Friday, September 13, 2013

Solving a "cliff hanger"

Volunteers and archaeologists from the State Museum at Fort Hunter

This week in Pennsylvania Archaeology (TWIPA) finds most of the staff of the State Museum, Section of Archaeology, returning to Fort Hunter in search of that elusive stockade and fort ditch.  The crew has continued to excavate the area to the rear and immediately adjacent to the ice house.  Excavations behind the ice house have been problematic due to modern fill deposits dumped behind this structure.  Any of our followers that have visited us on site at Fort Hunter know that this location is on the edge of a cliff. So it was no surprise that our excavations would produce a bit of a “cliff hanger”. 
The top of the exposed burial. 

The discovery of an animal burial has raised many questions and required us to call on fellow curator Dr. Walter Meshaka.  The remains of what appear to be a family pet were discovered late last Friday, but it was not until Tuesday that it was exposed sufficiently to identify the species of animal.  Speculation as to which of the family’s many pets this might be raised expectations that perhaps this was the macaque captured in the Reily family photographs.  The Reily family occupied Fort Hunter Mansion from 1889-1933 and brought the residence into the social spotlight. 
John Reily on front porch with his pet macaque.

A brief overview of the Reilys is necessary at this point to understand the role they played in developing the beautiful mansion and grounds that stands at the site today. The marriage of Helen Margaret Boas, Daniel Dick Boas youngest daughter, to John Whitehill Reily in 1887 was a union of two wealthy families that would allow the Reilys to pursue their interest in the “country life”.  The Reilys increased the acreage from the original 182 acres from Helen’s father’s estate, to eventually owning 1400 acres.  This additional acreage and John’s successful forge on Lucknow Road provided ample opportunity to pursue their interests. The more relaxed county life and an appreciation of nature suited the Reilys and they continue to operate the 90 acre dairy begun by Helen’s father, Daniel Boas. The dairy operation was increased and provided another profitable business for the Reilys with wagons making deliveries in Harrisburg. Archived photographs at Fort Hunter show the Reilys with many of their prize winning farm animals and their pets.   To learn more about the history of Fort Hunter Mansion, you should plan to attend Fort Hunter Day this coming Sunday, September 15th.

Let’s get back to our animal burial and correct identification of the remains. Dr. Meshaka examined the burial and pointed out the distinct differences between macaque and dog as we waited to hear the final determination. It was determined that this was a dog, not a macaque. For those not familiar with a macaque, it is a short haired monkey. A blurry photo of this family pet survives to document its presence at fort Hunter.  Records indicate that the Reilys also housed dogs in the old ice house. This must have been a special family dog to have received a wooden box for its final resting place.  Iron nails recovered in the corners of this feature along with a scrap fragment of wood provide evidence of this boxed burial feature.
The burial was completely exposed and awaiting identification. 
Sr. Curator of Zoology/ Botany at The State Museum, Dr. Walter Meshaka examining the bones. 

This led to speculation that perhaps the dog license tag recovered from previous excavations may have belonged to this pet, but certainly at least to one of the family dogs. With that mystery solved it’s time to turn to the excavations and some of the other artifacts recovered during the week.
1909 dog tag recovered during previous excavations.

Excavations in the northern units are on the edge of the cliff above Fishing Creek and in some cases we are digging in fill (a busted up concrete sidewalk) that was placed relatively recently. This marks the edge of the area where we find any evidence of the fort. In the northeast corner, we are working on a foundation-like alignment of rocks but it is partially covered by fill so it is complicated. Artifacts recovered from this fill included several objects that date to the fort period, including a piece of scratch blue ceramic, a French pistol flint and a metal button.
French gun flint recovered in 2013.

There is still not any evidence of the stockade in this area but we have found more fort period artifacts in these units than we found in the adjacent units to the south. The overburden of fill likely preserved these fort related artifacts where they were dropped on the edge of the cliff, and they were subsequently buried by trash and fill.

Several large rocks that were uncovered adjacent to the burial and removal of those yielded evidence of a feature.  This feature produced several more rocks and one appears to have been driven into the ground using a sledge hammer based on marks evident on one end.  It is possible someone was trying to secure a post very tightly into the ground, but the purpose or function of the post at this location is unknown.  This same area produced a large pocket of slag, possibly from black smith activities either during the time of the fort or the farm operation.
Two large rocks prior to removal.

We close with a new “cliff hanger” for our readers to mull over.  This artifact has our team puzzled.  We first thought that it might be a candle wick trimmer, but ruled that out once we cleaned the heavy iron corrosion away.  What it appears to be now are scissors with an iron ball fused to the scissor from heavy corrosion.  The ball is about the size of ammunition used in grape shot, but it is not heavy like lead shot.  Could it be a form of ammunition or some other farm tool or equipment?  If any of our followers would like to offer their suggestions for identification, we’d love to hear from you!
Our mystery artifact or artifacts for the week.

Lastly a reminder to come out and visit us this Sunday, September 15th  at Fort Hunter Day from 10-5.  This is one of our two weekend dates for those of you who can’t make it out during the week to visit.  Next week we will start to open up units on the side of the house to further investigate the features uncovered in our spring investigation- we’re hoping to uncover the fort’s stockade ditch! 

Visitors observing and asking questions at Fort Hunter Day 2012

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

1 comment:

  1. It's good to see the excavations have started again! Good luck this season and congratulations on the dog-find! - Laina