Friday, October 24, 2014

Summary of Major Features Tested during the 2014 Season at Fort Hunter

Two weeks ago, the blog highlighted some of the more interesting artifacts recovered this season.  Our focus this week is on several interesting features that have revealed more of the story of life during the 18th and 19th centuries in central Pennsylvania. According to my favorite archaeology text book by David Hurst Thomas and Robert Kelly, a feature is the nonportable evidence of technology; usually fire hearths, architectural elements, artifact clusters, garbage pits, soil stains, and so on. They are artifacts but they usually cannot be removed from the ground and can only be described.  Fort Hunter was occupied by Europeans for nearly 300 years and contains a very large quantity of artifacts. Unfortunately, the majority of these cannot be dated unless found in features with other diagnostic objects – that is artifacts that can be chronologically placed to a specific and limited time period. Below we will review the more interesting and significant features encountered this season - some were datable and some were not.

(East wall of foundation)

            Feature 22/55 is a rock foundation that we first encountered in 2009 but misidentified as a French drain. As we expanded the area north of the well, it became clear that this feature was a building foundation. It consists of a mixture of mostly rounded cobbles but also some dressed diabase. Many of the cobbles were large, 12” – 18” in diameter. In this part of the site, it is possible to identify the original ground surface present at the time of European contact and the foundation seems to be resting on this surface. At the same level as the foundation or just below it, we uncovered numerous fire-cracked-rocks which were part of a Native American hearth feature to the east. It does not appear that a builder’s trench was dug for this foundation but rather the foundation was simply placed on the ground surface. The east wall of this structure is at least 15 feet long. As we expanded the block north, we carefully excavated around and beneath the rocks but did not find any artifacts that would suggest a date for when the foundation was constructed. Since it rests on the original ground surface, it could be early.  

(Northeast corner of foundation)

This year we reached the back corner and were hoping to solve this problem. The back or north wall makes a right angle turn to the west. Unfortunately, the back wall ended within two feet where it had been cut by a waste water ditch or where a large section of the bank eroded away during the hurricane Agnes flood of 1972. To our dismay, what appeared to be postmolds turned out to be rodent disturbances and the artifacts found in them could have dated anytime during the 19th century. In the future, we will investigate the area to the west of the erosion ditch and hopefully, uncover the west wall of the foundation.
(Feature 24/48 with Andrea standing on the iron pipe in the bottom leading to the well)

            Another feature that attracted our attention this season was Feature 24/48. This was a large hole dug adjacent to the well but it also extends to the north for approximately ten feet. It was first identified in plan-view in 2009 as a large circular stain adjacent to the well. Our excavation eventually extended to a depth of 6.6 feet and an iron pipe was found at the bottom that apparently was part of a pumping system for the well. Based on historic photos from the 1890’s, there was a windmill approximately ten feet to the west and it is assumed that it  pumped water out from the well. This feature was not completely excavated because part of it extended into the west wall. During last winter, the adjacent unit to the north slumped and exposed more of the feature. While troweling the wall this year, we recovered the U.S. Navy button dating to approximately 1809.

 (Navy button probably part of the uniform worn by Thomas Gates McAllister, son of Archibald McAllister, who served in the U. S. Navy from 1805 to 1807.)

After the slump was cleared, approximately 15 inches of the feature was exposed in the floor and considering the date on the button, this required our attention. The button and several pieces of Middle Woodland pottery were the earliest artifacts found, however the majority were post 1850 in age and not particularly chronologically diagnostic. This portion of the feature was over seven feet in depth and revealed a mostly decayed log situated upright with an iron bar extending perpendicular through it. Most of the log had decayed but part was covered in creosote and therefore was preserved. Initially we speculated that the log was a wooden pipe that had been inserted into the ground. However, the iron bar suggested another scenario. Since the pipe connecting the windmill and the well are in the same excavation pit, we are now thinking that this log was part of this construction activity. In this scenario, the log was placed into the hand dug pit upright and the soil was filled in around it to secure it in-place. The log functioned as a “dead man” to which cables were attached to secure an adjacent structure; in this case most likely the windmill. We are reasonably sure that the windmill and pipe were part of the improvements made by the Boas family when they purchased the property in the 1870s. Therefore both structures probably date to that time. This does not help us much when interpreting the 18th century occupation but it does establish the construction chronology in this area of the site.

 (Profile of Feature 24/48 illustrating “dead man” on the left)

            Feature 77/90 is located at the back or north end of the icehouse. Originally, these were considered two separate features but after further excavation, they connected. The Feature 77 section is an 18” by 24” rectangular opening in the icehouse wall with a lining of motar on the bottom. The opening extends approximately two feet below the present ground surface and is approximately 6” below the current wooden floor of the icehouse. The opening does not extend inside the structure but is blocked by a dried laid brick wall. It is associated with a dark stain outside the wall that extended approximately 12’’below the plastered surface. Middle to late 19th century artifacts were recovered from both the opening in the wall and the dark stain area outside the wall.

(Opening in icehouse wall. Brick in back of the opening)

The Feature 90 section started out as a poorly defined stain extending north of the opening in the wall approximately 8 feet. It did not really take shape until the stain had been excavated to a depth of 8”. Rough cut wooden sides were exposed at this point with several long spikes protruding vertically from the sides. The spikes suggest that wood was attached to the top. It appears to have been a rectangular box extending from near the icehouse wall, north, possibly funneling water over the cliff that drops 36 feet to Fishing Creek. Depending on which records are accurate, the icehouse is either 15 or over 20 feet deep with stairs leading to the bottom. The records describe the ice as being stored on the bottom floor but, if the ice is stored on the bottom, why is there a drain at the top? Possibly the historic records are not accurate and the icehouse is not constructed deep into the ground and this feature acted as a drain for the melting ice. We have considered augering into the floor of the icehouse to determine its depth. However, augering inside a building would be very difficult since there is less than eight feet of roof clearance.

(Feature 90 with wood and nails visible on the left side)

            The most productive feature we excavated this season in terms of 18th century artifacts was Feature 62. This was first identified in 2011. It appeared as a dark linear stain under the topsoil that produced a French gunflint and scratch blue salt glaze stoneware. This year, we recovered significantly more stoneware along with tin glaze earthenware. A preliminary analysis suggests these represent pieces of three or four vessels of scratch blue and at least two vessels of tin glaze earthenware. Unfortunately, these were found with 19th century artifacts. The stain was associated with a line of mostly dressed rocks but some rounded cobbles. It extended approximately 15 feet along the top of the slope leading down to the edge of the cliff overlooking Fishing Creek. The 18th century artifacts were generally confined to a six foot long section but, it seems to have been part of a dumping area that was used well into the 19th century. Several pieces of the stoneware and the earthenware have been mended and it will be interesting to see if there are any re-fits from other parts of the site. For example, the area around the bake oven produced a considerable quantity of similar stoneware and they also might cross-mend. Feature 62 produced more 18th century pottery than we have recovered in many years at Fort Hunter, unfortunately all of it was from a mixed context.

            (the alignment of rocks to the left of the rock foundation in the center is Feature 62)

As is frequently the case, one of the most intriguing features was uncovered the last two weeks of the excavation. This is a circular rock foundation, 12 feet in diameter. Many of the rocks are large cobbles similar to Feature 22/55 but there is also a mixture of smaller cobbles and dressed pieces of diabase. However, in this case, there is a significant builder’s trench that is about 18 inches deep. The rocks do not appear to be aligned for a foundation but seem to have been disturbed. Possibly, the foundation was partially removed (robbed) to be used in some other structure. There also seems to be a small open ended rectangular structure on its north side. Artifacts are not common but most date to the 18th century. These include scratch blue stoneware, gunflint, musket ball and the near complete lock from a Brown Bess musket. Along with these early artifacts, the low density of artifacts also suggests that this is an early feature. Once Captain McAllister arrived in 1786, his artifacts became very common. Therefore, the low density of artifacts in this feature suggests a pre-McAllister structure. However, Feature 99 cuts through another feature that seems more recent, suggesting the foundation may not be as old as we think. The inside of the circle is disturbed but not to any depth so it is not a large well or cistern. We have discussed the possibly that it was one of the fort’s bastions or its powder  magazine. However, a re-examination of historic records discovered that in 1798, there was an octagon shaped smokehouse in the back yard. It was elevated off the ground and smoke was produced via a stove on the outside of the structure – probably the rectangular structure to the north of the circle. However, the wooden smoke house was possibly constructed on top of a fort related structure. Clearly more excavation is required in and around the rectangular attachment and the features in the center of the rock circle. This feature will be a focus of our activity in the fall of 2015.

