993. The Monongahela house is based on a single-family, circular dwelling dating near A.D. 1200. The remains of this round house with an attached appendage was unearthed in 1989-90 by Carnegie archaeologist Richard L. George in Washington County, Pennsylvania. The juxtaposition of the two models shows that while the Monongahela and Proto-Iroquois constructed different types of dwellings, their activities and foods eight centuries ago were similar.

Verna L. Cowin is associate curator in the Section of Anthropology, Carnegie Museum of Natural History