Friday, September 23, 2016

Excavation continues at Fort Hunter

  This week in Pennsylvania Archaeology we review the foundation of an early smoke house uncovered by the archaeological excavations currently being conducted at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park by the Section of Archaeology of The State Museum of Pennsylvania. The structure was built by Colonel Archibald McAllister in the early 19th century on his plantation along North Front Street in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Col. McAllister started his plantation at the site of a French and Indian War fort in about 1787 by building a large stone house at the junction of Fishing Creek and the Susquehanna River. He was a very successful entrepreneur with his farming activities, eventually his operations included a grist and saw mill, a blacksmith shop and a tavern.

The smoke house was described in the agricultural newspaper Cultivator by Daniel Chandler in 1835 based on his visit to the farm in 1828. He described Col. McAllister as “a gentlemen of science and refined observation”. Chandler was especially impressed with his household conveniences notably the milk house, smoke house and clothes line, describing each in detail. The smoke house “was a wooden octagon building ….. perfectly tight except the door-way”. Chandler noted that the smoke house was unique in that it was elevated off the ground by a foot or more and that “no fire was admitted into the building” therefore reducing the chances of the building catching fire. The smoke for curing the meats was introduced into the building by a tube from a stove in an adjacent room.  Typically, in a conventional smokehouse the smoke is generated by a brick fireplace in the center of the earthen floor or by an iron stove in the building.  It was noted that McAllister’s arrangement provided a perfectly dry building allowing him to store his meats in the smokehouse until they were consumed.

The smokehouse foundation is not an artifact in the traditional sense, but is an archaeological feature, a technical term that applies to objects such as post molds, foundations, walk ways, roads and other remains that cannot be removed from the site. This treasure is the rocks which form the foundation of a structure – as in this case the base for the smokehouse. The archaeological footprint of Col. McAllister’s innovative smoke house design consists of a circular stone foundation 12 feet in diameter allowing for the unique octagonal building. The connecting room for the stove can be seen in the picture as an “L” shaped alignment of rocks to the right of the main foundation.

Excavations at Fort Hunter will continue weekdays 9am - 4pm, through October 7th.
For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Thursday, September 15, 2016

In the Public’s Eye - Out and About with Archaeology

The Section of Archaeology of The State Museum of Pennsylvania has been out and about with public programs the past few weeks and has returned to our excavation site at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, Harrisburg.   Archaeologists understand the value of sharing research and discoveries with the public in order to engage them in our preservation efforts.  This becomes all the more evident when we are at large events like Harrisburg’s Kipona festival, Indian Steps Native American festival and Fort Hunter.  The public is hungry for information about the past and so enthusiastic to learn about our archaeological heritage. Thank you! Your interest and enthusiasm makes going out on weekends and evenings worthwhile and enjoyable.

Look for the new banshee flag at our next event

As mentioned above, we have returned to Fort Hunter where we’ve been engaged with school groups- from elementary thru college age, bus tours and the Mansion’s regular visitors.  Everyone is surprised by the amount of detail and paperwork necessary to record our excavations.  From the most basic information such as site number (36Da159) to the measured elevation below datum of features- it is this precise scientific process that allows us to examine the results and evaluate the activities of the site occupants. 

School students peering into our shaker screen

Our focus this year is concentrated on the area east of the milk house, inside the milk house and adjacent to the porch.  Despite some record breaking temps we have plugged away at re-opening units along the porch and expanding upon this area with two additional units-yeah F & M students! Excavation of several features within the east block interpreted as a smoke house has produced few artifacts.   We are currently investigating two postmolds and additional stains to determine if they might follow the pattern. 

Setting up our grid in the East block 

Inside the milk house we are examining an area in the northwest corner of the building.  Gravel fill noted though unexplained until now was removed in an effort to determine if this is a builder’s trench associated with the well adjacent to the milk house.  This section has been void of artifacts, but is frequented by a regular visitor fondly (or not so fondly?)  referred to as “Rocky”.   The regular appearance of shed snake skins is an indicator that there may be more than one “Rocky” visiting our site.

"Rocky" hanging out in the milk house

The units adjacent to the porch are continuing to produce a mix of 18th, 19th and 20th-century materials.  Sorting out multiple occupations and ground disturbances to interpret the activity and time period in which they occur is always a challenge in archaeology.  Our lab volunteers will assist with sorting, washing, labeling of the artifacts so they can be examined later this fall. Historic records indicate that this area was heavily utilized and the variety of artifacts and numerous soil disturbances supports these documents.
Visitors to Fort Hunter from the Archaeological Conservancy

Speaking of out and about- come join us this Sunday, September 18th at Fort Hunter Days to learn more about the investigation and this rich archaeological site.  Archaeologists will be on site from 10:00 to 4:00, weather permitting

Snapping turtles came out to visit after our last rain event! 

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, August 26, 2016

Upcoming Events - Fall 2016

     Labor Day weekend is traditionally considered the end of summer since it is time to go back to school, days are getting shorter and tans are beginning to fade. It also marks the beginning of a season full of public programming for the Section of Archaeology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania. 

Section of Archaeology Display at 2014 Kipona Festival

Kipona – September 3-5, 2016

Our kick-off event is Harrisburg City’s Kipona Festival on City Island celebrating the Susquehanna River. Our booth will be located on City Island, west of the baseball field. Look for the tall ARCHAEOLOGY banner with The State Museum of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission logos.  Always popular is the replica 20 foot dugout canoe.  Stop by, have a seat in the canoe and learn about the prehistory of the Harrisburg area. Artifacts recovered from excavations on City Island in the 1990’s will be on display along with a few of the stone tools used to make the dugout.  Staff and volunteers from the Section will be present during the event to answer questions and offer insight into how people lived thousands of year ago. Brochures and other literature highlighting Pennsylvania archaeology will also be available.

Archaeological Excavations at Fort Hunter – September 7-October 7, 2016

Every fall since 2006 the Archaeology Section of The State Museum of Pennsylvania has led a month-long excavation at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park in Harrisburg, PA.  On September 7th, the search for the French and Indian War-period fort will resume. Prior excavations have documented thousands of years of human occupation at this spot overlooking the Susquehanna River that has served as a Native American campsite, a Colonial grist mill and trade location, a fort, and a Victorian-era farm. While previous years have been unsuccessful in locating the stockade or other fort structures, a new year brings new opportunities and expectations that this year’s excavations will prove successful.

One of the goals this year is to further investigate a circular stone foundation that appears to represent an octagon-shaped smoke house built by property owner Archibald McAllister in the early 1800s. Rather than building the fire inside the structure (a fire hazard), a stove was housed in a small attachment to the octagon. Investigations in this feature will hopefully confirm documentary research and add to our understanding of this early entrepreneur of Harrisburg efforts to build a successful business in the early nineteenth century. 

Stone Foundation of the Possible Smoke House at Fort Hunter

A second goal is to investigate the area immediately off the side porch of the original 1786 stone house. Folklore surrounding the location of the Fort Hunter blockhouse is that it now lies under this structure. Artifacts associated with Native Americans and military objects were found last year, so excavations will continue in this location in hopes of finding fort-related remains.
Come out and see what we find! Archaeologists will be on hand Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm to answer questions about the site and the archaeological process. In addition to weekdays, excavation will take place on Fort Hunter Day, to be held Sunday, September 18, 2016. Excavations will close for the year on October 7, 2016.

Workshops in ArchaeologyOctober 29, 2016
                The Archaeology Section of The State Museum of Pennsylvania invites you to attend the annual Workshops in Archaeology on Saturday, October 29, 2016. This annual program is designed to provide the general public with an overview of archaeological discoveries across the Commonwealth. This year’s theme is Understanding Symbols from the Past: Objects, Landscapes and Native American Beliefs
           What is the meaning behind petroglyphs, effigy mounds, beadwork, and images on pottery and smoking pipes? This year a series of presentations will focus on Indian symbolism in artifacts and on the cultural landscape.  Anthropologists have long examined symbols created by past cultures as a way of interpreting and understanding social, political or individual expression.  These take the form of abstract designs and depictions of animal, human and supernatural figures, frequently in stone and clay. The arrangement of earthworks and mounds also had meaning to people in the past.

Some of these symbols had religious connotations. Others represented clans or depicted supernatural beings that required appeasement. Although rarely found at archaeological sites, symbols on baskets or beadwork on clothing are also expressions of religious and cultural beliefs. They are reflections of how people perceived and organized their world. Symbolic artifacts recovered from the archaeological record provide a unique resource for examining past cultural behavior.  The presenters will examine the archaeological evidence of symbolism in Native American cultures and offer insights into their interpretations. 
In addition to the presentations, attendees can share their archaeological discoveries with staff from the State Historic Preservation Office who will provide assistance with identifying artifacts and recording archaeological sites, essential tasks for protecting and preserving our archaeological heritage. An additional offering includes a demonstration by a master flintknapper who will make stone tools using Native American techniques. A reception at the close of the sessions will provide an opportunity for the attendees to meet with the presenters and staff in the Anthropology and Archaeology Gallery of The State Museum.    
                The program and registration form will soon be available from our website. If registered before October 21, the cost is $25 for the general public or $15 for students and $15 for members of the Heritage Society, SPA, or PAC. The cost of registration at the door is $35.

                Finally, October is Archaeology Month in Pennsylvania.  The Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology will have programming throughout the Commonwealth that is open to the public as well as these opportunities offered through the State Museum. We hope to see you at one of our many upcoming events!

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .