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 PAarchaeology.state.pa.us or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .