Friday, February 12, 2016

Symbols of Patriotism – the Great Seal of the United States

President’s Day is approaching, and in honor of this important national holiday, we will focus on examples an American symbol of patriotism, the Great Seal of the United States, that have been found at archaeological sites. 

Created originally to honor George Washington’s birthday, we now recognize all of our nation’s leaders on this day which will be Monday, February 15th.  Pennsylvania has always played an important role in the development of our nation and those of you who follow our blog have read of our involvement in the French & Indian War and the Revolutionary War.  The signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776 was viewed as a “united” declaration of freedom from British rule and a first in coming together for the original 13 colonies. It took an additional six years and three committees for the nation to agree on the design of the Great Seal.

The key component of the seal is the eagle.  The eagle has symbolized strength and power for thousands of years, dating back to Greek mythology and biblical references.  The use of the American bald eagle identified it as uniquely our own.  On its breast is a shield marked with thirteen vertical red and white stripes topped by a bar of blue. The original design was created by Charles Thomson, an immigrant to Pennsylvania from Ireland who later served as Secretary of the Continental Congress. Thomson was an important political figure and a strong proponent for independence from British rule.  His design combined elements from the previous committees into one for which Thomson is credited.

The elements chosen for this iconic design were carefully selected and have stood the test of time. The shield represents the uniting of the thirteen colonies under one government- Congress. At the time we had not created the office of President. The eagle holds arrows in the right claw and an olive branch in the left claw.  These are to symbolize Congresses power to make peace (olive branch) and war (arrows). The thirteen stars above the eagle are representing the new colonies and those that would come later.  The banner holds the Latin phrase, E pluribus unum – “From Many, One”.  The message was clear among these members of Congress that we needed to unite as one entity, one nation. 

It comes as no surprise that this powerful symbol would soon appear on ceramics, bottles and military buttons.  It would later be incorporated into the Presidential Seal and our nation’s currency.  
Archaeological excavations in the Philadelphia area have recovered several examples of our Great Seal, likely an indicator of the significant role Pennsylvania played in the founding of our nation and the incorporation this important symbol into our society.

An archaeological investigation was conducted by Louis Berger & Associates in the late 1980’s for proposed ramp construction of I-95 in the area south of Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia’s historic waterfront district. This site provided an opportunity for archaeologists to examine early consumerism, and colonial trade patterns. Identified as The Meadows Project, this investigation preserved the personal effects of tenants in an early working class neighborhood. Datable ceramics indicate that most of the artifacts recovered could be traced to the period from 1800 to 1870, although households would often contain “heirloom” ceramics.

An investigation conducted prior to the construction of the Metropolitan Detention Center provided yet another opportunity for archaeologists to examine a number of cisterns associated with wealthier Quaker families.  The preservation of wells, cisterns and privies under a paved parking lot in urban Philadelphia was one of the earliest examples of these preserved resources in an otherwise developed city. [Recent investigations for the I-95 expansion ( ) have further demonstrated these preserved landscapes and are providing a wealth of information for archaeologists recreating the cultural heritage of Philadelphia.]

Archaeologists recovered several other examples of ceramics with the Great Seal symbol, an indicator of its popularity and significance.  There are some slight variations to these depictions of the seal, but the basic symbolism of patriotism continues.  The addition of a phrase- “Present for my Dear Boy” to the symbol provides an interesting reflection on its use to perhaps inspire civic awareness or patriotism. 

However you choose to reflect upon our Presidents, past and present, we can look to our archaeological heritage and the preservation of these symbols of patriotism and take pride in Pennsylvania’s role in the founding these United States of America- From Many, One.

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

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is really interesting!