Friday, September 27, 2013

Interpreting the Archaeological Record at Fort Hunter

Is this a road, a ditch a redoubt or something else?

Recent archaeology conducted on the side yard at Fort Hunter Mansion has left us puzzled and searching for answers as to the feature we had previously discovered. Since beginning the investigation of the French and Indian War occupation at Fort Hunter, several excavation units have been opened east of the mansion towards the front of the house (hereafter denoted as the front yard) this on the highway side of the mansion.  Our followers will recall the discovery of a feature in the fall of 2010 that we thought might be a possible road.  The compressed cobble layer appeared to have a series of ruts that ran through the cobble, much like wagon wheels.

Volunteer Wes troweling the feature uncovered  this spring

Several trenches had been excavated in this area subsequent to the initial discovery, but they provided little interpretive value to this original feature.  Test trenches installed in March 2013 allowed us to open up a larger area than hand troweling permitted. This provided an opportunity to look at the soil stratigraphy of this section of the property and hopefully expose more of the “road” feature.  These trenches produced stratigraphy that provided further evidence for a road or ditch feature. Trenching exposed an oval shaped basin, approximately one to three feet deep, 40 feet wide (east–west) and 170 feet long (north-south). Defined by a layer of dark soil that slopes down in profile around its edge, the basin is approximately two feet deep in the center and lies on top of a gray sandy hardpan material. The deepest section of the basin measured less than 18 feet wide and is approximately 160 feet long. The gray hardpan exhibits iron staining and in most places a ¼ inch thick layer of iron concretion marks the top of this soil. The gray color frequently represents a soil that was formed in a low oxygen environment such as under water and the iron deposits are also compatible with a surface that was frequently covered with water. Sections of this gray hardpan are layered or paved with pebbles, possibly to stabilize the roadbed.

Excavations in the spring had left us with additional questions and areas to investigate.  After reestablishing ourselves on the site, we reopened our trench from this spring in order to expand upon this area. We enlisted our backhoe operator, Corry Harner, to assist us with removing our backfilled soils and taking off the modern fill layers identified in our previous investigation.  This will allow us to examine a larger area than time would permit with traditional flat shoveling and hand excavation.

Our compressed cobble layer continues across several of the units we have opened in the front yard.  There appear to be narrow ruts filled with cobble, again indicating an improvement necessary due to water standing in these ruts. Remember this is a supply fort for Fort Halifax and Fort Augusta.  We know from inventories at Fort Augusta that there was small cannon, gunpowder, musket balls, guns along with food and provisions for between 300 and 400 men stationed at the fort.  Inventories of supplies at Fort Hunter are much lighter, but did list the following in November of 1756;  the garrison consists of two sergeants and 34 privet men, amunition included 4 ½ lbs of powder and 28 of lead and the provisions consisted of 1,000 pounds of flour and 2,000 of beef.

excavated rut

Faintly visible ditch or road feature continues into the adjacent units

Historical archaeology examines an array of documents which often serve as clues in understanding the activities of a site.  At Fort Hunter we have examined maps, journal entries, and photographs of not only this site, but other French & Indian War period sites hoping for details that were previously overlooked. Publications heavily referenced include Forts on the Pennsylvania Frontier, 1753-1758 by William A. Hunter and The French & Indian War in Pennsylvania 173-1763, Louis M. Waddell and Bruce D. Bomberger.  The following quotes provide some of the accounts of conditions at Fort Hunter between 1756 and 1758.

Instructions from Governor Morris to Captain McKee  in January 1756 - As soon as your company is completed & mustered you are to march to a place called Hunter’s Mill upon the Susquehanna and Either compleat the fort already begun there or build another at such other convenient place as James Gilbreth Esq. shall adivise, who is requested to go with you for that purpose; and in case it should be thought necessary to erect a new fort you are to build it in the form and dimensions herewith given you.” 

A report in August, 1757 of conditions states; “tho the fort or blockhouse at Hunter’s is not tenable, being hastily erected, and not finished, yet the Situation was the best upon the river for every service as well as for the protection of the frontiers.”

An entry from July 1758; Engineer Rich’d Dudgeon “  I am of the opinion that Stockading of it & Opening & Deepning the Ditch, according to the Scheme left with the Commanding Officer there, will be sufficient to protect it against any Indian Attack.”