(Circular foundation, builders trench in profile and attached rectangular structure to the north) 

Although, this season produced a relatively high frequency of 18th century artifacts, some of which may be fort related, with the exception of the hillside dump, all of these features could date to Archibald McAllister’s occupation rather than the French and Indian War fort. The features have also given us direction for excavation in the future. Practically all of these features are examples of the mystery and frustration involved in archaeological field projects. We spend considerable time in the excavation of features but their function and age frequently remain problematic.


Thomas, David Hurst and Robert Kelly

2007    Archaeology Down to Earth. Thomson Wadsworth Publishing, Australia. 

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

Friday, October 10, 2014

“N” is for No Fort Found Yet, A Summary of the 2014 Fort Hunter Excavations

As we wrap up our time in the field at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, we have found limited structural evidence of the French and Indian War era fort. Though we have not found structural evidence of the fort, we have found a number of artifacts, some that date to the French and Indian War period and some that do not. 

One of our more exciting finds this year is the “lock” mechanism of a Brown Bess musket. Brown Bess muskets were in service of the British Army from the early 1700’s to the early 1800’s.  At the beginning of the war, which began in 1757, it is said that there were approximately 80 soldiers at the fort, but this changed dramatically when it was discovered that the majority of the war would be fought in the Ohio River Valley. Due to this realization the use of the fort became primarily for supply. At this time the fort was manned by much fewer men, approximately 30, who were a militia made up of local farmers and residents. These militia men would have provided their own weapons, which may have included a Brown Bess gun. This suggests that the gun part, which seems to have been discarded after breaking, could have been used by one of the Fort Hunter French and Indian war era men.
 excavated musket lock with modern replica for comparison

Other military-related artifacts found this year include two musket balls and a French gun flint. Though we cannot be sure these objects are from the French and Indian War era, it is possible. Since the fort was manned primarily by a militia and they would have provided their own weapons, the different sizes of muskets balls and various types of gun flints found throughout the years of excavation at Fort Hunter can be explained. These militia men would not have all had the exact same weapons as an army would have had.   

french flint and musket ball

Another interesting artifact that was found this year and in our excavations in past years is a datable ceramic called Scratch blue. Scratch blue is an English salt-glazed stoneware that was created by incising deep lines in the ceramic body and filling it with cobalt blue oxide before firing leaving thin blue lines in generally floral motifs after firing.  This type of ceramic has a very narrow production date range of 1744-1775. This date range includes the French and Indian War period, suggesting that these ceramics may have been used by the soldiers or militia men of the fort.  Of course, most of the artifacts, including the Scratch blue stoneware, the gun flints, and the musket balls could have been used by the occupants of the Fort Hunter land during much of the 18th and 19th century.   

Scratch blue decorated salt-glazed stoneware

As mentioned in previous blogs, the use of the land surrounding and including the Fort Hunter Mansion and Park extends far back in time. Just this year we have found a number of flakes left behind by prehistoric Native Americans. In our last week in the field one of our interns, Tessa Burns, was lucky enough to find an intact datable prehistoric artifact. This artifact is an Otter Creek projectile point. Just last year we found another Otter Creek point and this year’s find reinforces the idea of a long history of land-use here because Otter Creek points date between 5800 and 6600 BP. 

Otter Creek projectile point

So here we are, another field season complete and, though we still have not found the fort at Fort Hunter, we have continued to add to our knowledge of the long history of the land-use at the Fort Hunter Mansion and Park. Thank you to all of our volunteers for dedicating their time and efforts in helping us in the field and thank you also to all those who took the time to stop by and listen and learn about archaeology and what we have been doing at Fort Hunter for the past 8 years. 


Noel Hume, Ivor
1976  A Guide to Colonial Artifacts of America Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Antill, P
2006 Baker Rifle. Electronic Document,

Ryan, D. Michael
Brown Bess – Musket Misconception. Electronic Document,
For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .