Friday, August 14, 2015

Excavations of a Frontier Fort

Our review of the last 50 years in Pennsylvania Archaeology continues with a project that was conducted in the late 1970s at historic Fort Augusta in Northumberland County. Fort Augusta is located at the confluence of the North and West branches of the Susquehanna River in the present town of Sunbury, Pennsylvania. This fortification was part of a line of forts and blockhouses constructed during the Seven Years War, also known as the French and Indian War, in the mid-eighteenth century.

By the early eighteenth century, an Indian village, Shamokin, was established at this location. Shamokin was home to the famous Indian negotiator Shickellamy and his family and later also housed Moravian missionaries. In the mid-1700s, fear of attack by the French and their Indian allies led to the abandonment of the village and a request from the local natives to the British to place a fort in this location. During July 1756, construction of a large, fortified log structure was initiated by Colonel William Clapham, but it was not completed until 1757 under the command of Colonel James Burd.

The fort was constructed mainly of logs and earth and plans show that it was in the form of a square with diamond-shaped bastions in each corner. A wide, dry moat and stockade surrounded the fort and provided protection for the barracks, powder magazine, water well, and other interior structures. An outer stockade with four blockhouses along the Susquehanna River provided a protected area for boats coming upstream with supplies from Harris’s Ferry and Fort Hunter to land.

Artist’s Rendition of Fort Augusta (Photo: Northumberland County Historical Society)

Schematic Plan of Fort Augusta (Map: Busch 1896)

Although frequent raids by French-allied Indians occurred, Fort Augusta was never attacked by the French and it provided protection to the local inhabitants, friendly natives, and soldiers until the hostilities ended in 1762. The fort was utilized again during Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763) and the Revolutionary War but was demolished by the end of the eighteenth century. A later fort commander, Samuel Hunter, eventually retained a portion of the property and built the Hunter Mansion. (Please note, this site is not to be confused with Fort Hunter Mansion & Park in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.)   Hunter Mansion became a museum and headquarters for Northumberland County Historical Society in 1989. The only remains of the fort that are visible today are the well and the powder magazine.

The general location of Fort Augusta was known as early as 1896, when the Report of the Commission to Locate the Site of the Frontier Forts of Pennsylvania was published (Busch). This report attempted to locate and document all of the early frontier forts in the state. A Works Progress Administration (WPA) investigation of the fort was conducted in 1938 in the front yard of the Hunter Mansion. In addition to locating the remains of Fort Augusta, work included the construction of a large-scale model of the fort and the renovation of the Hunter Mansion. Unfortunately, excavation records from this investigation have not been located. Although French and Indian War-period artifacts were recovered and portions of the fort structure were identified, as well as Native American burials uncovered, there is little record of the results except for a short article in Pennsylvania Archaeologist (Godcharles 1938:75). The archaeological site of Fort Augusta was assigned the trinomial designation of 36Nb0071.

View of the Original Fort Augusta Model at the Museum along the Susquehanna River (Photo: Bucknell University)

In an attempt to reveal the construction and layout of the fort, archaeological investigations were conducted in 1978 and 1979 on a vacant property (called the Charles Cobler property) just north of the Hunter House. Trenches placed on the Cobler property indicated the presence of large amounts of fill materials associated with the fort construction and its demolition. Below this, archaeologists uncovered the remains of the earlier Indian occupation of the town of Shamokin and even earlier prehistoric occupations. Portions of the palisade wall, trench, and the dry moat were discovered and fort-period artifacts such as animal bones, musket balls, gun parts, buttons, cannon balls, and colonial ceramics as well as earlier Indian objects were recovered. In addition, fragments of iron and brass, slag, charcoal, worked gun parts, stone from a foundation, and highly oxidized soil indicated the presence of a “smithy” or blacksmith shop. This shop was identified as that constructed by the Moravian missionaries, who lived at Shamokin from the 1740s to 1755 (Nichols 1979). 

Cannon Ball, Musket Balls, and Shot Recovered from 1978/1979 Excavations (Photo: PHMC Collections)

Subsequent investigations were conducted in 1981, 1992, and 2005/2006 in attempts to better define and locate the structures identified in historic documents. In 1981, trenching was conducted in a parking lot, which would be impacted by a construction project, and in the probable location of the fort’s northeast bastion. Excavations in this area of the parking lot yielded mainly Indian artifacts while excavations in the supposed bastion uncovered the remains of a log footer, the dry moat, and a fort-period pit feature in conjunction with minor amounts of military artifacts (Lewis 1981). The 1992 excavations concentrated on the powder magazine, which was to be repaired. Investigations established the relationship of the magazine to other features of the yard and determined that much of the artificial fill over this feature was due to a nineteenth century tower placed in this location (Warfel 1992). In 2005/2006, testing was conducted in conjunction with a proposed new library and reconstruction of the large-scale fort model on the front lawn of the Hunter Mansion. Large amounts of fill were also found during this investigation as well as additional remains of the fort wall, dry moat, and other fort-related features (Delle 2006).

Excavations of the Powder Magazine during the 1992 Excavations (Photo: PHMC Collections)

 Taken as a whole, the various excavations at Fort Augusta have allowed investigators to position the fort on the landscape of modern Sunbury, determine construction methods, locate elements of the earlier Shamokin town and Moravian blacksmith shop, and match physical evidence to the written accounts of this period of Pennsylvania history. In 2013, the large-scale model, which had been previously dismantled, was reconstructed at the Hunter Mansion. For more information on Fort Augusta or the Northumberland County Historical Society, please check out their website at                     

 Reconstructed Large-Scale Model of the Fort (Photo: Northumberland County Historical Society)

Sources Cited and Additional Reading

Bucknell University
2015 Bucknell University website. As found at

Busch, Clarence
1896       Report of the Commission to Locate the Site of the Frontier Forts of Pennsylvania, Vol. 1. Harrisburg: State Printer of Pennsylvania.

Delle, James A.
2006       Phase II Archaeological Investigations at Fort Augusta, Sunbury, PA; Preliminary Report on 2005 Excavations. Prepared for the Northumberland County Historical Society in cooperation with the Bureau of Historic Preservation.

Godcharles, Frederic A.
1938       Valuable Recoveries at Fort Augusta – Work Done by WPA Project. The Pennsylvania Archaeologist VIII (4): 75-78.

Hunter, William A.
1960       Forts on the Pennsylvania Frontier, 1753-1758. Harrisburg: The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.  

Lewis, Thomas
1981       Fort Augusta: 1981 Archaeological Field Investigation. Manuscript on File, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Northumberland County Historical Society
2015       Northumberland County Historical Society website. As found at

Warfel, Stephen              
1993       Archaeological Investigations of the Powder Magazine at Fort Augusta. Northumberland County Historical Society Proceedings 31:7-56.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Schultz Site Diorama – The Oldest Exhibit on Display in the Archaeology Gallery at the State Museum of Pennsylvania

The first incarnation of the State Museum of Pennsylvania was located in the Executive office building (now the Ryan Building) attached to the State Capitol. Due to limited expeditions by the museum, this first archaeology gallery contained items primarily donated from local collectors. Subsequent excavations sponsored by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (now the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission) were some of the first to produce provenienced collections that offered reliable insight into the lives of Pennsylvania’s prehistoric inhabitants.

Using information gathered from 1931 excavations at the Schultz site and historical accounts of other Susquehannock and Iroquoian village sites, museum preparators Linneaus G. Duncan and Charles Andes crafted the display we now know as the Schultz site diorama. The wax figures stand approximately 6 inches tall and were created from plaster molds. Once extracted from the mold, the models were posed and details such as clothing, hair, and color were meticulously added by Mr. Duncan, the museum’s chief preparator. In the photograph below, Linneaus Duncan sculpts one of the figures, note the plaster mold in the foreground with figures in varying degrees of completion arranged behind it.
(Photo: PHMC Collections)

Oil paints were used to add color, and small pieces of leather and fur were used for clothing. Often overlooked details of this display are the miniature deer skins - one is tacked to the exterior of the structure and another is draped across a log. Upon closer inspection, these tiny pelts are revealed to be the furs of mice. Among the materials used by the preparators during the time of the diorama’s construction were various chemicals, oils, shellac, varnish, various paints, plasteline clay, beeswax (likely the material used to make the figures), and assorted brushes and tools. These items were indicated on a supply list dated 1932.

Linneaus Duncan (right) and Charles Andes (left) prepare the area outside the stockade village
(Photo: PHMC Collections)

Completed by 1933, the Schultz site diorama was intended to give museum visitors a view into prehistoric life that left no detail to the imagination. The craftsmanship and care taken in the display’s creation is still evident today. In the 1960s, the diorama was deemed “too good not to use”, and was moved to its current location for the opening of the William Penn Memorial Museum (now the State Museum of Pennsylvania) in 1965.

The Schultz site diorama in its original location at the old State Museum
(Photo: PHMC Collections)


Since the 1930s, our knowledge of the Susquehannock culture has expanded considerably. The Schultz site (36La7) was a mid to late 16th century Susquehannock village located in Lancaster County. The first excavations at this site were executed by Donald Cadzow in 1931 and were sponsored by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission. These excavations yielded, among other things, ornamental objects and pottery from features. Subsequent excavations in 1969 revealed extensive detail about the Susquehannock culture of the 16th century. Among the records from the latter excavation are maps of excavations revealing the stockade and the shape and layout of house structures. Contrary to the diorama, house structures were often rounded at the ends, as opposed to squared.  In addition, we do not really know the height of the stockade or if it held a firing platform. Finally, we now know that the Susquehannocks buried their dead in cemeteries and not mounds as depicted on the far right of the diorama. Susquehannocks occupied village sites in the Susquehanna River valley (shown in the diorama’s background) in central Pennsylvania from the 16th century to the time of European contact.

(Photo: Don Giles, State Museum of Pennsylvania)

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

Friday, July 17, 2015

Excavations at Sheep Rock Shelter (36Hu1)

We are continuing our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opening of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.  This week will take us back a little beyond that 50 year window in an effort to set the stage for one of the most spectacular sites to be excavated in central Pennsylvania. 