The officer in charge at Hunter’s wrote a few days later to Governor Denny indicating he was ordered to “repair it” but that the locals would not help until after harvest in 3 weeks- he closes with –p.s. the stockades are cut.

The review in 1758 requiring an “opening and deepening of the ditch” was a common complaint among British officers who had taken over control of Pennsylvania’s small provincial forts. Many of these were erected hastily in 1756 & 1757 as the result of Indian raids in the area.  The construction of these “forts” varied from houses with gun ports cut into the basement wall to traditional forts with stockade walls.  There often was not a uniform manner of construction and the officers charged with construction were inexperienced.  Very little documentation exists of the construction of these forts, with the exception of Fort Halifax and Fort Augusta.  These forts were constructed under the direction of Colonel William Clapham, an officer from Massachusetts experienced in fort construction.

Plan of construction for Fort Augusta- largest of the Provincial forts

Bastions were not typical for small Provincial forts, but were installed at larger British forts

Variety of construction of fort walls

Archaeology conducted at Fort Augusta as early as 1938, recovered evidence of the officer’s quarters and stockade. Preserved posts, still in their upright positions were uncovered, erected in the same manner as described by Shippen in July 1756, shortly after Clapham’s arrival.  Subsequent archaeology by the PHMC has uncovered evidence of the earthen wall, powder magazine and an additional portion of the stockade. Comparisons between the fort construction at Fort Augusta and Fort Hunter have been of little benefit since their functions were significantly different.  Fort Augusta was constructed to house up to 400 men; Fort Hunter never housed more than ninety.  The location of both on high terraces overlooking the Susquehanna River, appear to be one of their only similarities.

We will continue to map and excavate this road/ditch feature and evaluate the artifacts recovered from within to determine an age for construction. Hopefully, a potential stockade post discovered this week will be the first of many- confirming the location of the stockade.

Note the possible postmold circled in red at foreground
Excavation has continued on the north side of the ice house and the dog burials are being removed.  We will bring those to the lab for cleaning and examination, hoping to identify the species and confirm them as dogs owned by the Reilys.
Removing the dog burials, with special assistance.

We continue to have a steady stream of volunteers who have provided us with amazing assistance during sometimes difficult conditions.  The weather this year has been stellar which makes it much easier to keep the volunteers happy! 

New Deal Archaeology in Pennsylvania- Free Admission from 11:30 -1:30

October is Archaeology Month in Pennsylvania and we have a steady stream of events scheduled for the month. Our first event is this Friday, October 4th with a Learn at Lunchtime event at The State Museum.  Dr. Bernard Means and curator Janet R. Johnson will provide a presentation on New Deal Archaeology in Pennsylvania from 12:15 to 1:00 in the Galaxy Room. Their research into archaeology conducted under federal relief programs initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, provides a fascinating approach to archaeology, curation and historical research. Shovel Ready, Archaeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America, 2013, will be available for purchase and signing by these presenters. This free program will also offer an opportunity to visit the museum from 11:30 to 1:30. 

Sunday, October 6th is Indian Festival Day at Fort Hunter- come out for our last weekend at the fort.  The excavation closes for the season on October 11th, so if you haven’t stopped up to see us yet, please come out for this educational and fun family event.  The program runs from 12-4 at Fort Hunter Mansion & Park.

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

Friday, September 20, 2013

Public Outreach at its Best!

Fort Hunter Day visitors enjoying the weather and viewing our excavation

Our backhoe operator Corry and his nephews checking out the excavation
Staff and volunteers on the job Sunday at Fort Hunter 

Wow! What a great day for archaeology this past Sunday at Fort Hunter Day.  The temperatures were a little cool to start, but the sun came out and so did the crowds.  Many of the visitors had seen us previous years and wanted to check out our progress and hear updates on the well excavation. With crowds estimated at around 5,000 people for this event, we were busy! “I saw you on the news, Where is the dog burial?” This was the question asked most often from the crowd and they loved hearing about this discovery. If you missed last week’s blog we uncovered one of the beloved pets believed to have belonged to the Reilys.  Take a look at the blog from September 13th if you need to catch up on who the Reilys are in the sequence of the home’s occupants.  It was great to see such enthusiasm and genuine interest from young and old at this event.  You took the time to learn something about your archaeological heritage in the exchange you had with our archaeologists. A big Thank You also goes to ABC27 News and Fox 43 News for providing coverage of our excavation and the Fort Hunter Day Festival!

