Friday, November 8, 2019

Have We Found the Fort at Fort Hunter?

Another season of excavation at Fort Hunter is finished, but this turned out to be quite an exciting year! Thousands of 18th century artifacts have been found over the last decade of work at the site, but this year brought the first evidence of a possible structural feature relating to the fort or even to a period associated with the first European inhabitants of this area.

Excavation was renewed in three test units opened in 2018 near the porch at the northwest corner of the mansion. Many 18th century artifacts were recovered from this area last year and we found an unusual, thick layer of charcoal that we called Feature 172. (A feature is evidence of a human activity that is left in the ground, such as a garbage pit or fire hearth.) A second feature, Feature 173, was a dark stain that had been found in Unit N60 W45 in 2018. This feature also produced primarily 18th century artifacts and was thought to have been completely excavated in 2018. At the beginning of the 2019 season, the goal was to complete excavation of the remaining prehistoric soils (called the B-horizon) in these units and to move on to another part of the site in a continued search for the fort.

Overhead view of excavations near the porch at the northwest corner of the mansion house (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

2019 Opening photo, showing the B-horizon (orange-tan), sewer pipe trench, and top of Feature 173 (dark stain to left and right of the exposed sewer pipe) (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

The archaeologists began removing the B-horizon in levels; however, it soon became obvious that these levels, which should only have produced prehistoric Indian artifacts, were instead producing a mixture of prehistoric and historic artifacts. A reassessment of the situation led to the conclusion that this soil had been disturbed, and it was renamed Feature 192. Although it was thought that Feature 173 had been completely excavated last year from along the east wall, removal of the Feature 192 soils revealed that Feature 173 was still visible and even appeared to be growing larger and spreading west along the floor of the unit. Large rocks, bone fragments, chunks of charcoal, and historic ceramics began to emerge.

Top of Feature 173 exposed in N60 W45. Note bone fragments and ceramics (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

Many interesting historic artifacts were uncovered in Feature 173, including mid-18th century ceramics, musket balls, cut animal bones, a horseshoe, copper fragments, straight pins, and a clasp knife. Tiny fish bones, flakes of spalled-off ceramic glaze, and a number of white seed beads (of the type that would have been traded with the Indians) were recovered straight off the feature floor. These objects were so small they would have fallen through the screening material and been lost before anyone knew they were there. Two dozen beads were eventually recovered from the feature.

Three white seed beads on the floor of Feature 173 (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

In another part of the feature, a swipe of the trowel cut across the top of what at first appeared to be a small mound of pebbles lying in the dirt. Closer inspection revealed that the pebbles were actually a pile of small caliber lead shot! From their position lying in a pile, it is likely they were once enclosed by a leather bag or shot pouch, which would have rotted away and left the lead contents intact.

Pile of lead shot lying in the floor of the feature (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

At this point, the time allotted for our field work was up. However, due to the excitement over our finds we decided to stick it out another week and attempt to complete the excavation of Feature 173 in Unit N60 W45. By this time, the feature had resolved itself into a square shape with a possible corner in the northeast corner of the unit. Three additional layers of rock and soil were removed from the unit and Feature 173 was beginning to appear in Unit N60 W50, just to the west of N60 W45. Very large pieces of charcoal were found throughout the feature, some of which were collected as samples, and two large pieces of furnace slag from metalsmithing were recovered.

Unit N60 W45 showing Feature 173 possible structure corner (darker soil in floor) (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

The most interesting finds of the season were made that last week (at least according to this archaeologist!). A large fragment of a Delft bowl base was recovered from the second level of the feature, as well as a strike-a-lite, more trade beads, a thimble with pins, and a beautiful pair of pewter and green glass cuff buttons. I must admit that my mind screamed "Emeralds!" when I first caught sight of them. But just as amazing is that they are still connected by a tiny brass loop after 250 years in the ground.

Pewter and green glass cuff buttons (Photo: The State Museum of Pennsylvania)

Unfortunately, due to time restraints we had to pack up and leave the site before getting to the bottom of Feature 173. It is still unclear exactly what this feature represents since we did not get it completely finished. One theory is that it may be part of the defensive ditch that was described as encircling the blockhouse. Another more likely possibility is that it is a cellar of a structure, either related to the fort or to an earlier period.

The presence of furnace slag, metal objects, large amounts of charcoal, crucible fragments, and a whetstone also point toward the possibility of a blacksmithing operation somewhere in the area. Research indicates the presence of both a blacksmith and gunsmith on the property in the 18th century, but the location of the operation is not known. The small amount of burnt soil and slag and metal do not seem to indicate this is the primary location of a smithy, but who knows what next year will bring.

It's going to be very difficult to wait an entire 11 months to get back out to the site. Next year, we hope to uncover the entirety of Feature 173 in the surrounding units to determine its size and shape. Hopefully even more amazing finds will be made, and we can get an answer to the function and age of this feature. Meanwhile, there is still work to complete in the lab, including having the charcoal samples and slag analyzed and possibly x-raying of rusty iron items. This analysis may be able to give us more information on the types of wood being burnt and chemical composition of the slag, as well as letting us see the objects beneath the rust to aide in accurately identifying these artifacts.

For additional information on blacksmithing and early trade at Fort Hunter, please see our blog from May 11, 2018 ("To Be Ore Not To Be: Crucibles are the Answer") or November 20, 2015 ("New Perspectives on an Old Subject: Trade and Native American Relations at Fort Hunter").

The end of October and the end of our field season at Fort Hunter also marks the end of Archaeology Month in Pennsylvania. We hope you had an opportunity to visit an archaeology program in your community to learn about our rich heritage in Pennsylvania. If you didn't have an opportunity to do so, there is still time! The annual Workshops in Archaeology Program is Saturday at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Registration is available at the door and our presenters are excited to share their knowledge and research of the Monongahela culture.  This series of lectures provides an overview of the Monongahela culture, highlighting changes that occurred over time and discussion of their disappearance from the archaeological record. We hope you can join us November 9th, 2019 - registration desk opens at 8:30 am.

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

Friday, October 25, 2019

Discover the Monongahela Culture Archaeology of Southwestern, Pennsylvania

Monongahela, Youghiogheny and lower Allegheny valleys

Archaeologists began exploring prehistoric Native American sites in the Monongahela, Youghiogheny and lower Allegheny valleys as early as the late 1800’s when much of the emphasis was placed on mounds (cf. Hayden 1883; Thomas 1894; Carpenter 1951). Other sites were added by the Pennsylvania Indian Survey in 1928 under the direction of Dorothy Skinner. This was an expansion of the work begun in 1924 by Frances Dorrance, Director of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society (Smith and Herbstritt 1977).

Francis Dorrance 

In addition to the interest in mound sites other information was published in the 1930”s (Cadzow 1933); Engberg (1931); George Fisher (1930) that broadened the distribution of sites known at that time for southwestern Pennsylvania, especially Late Prehistoric villages located in upland (hilltops and mountain ridges) and valley settings. 

Archaeological investigations in Somerset County during the late 1930’s identified a number of Native American villages. The work was done with government funding through the Works Progress Administration better known as the WPA. In a report to the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Dr. Mary Butler (1939) linked these people to a mixed material culture having Algonquin and Iroquoian traits and so named it the “Monongahela Woodland Culture”.

Mary Buttler

Over time, archaeologists dropped “Woodland” from the name, and the “Monongahela Culture” was borne into the literature that presently describes the Late Prehistoric through Protohistoric period Native American occupations of southwestern Pennsylvania where their material traits are found (Mayer-Oakes 1955).

Clay Monongahela pottery vessels

The Carnegie Museum carried on its research interest into Monongahela archaeology after Mayer-Oakes field work was completed and published in the museum’s Anthropological Series No. 2 “Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley: An Introductory Archaeological Study” (Mayer-Oakes 1955). Don Dragoo (1955) and later, Richard George (see for example 1974; 1978; 1983; 2011) who conducted field work and published extensively on the Monongahela Culture, began organizing the differences observed in the  artifact assemblages using the concept of “Phase” developed by Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips (1958) which with some modification remains in current use (Herbstritt 2003; Johnson and Means 2020). The following cultural phases/subtraditions for Monongahela are in current use.

Early Monongahela                  1050-1250 AD     Drew, Kiskiminetas, 
Somerset I subtradition
Early Middle Monongahela     1250-1450 AD     Campbell Farm, 
Somerset II subtradition
Late Middle Monongahela       1450-1580 AD     Scarem, Youghiogheny, Johnston, 
Terminal Somerset II subtradition
Protohistoric Monongahela      1580-1640 AD     Throckmorton (Early sub-phase), Foley Farm (Late sub-phase)

Triangular projectile points

Attempts have been made to link the cultural identity of Monongahela to different Native American language groups such as Siouan and Iroquoian based on linguistic (cf. George 1980, Johnson 2001; Sorg 2003; Swauger 1974), oral history and the cartographic/historical record (Hoffman 1964), research topics that have drawn critical review.

Marginella shells, fish vertebrae and a carved shell ornament

Archaeologists recognize the disappearance of the Monongahela culture from the archaeological record in the mid-1600’s. The impact of European diseases is not certain. Iroquois warfare is more easily supported. Droughts played a significant role in reducing the population of Monongahela villages and impacted survival. Examination of the curated artifacts and site information for these villages, as well as more recent excavations has enabled archaeologists to gain a better understanding of this culture group.

Glass trade beads

To learn more about the Monongahela Culture please join us in Harrisburg on November 9th 2019 when the State Museum of Pennsylvania will host its annual Workshops in Archaeology Program “Defining Monongahela: Western Pennsylvania’s Archaeological Mystery”.  This is a program for the general public interested in how Native Americans lived in the Upper Ohio Valley centuries ago.    Featured will be different topics on Monongahela Culture with eight presentations by archaeologists familiar with this unique Native American culture that disappeared in the early 17th century. 

2019 Annual Workshops in Archaeology 


1939       Three Archaeological Sites in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Cadzow, Donald A.
1933     Mr. George Fisher’s Discoveries in Western Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 3(3): 3-5, 16-17. Harrisburg. Carpenter, Edmund S.
1951     Tumuli in Southwestern Pennsylvania. American Antiquity 16(4): 329-346. 
             Salt Lake City. Dragoo, Don W.
1955     Excavations at the Johnston Site, Indiana County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 25(2): 85-141. Engberg, Robert M.
1931      Algonkian Sites of Westmoreland and Fayette Counties, Pennsylvania. Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 14: 143-190. Fisher, George S.
1930      Indian Sites and Excavations in Western Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 1(2): 8-9.
              George, Richard L.
1974      Monongahela Settlement Patterns and the Ryan Site. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 44(1-2):1-22.
1978     The McJunkin Site, A Preliminary Report. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 48(4): 33-47.
1980     Notes on the Possible Cultural Affiliation of Monongahela. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 50(1-2): 45-50.
1983      The Gnagey Site and the Monongahela Occupation of the Somerset Plateau. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 53(4): 1-97,
2011     The Wylie #3 Site (36WH283): Part I. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 81(1): 1-27. Hayden, Horace
1883      Antiquities of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Smithsonian Institution Annual Report for 1881, pp. 638-641. Washington. Herbstritt, James T.
2003       Foley Farm: The Importance of Architecture and the Demise of the Monongahelans. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 73(1): 8-54.  Hoffman, Bernard G.
1964      Observations on Certain Indian Tribes of the Northern Appalachian Province. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 191. Johnson, William C.
2001      The Protohistoric Monongahela and the Case of an Iroquois Connection. In Societies in Eclipse: Archaeology of the Eastern Woodland Indians, A.D. 1400-1700, edited by David SBrose, C. Wesley Cowan and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., pp.67-82. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington. Johnson, William C. and Bernard K. Means
2020    The Monongahela Tradition of the Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric Periods, 11 - 17th Centuries AD. In the Lower Upper Ohio Valley in The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. In press. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. Mayer-Oakes, William J.
1955    Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley: An Introductory Archaeological Study. Anthropological Series No. 2. Annals of the Carnegie Museum 34. Smith, Ira F. and James T. Herbstritt
1977     A Status Report on the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
             Sorg, David J.
             Linguistic Affiliations of the Massawomeck Confederacy. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 73(1): 1-7. Swauger, James L.
1974    Rock Art of the Upper Ohio Valley. Akademische Druck – u. Verlagsanstalt Graz/Austria  Willey, Gordon R. and Phillip Phillips
1958    Method and Theory in American Archaeology
           University of Chichago press, Chichago. Thomas, Cyrus
1894    Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology. 
          Twelfth Annual Report of the Bureau of  Ethnology, 1890-1891, pp. 494-503. Washington.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .
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Friday, October 11, 2019

Falling Through History

This week’s guest blog is provided by Mifflin County High School student, Granuaile Moyer and offers a teen’s perspective of our investigation. Granuaile spent a week with us this year at Fort Hunter and is excited to share her experiences with others. 

Granualie Moyer

Recently I was able to participate in an archaeological excavation with The State Museum of Pennsylvania.  I’m fortunate that my mother is an archaeologist and curator at the museum. They have been conducting archaeological excavations at Fort Hunter since 2006. They are only able to be in the field for one month, the other eleven months they are busy being curators taking care of other people’s artifacts from excavations. For one month of the year though, they are busy searching for structural evidence of the French and Indian War fort that gives Fort Hunter its name.

Map from 1763 indicating Fort Hunter

The land was first settled in 1725 by Benjamin Chambers, who later founded Chambersburg. During the French and Indian War (1755-1763), the British built a small supply fort at the rivers bend. After the war was over, the fort was left to rot. Captain Archibald McAllister, who fought with general George Washington in the Revolutionary war, settled on the land. He built a small farmhouse in 1787, which is believed to have been built on the foundations of the fort blockhouse. He later expanded the farm, he built a sawmill, country store, blacksmith shop, artisan’s shops, school, distillery, and tavern. 

                                                                          1860s McAllister

The next owner, Daniel Boas, bought the house in 1870, then left it to his daughter and son-in-law, also known as the Reily’s. The Reily’s built the last and biggest addition to the house in the late 1800s. The Reily’s ran a successful dairy farm for 50 years. Since they never had any children, they had many pets, such as dogs and cats. They also had some extravagant pets, like peacocks, a parrot, and a Macaque monkey.  

Daniel Boas

They later left the farm to their nieces and nephews, one of which being Margaret Meigs. Margaret recognized the historical value of the land and set out to make it a museum. In 1956, she along with her family set up the Fort Hunter Foundation. With their hard work and dedication, they were able to restore the land and create an educational program. Now the land is owned by Dauphin County, and you are able to tour the estate to learn more about its great history, or to just simply enjoy the scenery. 

Fort Hunter 

The Section of Archaeology for the State Museum of Pennsylvania has been working at Fort Hunter Park since 2006. They are looking for the remains of the French and Indian War fort, Fort Hunter. They have not found any structural evidence of the fort yet, however they have found other evidence such as a cannon ball, musket balls and gun parts among other things. They have also found the old farm well, which was connected to the milk house by a small pipe. The
pipe allowed cold water to run through the walls of the milk house keeping their food cool. They also found a unique octagonal smokehouse that was built by Mr. McAllister. There was a pet cemetery left from the burials of the Reily’s many beloved pets. They have also found numerous prehistoric artifacts, such as projectile points, prehistoric pottery (cordmarked or plain in decoration), and a prehistoric grooved stone axe dating back 4,000 years. These artifacts give evidence of at least 9,000 years of human occupation of the landscape we now call Fort Hunter.

Even as a small child I was intrigued by archaeology, my mother saw my interest and allowed me to come with her to watch her work. I was six years old the first time I visited an excavation, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to visit and participate every year since then. In the beginning I just observed how precisely they would take the layers of soil down. It was not until I was nine years old that I was able to get into a unit. This was the year that they discovered the pet cemetery behind the milk house. I was in the unit with my mother helping her write the bags, take measurements and draw the unit.

Archaeological excavation is a destructive science, the soils can never be put back the way you found them, so it is very important to know where artifacts are discovered. A grid is laid out over the site so north south coordinates are assigned to every unit and measurements are taken both horizontally and vertically to know where each artifact is recovered from. 

Assisting with measurements 

In the following years I learned how to screen the dirt, and how carefully you have to do it or else artifacts might fall through the screen. I also learned how to use a trowel and how to carefully take down a soil level. The first time I was able to get in a unit and dig I was fourteen. While I was digging I found a prehistoric grooved axe, in situ, which means “in its original placement” and that is extremely rare. This year I was able to screen all the dirt and I found many artifacts, like flake chipping debris, pottery and glass, among other things.     

I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to develop these skills at such a young age, and I hope that I am able to further my skills and knowledge in this field.

News interview
This is Archaeology Month in Pennsylvania and a great opportunity to seek out programs in your community that explore the cultural heritage of your region. The archaeology at Fort Hunter is an opportunity for us to engage with the public and provides an outlet for students to learn about the archaeological process. Excavations have ended for 2019 but with the discovery of many 18th century artifacts this year, we have already begun preparing for next year.  Stay tuned this winter as we research the many artifacts recovered this year and share some of our discoveries on our blog.

We also invite you to attend our annual Workshops in Archaeology program on November 9th, 2019. This day long venue is a continuum in our exploration of tribes who inhabited Pennsylvania from pre-historic through the 18th century. Building on our program last year that explored the Susquehannock Indians, this years’ theme of Monongahela Indians promises to be as informative and interesting as last year. Discussion of maize agriculture, disease and conflict amongst tribes and European colonists are just two of the subjects scheduled for discussion.  Registration is available on-line or by check through the Pennsylvania Heritage Foundation

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