Friday, October 23, 2015

Archaeology at Ephrata Cloister

With this year’s field season at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park behind us, we continue our look back at archaeological projects conducted by The State Museum of Pennsylvania over the course of the last half century. This series is intended to dove-tail with the broader celebration of the 50th anniversary of the construction of the William Penn Memorial Museum building in Harrisburg, which houses The State Museum of Pennsylvania and the executive offices of its parent state agency, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

excavating a post mold feature at Ephrata Cloister (36La981)

A number of posts in this series previously detailed the excavation of stratified prehistoric sites in advance of large, federally funded or permitted development projects, such as Sheep Rock shelter (36Hu1) for the Raystown Reservoir (Army Corps), and 36Da50 in anticipation of the construction of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor (FERC). This week, the focus will be on the decade long historical archaeology project that took place at Ephrata Cloister, an 18th century religious commune in Lancaster County, now a popular historic site that has been owned by the Commonwealth since 1941.

WPA poster for Ephrata Cloister

The formation of the Ephrata Cloister community was the direct result of a founding policy of William Penn’s nascent colony, that of religious tolerance. Nowhere else in colonial America were the conditions such that a social experiment like that of the Cloister was possible, thanks to Penn. Political and religious upheaval, and the accompanying economic hardships faced by marginalized groups throughout Europe in the late 17th century, spurred many to seek a new beginning across the Atlantic. Such was the case with Conrad Beissel, a German immigrant who would come to settle in Lancaster County around 1730 seeking a more meaningful spirituality through solitude and piety.

The charismatic Beissel soon found himself the leader of a small, but industrious group of like-minded people that would comprise the Cloister community. While spiritual purity was the primary focus of the cloister’s celibate brothers and sisters, some of the activities they engaged in include agriculture, print making, fraktur art, and among other industries, the construction of large dormitories and prayer houses, some of which survive today and have become icons of this National Historic Landmark.

at left, sisters' dormitory (1743) and right, prayer house (1741)

In the late 1980s site administrators expressed concern that adequate measures had not been implemented to protect the massive wooden structures, some of them at this point approaching 250 years old, from the threat of destruction by fire. Steve Warfel, then Senior Curator of the Section of Archaeology at The State Museum of PA, was contracted to perform an archaeological survey of the proposed fire suppression line across the property in an effort to identify any significant subsurface features relating to the site’s early religious commune activities.

large cellar on Mt. Zion, excavated in 2001

 From that initial scope of work would emerge an annual historical archaeology field school, conducted in the months of June and July, which instructed dozens of college students in the methods of excavation, recordation and artifact identification. Over the course of eleven seasons, hundreds of thousands of artifacts were recovered, and several no longer extant buildings were relocated on the landscape, enhancing and enriching the story of the Cloister (including its time as a hospital during the American Revolution), and sometimes challenging long held assumptions about the behavior of its inhabitants.

reconstructed storage crocks and table wares from the 1995 field season

top row, left to right: medicine vial fragment, english gun flint, two pieces of lead printers type
middle row: musket balls, french and english flint fragments
bottom row: medicine vial fragments

In an important final step after each season, Warfel published his findings in accessible booklets (still available at the Cloister gift shop) detailing the remains of structures discovered and their associated artifacts, in order share insights gathered with parties interested in this special piece of colonial American history.

This week’s post serves as a mere introduction to the Cloister and a number of interesting facets about its members and their interactions with each other and with non-members locally and regionally. Outside of Warfel’s archaeological booklet series, numerous books have been written about Ephrata, If your curiosity has been piqued, please refer to the suggested reading list below to dig a little deeper.

Bach, Jeff. Voices of the turtledoves: the sacred world of Ephrata. Penn State University Press, 2003

Benson, Cynda. Early Illuminated Manuscripts from the Ephrata Cloister. Northampton, Mass.: Smith College Museum of Art, 1995.
Garvan, Beatrice B., and Charles F. Hummel. The Pennsylvania Germans: A Celebration of Their Arts, 1683-1850. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982.
Lamech and Agrippa. Chronicon Ephratense: A History of the Community of the Seventh Day Baptists at Ephrata. New York: Lenox Hill Publishing, 1972.
Reichmann, Felix, and Eugene E. Doll. Ephrata as Seen by Contemporaries. Allentown: The Pennsylvania German Folklore Society, 1953.
Sangmeister, Ezechiel. Leben Wandel: Life and Conduct of the Late Brother Ezechiel Sangmeister. Ephrata: Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley, 1979-1985.
Secor, Robert, ed. Pennsylvania 1776. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975.
Warfel, Stephen G. Historical Archaeology at Ephrata Cloister. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1993-2003.
Weiser, Frederick S., and Howell J. Heaney. The Pennsylvania German Fraktur of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Breinigsville: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1976.

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

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