The crowd loved the new information panels purchased by Fort Hunter this year.
Monday morning found everyone back on site and ready to further our investigation of the “ditch” feature uncovered this winter/early spring. To refresh your memory, we did some testing in the form of trenches in March to see if we could better define a feature (possible road?)  we had discovered during previous excavations.  This testing enabled us to look at a much larger “picture” of the stratigraphy (soil layers) and better understand and interpret these layers during our excavation.

Archaeologists identify changes in soil texture and color as a tool in interpreting the age and activities which occur at these levels. The artifacts that are recovered within these individual layers are also a tool for determining the date of an occupation level. Soils are removed by these defined levels and the artifacts recovered from each of these levels are then examined to and identified to determine the age of the occupation level.  As you can well imagine, this is a slow methodical approach to the science of archaeology but necessary in order to accurately understand a site. 

Trench 5 soil profile

The image above provides an illustration of the multiple levels of soil identified at Fort Hunter and identifies several features that we encountered.  Feature 66 in the above profile map is the area where we are focusing our attention this fall. This feature extended into adjacent trenches and is interpreted at this time as possibly a ditch or trench that would have been dug around the stockade posts to hold them in place and as an obstacle for approaching the stockade line. If our interpretation is correct this feature has the potential of producing a greatest number of fort related artifacts. 

The layer identified as Grey Hard Pan in the soil profile continues to produce heavily corroded iron.  This surface was exposed for a period of time and subject to standing water. These conditions along with the organic material caused the soil to turn grey. Again, our hope is that we can eventually confirm this as a road leading into the fort.
Feature 66 exposed
Excavations also continued behind the ice house in the area where the dog burial was discovered.  On Sunday we started to see a feature that appeared to be a second burial. This feature was excavated further this week and indeed a second dog burial was uncovered.  As noted in last week’s blog the Reilys kept dogs in the ice house, so it seems likely that these are their family pets buried here.  Photographs of the family pets show the array of dogs housed here and demonstrates how much they cherished their pets. 
The second dog burial discovered behind the ice house.

The Reilys dogs gathered for a "family photo"

A stone feature in this area is partially excavated and appears to be a corner footing for a building.  Artifacts from this unit and those adjacent have provided us with gun flints, 18th century pottery and several buttons from the fort period. We know from historic records that there were storage buildings for supplies at Fort Hunter; perhaps this is one of those buildings. We will continue to investigate this feature next week. 
Wes Stauffer  works on excavating the  stone feature in the foreground of this photo

A Bald Eagle Jasper projectile point shows evidence of heat treatment at the tip

A polished bone tip, possibly a sewing tool handle?

Artifacts coming out of the ground this week have included projectile points from the trench area on the side yard, a musket ball, ceramics, glass and corroded iron. These artifacts have unfortunately been from the fill layers above the grey hardpan and the ditch feature, so their context is mixed and unrelated to direct fort activities.  We have another puzzler- a polished bone shaft that was recovered in this mixed context.  It looks like a handle for a tool, possibly a sewing implement, but the shaft is solid at the bottom with only a shallow recess at the top. Any readers have suggestions?

This gun flint was discovered in the area behind the ice house,
in the same area where several other flints have been recovered. 

Please stop out and take a look at the excavation and remember we will close up the site for another year on October 11th.  If you missed us this past Sunday, we will be on site for Indian Festival Day on Sunday October 6th and weekdays from 9-4:30.

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

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 .

Friday, September 6, 2013

State Museum Archaeologists are Out and About in Central Pennsylvania

Kipona exhibit on City Island

We are taking another break from our archaeological journey by county across Pennsylvania to update our followers on recent and upcoming public outreach activities.  We started off our activities over the Labor Day weekend with our exhibit at Harrisburg’s Kipona Festival.  Our designated spot has been the same area the past few years adjacent to the American Indian Pow-Wow.  We brought along the ever popular Native American dugout canoe and some display cases relevant to the City Island excavations of the mid to late 1990’s.  This local festival has changed over the years since I moved to the area some 20 years ago, and in preparing this blog I decided to see how long the Kipona Festival had been around and just exactly what the origin of the word “Kipona” was and its meaning. 