In 1957, John E. Miller of Altoona, Pennsylvania was the guest of John Folk, also from Altoona, on a boat trip down the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River.  They enjoyed a conversation about the surrounding landscape mentioning that it was well suited for rock shelters.  Miller learned that there was such a place and upon visiting it that day dug a test pit toward the back wall of the shelter.  He quickly began recovering pottery, animal bones, mussel shells, charcoal and a stone hoe.  The following year he revisited the site with some other friends and dug a subsequent pit revealing many organic artifacts; corncobs, cornhusks, cornstalks, cordage and more.  
Corncobs, cornhusks and seeds

Cordage and woven mat or fabric

Cordage and fish hook

This is what makes Sheep Rock Shelter (36Hu1), as it came to be named, such a spectacular site.  It was a dry rock overhang enabling the preservation of organic material, something almost never found in the wet, humid climate of Pennsylvania. 

Archaeologist studying prehistory in Northeastern North America often speculate that the variety of stone tools we most often associate with prehistoric people actually represents only about 10% of their material culture.  The other 90% would have been made out of perishable or organic materials; and therefor lost to the ravages of time and decomposition.  Sheep Rock Shelter represents a small, local window into that rarely seen part of everyday prehistoric life.

Fortunately, these men realized the rarity of uncovering artifacts such as these; and that they needed professional guidance.  Miller entrusted his brother-in-law and co-excavator Melville Corl to take samples of the artifacts to a meeting of The Society of Pennsylvania Archaeology where he shared them with John Witthoft, the State Anthropologist with the Pennsylvania State Museum (currently The State Museum of Pennsylvania).

The first order of business was to find the landowner of the rock shelter, which proved to be more difficult than expected.  Permission was eventually granted and on July 14, 1958 the first systematic excavations commenced.  It was Melville Corl, E. J. Stackhouse, Raymond Zeak and Tommy Lukehart who were contributing to the original excavations.  Trudging through the woods with equipment and then boating the final leg to begin digging at the site. 

"Sheep Rock Shelter Dig Summer 1960, Entrance Way to Dig Showing
ledge going into the River" description from back of photograph

John Witthoft arrived on July 21 to inspect and participate in the dig.  Due to the volume and unique nature of the artifacts recovered, the threat of looting and the difficult logistics accessing the site, it was decided to turn the site over to the Pennsylvania State Museum.  In 1959, John Witthoft, the State Anthropologist and Fred Kinsey III, the State Archaeologist took responsibility, on behalf of the museum, for any future excavations at the site.   

"Sheep Rock Shelter, Site 36Hu1, July 1958
Celts where found in Crevases at back wall of shelter"
description from back of photograph

In the summer of 1959 Fred Kinsey excavated at Sheep rock with a crew of students, as a field school through the Pennsylvania State University.  The same arrangement continued for the following three years under the direction of John Witthoft.  During those years of excavation they dug to a depth of more than twenty feet within the shelter and produced an estimated 80,000 artifacts.  

They were also producing some very well trained archaeologists that continued a legacy of scientific excavation and publication in Pennsylvania archaeology.  Through these efforts the basis for our understanding of the occupation and geologic sequence of the region was formed.

There were no excavations the following two years until 1965 when Ira Smith, a former Sheep Rock field school student and later the State Field Archaeologist for the William Penn Museum (currently The State Museum of Pennsylvania), conducted a survey of the area.  Plans had been made by the Army Corp of Engineers to build a dam which would flood the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River, covering Sheep Rock Shelter with more than one hundred feet of water.  Smith’s survey was responsible for finding 35 additional sites that would have been lost. Excavations, especially in the Archaic levels, of the shelter resumed. 

Excavations continued the following year, again as a field school but this time as a joined effort of the Pennsylvania State University and Juniata College under the direction of Joe Michaels and Ira Smith. 

Sheep Rock Shelter remains one of the most amazing sites excavated in Pennsylvania.  It harbored some of the most unique artifacts of everyday prehistoric life for thousands of years.  Keeping them dry and preserved as a result of its unique geological conditions.  Although the real site is inaccessible now in the depths of Raystown Lake you can get a sense of what it was like by visiting the Anthropology/Archaeology gallery at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.  Exhibited just to the left of the open excavation you can see what the shelter was like.  The back wall of the exhibit was created from a mold of the actual back wall of the shelter.  Also exhibited in the Technology area of the gallery are the bark basket, fabric, cordage, netting, canoe paddle, and fire making kit all recovered from this remarkable site.

Bark Basket

Please feel free to search through our past blogs for more information about Sheep Rock Shelter, or see the following sources used in this week’s editions of TWIPA.

Edgar J. Stackhouse and Melville W. Corl
1962   The Discovery of the Sheep Rock Shelter (Site 36Hu1)
Pennsylvania Archaeologist 32(1):1-13

Joseph W. Michaels and Ira F. Smith
1967   Archaeological Investigations of Sheep Rock Shelter, Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania

Kurt W. Carr and Roger W. Moeller
2015   First Pennsylvanians, The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission 

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