Devonian and Pleistocene Fossils

The Cumberland region is rich in fossils. Just a few miles from the museum, along the bike and train route linking Cumberland with Frostburg, are Devonian fossil deposits. These small sponges, corals, trilobites, clam-like brachiopods, and snail-like gastropods are 419 to 358 million years old. The Devonian Era marked the beginning of life on land, but the Cumberland region sat under water. It was probably part of a coral reef!

The construction of the Cumberland-Frostburg train in the early 1900s uncovered a cave full of Pleistocene Era fossils, one of the richest fossil finds in the Eastern United States. The Pleistocene Era, marked by the last Ice Age, lasted from about 2.5 million years ago until around 11,000 years ago. During that time, animals including the sabre-tooth cat, cave bear, and mastadon roamed eastern North America. Many of these species became extinct at the end of the Ice Age. The cave was excavated by researchers from the Smithsonian and, while key fossils were taken to Washington DC, some remain in the museum’s collections, including examples of  cave bear (Ursus Americanus), peccary (Platygonus Vetus), porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum), wolf (Canis armbrusteri), and hare (Lepas Americanus).

Native American History and Culture

The first occupants of the Allegany Region arrived during the Paleo-Indian period, sometime before 8000 BC. As the Ice Age began to recede, the mountains surrounding Cumberland remained snow covered. For several thousands of years, the inhabitants of western Maryland hunted large game and foraged along rivers. By 5,000 BC the weather began to warm up and trees, including hickory, chestnut, and oak, began to dominate the landscape. The population grew, probably due to the availability of food sources and game inhabiting the newly wooded landscape. Local archaeological sites dating to about 3,000 BC are found with hand axes and ground stone tools, implements used for wood-cutting and plant and nut processing. Ground stones with notches, interpreted as net sinkers, show local populations also exploited river resources. Spearpoints and bannerstones (counterweights used with long spear-throwers called atlatls), shed light on hunting technology. Some bannerstones show incised artwork that may be symbols identifying the object’s owner.

Around 1000 BC, a particular kind culture called the Woodland culture, defined by ideas about ideology and ceremonialism, develops across a region of the eastern United States generally defined by areas of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and smaller river systems that feed into these watersheds. The Cumberland area was on the eastern fringe of this Woodland culture. During the Early Woodland period (that lasted until about 1 AD), the Potomac River shrank to near its present size, which exposed wide floodplains where seasonal camps and then permanent villages were established. In the following Middle Woodland period (AD 1 – 900) some villages used Watson ceramics made with a crushed limestone temper. During this time, there is some evidence that local villages traded with groups in the Ohio River system. In the Late Woodland period (lasting until the arrival of Europeans), settlements fortified with palisades appear, suggesting an increasing need for protection. Village life was centered around growing corn in fields along the river valleys.

The Allegany Musuem includes a display from the nearby Barton site, where long-term archaeological investigation has documented occupation from the arrival of Paleo-Indians until contact. Excavation has identified abundant stone and bone tools and ceramics. By A. D. 1400, the Barton site was a nucleated village surrounded by a log stockade. Trade with Europeans brought blue beads and copper tubes to the village.

As stewards of valued local collections, the Allegany Museum taps into local enthusiasm for history and prehistory, while preserving the past for all to enjoy and learn. The museum plans to develop a type collection for comparative research and hands-on education about regional prehistory.