Riverfront Park, Harrisburg 1916
( image source;

Turns out that the Kipona Festival dates back to September 4, 1916! I recall the roar of boats racing through the river on Labor Day Weekends back in the mid-nineteen-nineties, but what I didn’t know is that the event originally drew crowds of over 100,000 people and involved elaborate celebrations on the “sparkling water”.  An account printed in 1921 of the festival describes the carnival as a “night in the Orient.” A 1500 foot floating stage with Japanese costumed performers, 500 decorated canoes with streamers, lanterns and balloons, four bands, orchestras and several choruses and the finale was “marked by a blaze of light from bursting rockets and aerial bombs.”  Wow!  That of course was before the Great Depression, multiple recessions and the present bankruptcy of our Commonwealth’s Capitol city, Harrisburg. 

Kipona is reportedly a Native American word for ‘sparkling water”, although the various references checked didn’t confirm the origin or tribal affiliation. Water in the Seneca language is o’neganos, Shawnee...nippee,   Delaware...mpi [ni].  Whatever the source, this event is essentially a celebration of the beautiful Susquehanna River and the wonderful resource it provides to residents today, the same as it has for thousands of years.

Maiden voyage of the dugout canoe down the Susquehanna River 

We witnessed the power once again of Mother Nature when a severe thunderstorm struck the island Sunday night and destroyed our EZ-Ups. This unfortunately is the third year in a row that we have suffered from storms traveling through the river valley. Thankfully the storms passed and Monday was another good day for visitors at our display- we counted about 2500 people that we spoke to about archaeology and the
State Museum of Pennsylvania in a course of three days!

Volunteer Brad Miller (a.k.a.-Santa Claus) was ready to assist with storm damage clean-up. 
Thanks to Brad and  his wife, Deb!

It is September, so as we have done for the past seven years, the Section of Archaeology at the State Museum began our work at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park in Dauphin County. The purpose of this project is to investigate life in a French and Indian War fort. In addition this is part of our Archaeology Month celebration which is geared towards public involvement in their archaeological heritage. Many volunteers from the community assist us in these excavations and the public is encouraged to come out and visit the excavations.

 Since beginning the investigation in 2007, we have uncovered a bake-oven from the period, numerous dietary remains and an assortment of military items.  All of these are evidence of the occupation of soldiers at the site, but as of yet, we have not uncovered structural remains of the fort such as the ditch that surrounded it. In March, you may recall from a previous blog, we conducted a very promising backhoe testing program and were able to locate a long trench/road feature in the front yard.

 We are anxious to continue testing this area but the Fort Hunter Days  program also takes place in the front yard on Sunday September 15 and (understandably) Julia Hair (our favorite site administrator) won’t let us dig in this area until after the event

Visitors at Fort Hunter Days in 2012

In the mean time we are re-opening the well block next to the icehouse. At the end of last year's investigation, along the north end of this block, a feature associated with mid-18th artifacts was partially uncovered. The area immediately adjacent to the icehouse has consistently produced artifacts associated with the fort and we wanted to continue excavations in this area. 

Jim , intern Adam and Dave busy with clean-up activities

So far, we have mostly been cleaning up the site by removing the vegetation, laying in the grid stakes and screening minor amounts of wall slump. Although we finished digging in the well, we left it open at the end of last season to act as a drain for the rain water. It drained the block reasonably well although three large stone blocks from the sidewalk slid onto the floor. Five of us managed to flip them out of the unit and back to the surface. While cleaning up the slump, we found large quantities of artifacts from the “A” horizon of N95E0. The artifacts included ceramics including redware, mocha ware, white ware and yellow ware, nails, widow glass, and the most interesting find was a candle snuffer. We opened two new 5X5 units directly behind the icehouse. 
French pistol gunflint

The discovery of a French gunflint in one of the units reaffirmed that this is a promising area. Two more units will be opened to the west of this area to investigate a possible rock wall foundation. As the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War comes to a close, we are optimistic that our explorations will reveal more information about life on the frontier during this turbulent time in our history.

Weather permitting, meaning no torrential downpours, we will be working weekdays 9:00 - 4:30, until Friday, October 11. Please come out and visit, this is a great opportunity to observe an archaeological investigation and explore your archaeological heritage! If you are interested in scheduling a tour, contact Kurt Carr at 717-783-9926.

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