Friday, November 18, 2016

Thimbles through Time, Space and Life

The Fort Hunter field season has wrapped up and now artifact processing is in full swing. As we clean and process the artifacts we are able to see more clearly what is present in the collection. It is important to examine the types of artifacts present in a collection as they help tell the story of the landscape and its use. In order for archaeologists to develop an accurate timeline for sites, several methods are used including stratigraphy, radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology, and artifact typologies based on datable artifacts.

This year at Fort Hunter, we found the most complete example of a thimble to date. Thimbles may not be the first artifact type you think of when contemplating the kinds of artifacts that can help date a site, but in fact thimbles have a long and well documented history, though not widely published.

There is documentation of leather thimbles as early as the medieval period in Europe. Bone, horn and wooden thimbles have also all been found on early archaeological sites (Hill 1995). The earliest metal thimbles in England appear in AD 1350 (Hill 1995). At this time thimbles were being made and decorated by hand, using various techniques including hammering, stamping and pressing. Like many other objects, later period thimbles were produced via mechanical methods of casting. During the 17th century some of these machine made thimbles were made through a slightly different process, making them from two pieces by attaching the separately made crown to the body. This process of manufacture is another clue to dating them.  

Various forms of thimbles through time: 14th century (left), 2-piece 17th century (center), 19th century pronounced rim (right) (from UK Detector Finds Database 2005).

Just as the process for making thimbles changed, so did the form or shape and design on thimbles. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that thimbles became taller and similar to their current form, while previously they were a short shallow cup-like shape (Hill 1995, UK Detector Finds Database 2005). The height of the thimble sides as well as the height of the dome varied between manufacturers as well as through time. Designs on thimbles also changed, beginning with hand punched “pits” or indentations in the medieval period and later changing to mechanically indented or knurled indentations (Hill 1995, UK Detector Finds Database 2005). The indentations or designs are most often small round indentations or can also be a waffle pattern. These varying patterns on the body or crown of a thimble can also indicate its age. Finally, the rim of a thimble can be indicative of a specific time period as some rims were left flat, whiles others were rolled.

18th Century thimble found at Fort Hunter (36Da159) during 2016 State Museum of Pennsylvania field season.

With this brief understanding of why thimbles are considered datable, we can now look at the thimble found this year at Fort Hunter. As can be seen in the image, the Fort Hunter thimble is a one piece cast thimble with knurled indentations and the waffle-patterned crown. Based on historical research this form and design is often called a “Lofting” type of thimble, named for John Lofting a Dutch thimble maker, who produced large quantities of thimbles for export from England (UK Detector Finds Database 2005). It is believed that the Fort Hunter thimble represents the final development in the “lofting” form, which was quickly copied and exported by other European manufacturers throughout the 18th century. 

Lofting thimbles found at Fort Loudon

Other types of thimbles found at Fort Loudon:  2-piece 17th century (left), 19th century crown with concentric design (right)

Top of other types of thimbles found at Fort Loudon:  2-piece 17th century (left), 19th century crown with concentric design (right)

Another important aspect of having good datable artifacts on a site is that comparative analyses can be done between sites. In order for archaeologists to develop the most accurate picture of past life, how artifact and site types were used and to determine whether sites are contemporaneous, comparisons are made using as many examples of specific artifact and site types as possible. For example, there have been thimbles found at other French and Indian War period forts in Pennsylvania, such as the five 18th century Lofting thimbles, one 17th century two-piece thimble and one 19th century thimble with a concentric crown design found at Fort Loudon.  Other examples of thimbles from Pennsylvania forts include two 18th century Lofting type thimbles from Fort Augusta and Fort Morris each. Fort Morris also has an example of a 17th century two-piece thimble. Having this information allows archaeologists to see that there are similarities in the form, decoration and ages of this artifact type which not only helps date these sites, but may also lead to further conclusions about who in these forts were using the thimbles: was it soldiers, a designated tailor or women (Gale 2007)? These are just some of the questions that can be explored by further analyzing the thimbles.

18th century Lofting thimbles from Fort Augusta

Thimbles found at Fort Morris: 18th century Lofting thimbles (right and left), 2-piece 17th century (center) (image from Warfel 2010).

So, through using previous archaeological evidence as well as the historic record these little artifacts have proven to be an important tool in helping archaeologists understand the period of occupation and activities for many sites. As a common domestic object, thimbles can help date a site or a component of a site through the artifact typology, as our Fort Hunter thimble helps us develop a better understanding of the landscape around the Fort Hunter Mansion.

Gale, R. R.
2007    "A Soldier-Like Way": The Material Culture of the British Infantry 1751-
1768. Track of the Wolf, Elk River, Minnesota.

Hill, Erica
1995    Thimbles and Thimble Rings from the circum-Caribbean Region, 1500-1800:   Chronology and Identification. Historical Archaeology 29(1):84-92.

Hume, Ivor Noel
1969   A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. republished by University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
UK Detector Finds Database
            2005    Thimbles.

Warfel, Steven

2010    The Discovery of Fort Morris: A Report on 2009 Archaeological Investigations at the 333 East Burd Street Site, Shippensburg, PA.

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

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the interesting post! It may interest you that the "two-piece" thimbles you have here are actually "tailor's thimbles," intentionally made without a cap and still in use today by men's tailors. The ones you illustrate look like similar ones found on late eighteenth- nineteenth-century sites, and are probably not from the seventeenth century. Looking forward to reading more!