Friday, September 11, 2015

Opening the Fort Hunter Excavation and our Exhibit at the Kipona Festival in Harrisburg.

            It has been a busy but interesting two weeks for the Section of Archaeology at the State Museum. Last Wednesday, September 2nd, we opened up our excavation at Fort Hunter and for Labor Day weekend, we celebrated with an exhibit on the archaeology of City Island at the Kipona festival in Harrisburg.
            The Section of Archaeology enjoys the break each fall when we return to our Fort Hunter investigation. Normally, we start on the Wednesday after Labor Day each year by bringing up the field equipment, clearing away the vegetation from the previous year and laying out the stakes for the grid. This year the excavation floors were in reasonably good shape and the walls had not suffered too much but the weeds that had grown around the perimeter were pretty impressive. The jewel weed was over six feet tall and the rye grass resisted removal until we dug it out with shovels.

One of our new volunteers, Paul Rudnick, cut his hand while pulling the rye grass out from last year’s back-dirt pile.

            Thursday, September 3rd, we got to work in earnest, straightening walls and troweling floors. We have three main goals this season. One is to investigate the circular feature in the excavation block east of the icehouse. Based on historical research conducted this spring, it appears to be the foundation for an octagon shaped smoke house built by Mr. McAllister in the early 1800’s. Rather than generating smoke inside the structure (a fire hazard), a stove was housed in a small attachment to the octagon. Investigations in this feature should confirm our research and add to our understanding of the McAllister use of the site.
            Our second goal is to investigate the area immediately in front of the original 1786 McAllister stone house. The folklore surrounding the location of the Fort Hunter blockhouse is that it is now under this structure. Possibly there are fort period features in this area so a five by twenty foot trench was begun adjacent to the porch. Only the upper portion of the “A” horizon has been excavated but there seems to be some kind of concentration of cut stone, ceramics and bone in arranged in a lineal pattern.

Concentration of cut stone, ceramics and bone adjacent to the McAllister porch.

            The third goal and the one that has generated some controversy among the staff, is to investigate the icehouse and determine if it actually functioned to store ice. The staff at Fort Hunter Mansion refer to it as the icehouse and it has two foot thick walls, common for this type of building. However, the dimensions of this building, ten feet wide and fourteen feet long, do not fit some of the historical descriptions. In addition, the historical icehouse had two floors and is described as between 15 and 20 feet deep. These nagging discrepancies were further agitated last season when we exposed a drain-like feature emanating from an opening in the rear of the icehouse wall. This is only two feet below the surface and by all appearances seems to be a drain but not nearly deep enough if the bottom of the icehouse was over 15 feet deep. So for this season, we plan to investigate the drain like feature (Feature 90) and attempt to determine the depth of the icehouse using a bucket auger.
            Adding to the questionable use of this structure as an icehouse is that early this week while cleaning the floor along the foundation of the west wall, it appeared that we were going below the rock foundation. For several seasons, we have been gradually exposing this foundation wall as we investigated the well and the Late Archaic prehistoric occupations in this area. If this was an icehouse, we assumed the wall would continue down ten or fifteen feet. However, by Wednesday of this week, it was clear that the foundation in the corners of the building extended to at least six feet below the surface but most of the wall was only about four feet deep. Clearly, labeling this structure as the icehouse is becoming questionable.

West wall of icehouse exposing the bottom of the foundation wall.

            This week we also continued excavating the drain and confirmed that there was a wooden box fitted into an excavated trench that sloped towards the cliff.

Drain like feature in the rear of the icehouse

Augering the icehouse floor.

            We began augering by pulling up three of the oak floor boards of the icehouse floor, exposing a layer of soil approximately 0.5 feet thick (we are measuring in tenths of feet this year rather than inches) and exposed a tightly placed layer of bricks. The layer of bricks aligns exactly with the drain to the rear of the structure. After removing a few bricks, we began drilling the underlying soil but it proved extremely difficult. Initially, a relatively fine sand was exposed below the bricks. The soil appeared unconsolidated with angular and rounded pebbles and cobbles. At approximately two feet below the brick floor, the cobbles made it difficult to proceed with the auger and we quit for the day. These cobbles could represent a fill material placed in the icehouse when the function of this structure was no longer needed; or, more likely  they represent the Pleistocene cobble layer that we exposed in 2012 and essentially represent the natural soil profile. That being the case, the floor of this building is only two feet below ground surface making it unlikely to be the icehouse. However, we are continuing to investigate this structure. We’ll let you know the results next week.
            Finally, our Kipona exhibit at the Indian Pow Wow on City Island was fun and successful. Our goal is to promote the contribution and preservation of Pennsylvania archaeology and hopefully inspire the public to visit our exhibits in the State Museum. We had almost 2000 visitors over the three day event. They were fascinated by the dugout and especially the stone tools on hand that were used to create it. They were also frequently surprised that people have been living on the island for well over 8000 years. Among the visitors was former Mayor Stephen Reed. He supported our excavations on City Island between 1992 and 2004 and we greatly appreciate the City’s contribution.

Former Mayor Stephen Reed at Kipona 2015

  A special visitor to our exhibit.

        Also, don't forget to mark your calendar Saturday, November 14, 2015 for the Annual Workshops in Archaeology Program.  This year's theme Weed Seeds to Garden Seeds: The Archaeology of Farming in the Keystone State.  Check our website for more information.

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

1 comment:

  1. This is a very enjoyable and informative entry. Thanks for explaining what you do in layman's terms.