Friday, October 7, 2011

Did you find gold yet?

Enthusiastic visitors at Fort Hunter excavation. 

Sorry folks, we have not found gold at Fort Hunter, nor do we expect to find any. We have had a steady stream of visitors to the site this week and we love it. Archaeologists get excited when we can share with the public and excite them about archaeology and our new discoveries. We have repeat visitors that come out every year and faithfully encourage us, enthused to hear what we’ve discovered this year. They have patiently observed the process of excavating the well and the surrounding prehistoric levels. Yes, some have raised the question about the discovery of gold, but most know that we are in this for reasons much more important than gold.

What is more important than discovering gold? Gathering archaeological evidence from the soils, identifying the artifacts, analyzing these artifacts and piecing together the picture of the daily activities of a frontier fort or a colonial homestead is far more important and interesting! Take this a step further and think about the prehistoric period. Prehistory means before the written record, so basically anything before about 1550 in Pennsylvania. The lifeways of Native peoples has been gleaned almost entirely from the archaeological record. From the hearth features with fire-cracked rock and flakes we can paint a picture of peoples cooking and processing animals and plants. Sitting around these fires they likely sharpened some of their points, leaving small flakes as evidence of this activity. Some of the larger flakes we’ve recovered may have been used to cut meat or scrape a hide. Archaeologists are able to provide a window to the past through excavation and analysis, creating a picture of the daily life of Native peoples to modern man.

View of the top of the well at grade with ice house.

Our more recent occupants of Fort Hunter have been written about in historical documents, but the details of daily activities are missing. Letters and journals don’t describe the method of construction employed for the well. Documentation doesn’t even tell us when the well was built. The only way for us to answer the questions of “how old is the well?” and “who built the well?” is to carefully remove the stone layers of the well and excavate the surrounding soils. This week we made great progress on the well and hopefully next week we will have some answers as to when and by whom the well was constructed. We all agree that whoever built the well was skilled and strong. Some of the rocks have been as much as eight inches thick and 18 to 24 inches across. The artifacts recovered have consisted of animal bone, window glass and a few redware sherds. Nothing that we found is considered a useful tool for dating the period of construction. Rocks on the corner of the ice house appear to intrude into the well, but they also seem to be intentionally laid as part of the ice house construction- or could be part of a sagging wall- but we just don’t know. Further investigations next week will hopefully reveal the answer.

Stone slump at corner of ice house wall.

View looking down on corner of ice house.

A mix of artifacts continues to come out of the trench on the side of the house. This area is clearly fill, but sorting out the time period of the fill through analysis of the artifacts will be an activity for the winter months. We have one more week to examine this unit further and determine if our cobble feature from last year is a road bed or not. Part of the motivation for archaeologists is the anticipation of learning something new with the next layer of evidence or the discovery of an artifact that dates to one of the various site occupants.

Trench excavation in side yard. Changes in soils clearly indicate a fill episode in this area.

We are scheduled to finish at Fort Hunter on October 14th, one more week. If you’ve been thinking you wanted to come see what an archaeological site looks like, or you are just curious about the site- don’t wait. We will be on site from October 11th-14th,  between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

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

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