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School's cache of Indian artifacts is ready-made research project

The link between an ancient American Indian culture and a group of student archaeologists is a Red Hill businessman who hunted animals and played Santa.

The link between an ancient American Indian culture and a group of student archaeologists is a Red Hill businessman who hunted animals and played Santa.

He lived on Main Street and died in 1964. He spent years walking the freshly plowed farm fields of Montgomery County, poking the earth with a long stick.

For decades, the artifacts collected by this unassuming man hung anonymously on the walls at Upper Perkiomen Middle School - until a Temple University archaeologist stopped by.

"We were awestruck," said R. Michael Stewart, an associate professor and an expert in prehistoric Delaware Valley American Indians.

At 1,980 pieces, and with its probable origins centered in the Upper Perkiomen area, the collection was the kind of find that could reveal the lifestyle of native peoples going back 10,000 to 13,000 years, Stewart said.

The artifacts are being studied by Temple University professors and graduate students, along with members of the Upper Perkiomen High School Archaeology Club. They plan to create a database and write a paper for a project expected to take years.

"It's the history of a lot of our ancestors - what they ate, how they lived," said Edward Felix, 16, a sophomore member of the high school archaeology club. "It's just interesting to hold them and think that a Native American actually used them to live."

The project was facilitated by Lou Farrell, a teacher at Upper Perkiomen High in Pennsburg and sponsor of the archaeology club. Farrell is also a doctoral student in archaeology. He encouraged Stewart and his colleagues to stop by the school when they were in the area on a project.

The collection consists mostly of stones "flaked" into various shapes to be used as projectile points, for cutting and scraping, and for butchering meat.

There are also pieces of pipe, a bowl, and a smooth rectangular stone with holes in it that was probably a pendant on an ancient necklace. The artifacts were donated to the school in the early 1970s.

Archaeologist Kurt W. Carr, of the State Museum of Pennsylvania, called the collection significant. "At 1,900 pieces, there's a lot of data that can be recovered from this collection," said Carr, senior curator of archaeology at the museum.

The pieces were part of a vast collection housed for many years in an upstairs room in the home of amateur archaeologist Charles Erb.

Erb lived in Red Hill with his wife, Katie. He ran a business called Sup-Erb Brushes. After a good rain, he often enlisted next-door neighbor Clarence Bowman and Bowman's little boys, Glen and Neil, to go out and search for the artifacts.

"We would go into a cornfield, and we each take three rows," said Glen Bowman, now 65, of Telford. "You had the row that you were walking in, and you had to look to the left and right to hunt for arrowheads and artifacts."

An outdoorsman and a gardener, Erb kept a diary of the wildlife that he saw daily, said State Rep. Robert Mensch (R., Montgomery), Erb's great-nephew.

"He would write, 'I saw three robin and six deer today,' " Mensch said.

After Erb's death from throat cancer, his wife donated the collection to Upper Perkiomen Middle School.

The school received the collection with the pieces glued to display boards. Walt Schmidt, a physical-education teacher at the time, took them off, attached them to display boards with wire, and enclosed them in glass frames.

The collection hung in the middle school undisturbed until several years later, when someone broke in and stole about 10 frames off the wall, said H. George Bonekemper, who was the school's principal at the time. That was at least half the collection.

School officials and police searched local flea markets and auction houses with no luck, Bonekemper said. The district used insurance money from the loss to hire Souderton artist William Sauts Netamuxwe Bock to paint a mural depicting Lenape Indians on the walls of the school library.

When Erb collected the pieces in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, buyers might have paid anywhere from five cents to $5 for one artifact, Carr said. In today's market, they could be sold for $5 to hundreds of dollars each, he said.

School officials declined to estimate the value of the collection, citing security issues. They met three months ago with an appraiser to decide how best to use and preserve the artifacts. The group opted for education over museum-like display, Superintendent Timothy Kirby said.

"The true value is in teaching. It's what we do," Kirby said. "This is a ready-made research project for the kids, and what could be better?"