Friday, May 11, 2018

To Be Ore Not To Be: Crucibles are the Answer

Another fascinating aspect of the investigations at Fort Hunter has been revealed – the possibility that metalworking was taking place at the site. Fort Hunter, a county park located approximately 6 miles north of the capitol in Harrisburg along the Susquehanna River, was the site of British fortifications during the French and Indian War (1755-1763). Fort Hunter served not only to protect the local inhabitants, but also as a supply station for Fort Augusta, located 40 miles north in current Sunbury, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.

Fort Hunter’s history doesn’t begin or end with its role in the war however. It also served as a home, a farm, and an agricultural-industrial site for more than 200 years. The earliest European residents of this spot, the Chambers brothers, erected a grist and saw mill along Fishing Creek near its confluence with the Susquehanna. The success of this enterprise led to others such as a blacksmithing/gunsmithing shop.

It has been difficult to determine that smithing activities were taking place at Fort Hunter since metal objects recovered here could also relate to the occupation of the military fort. However, materials recovered in the last few years of excavation could help shed a new light on the subject - small bits of metal and crucible fragments. Crucibles are sturdy ceramic vessels capable of withstanding high temperatures that are used in the melting of metal ores and the creation of metal objects. Historically, crucibles were made of clay, fireclay, graphite, and silicates or combinations of these materials. Today, crucibles are made of any materials that can withstand high heat.  

Image of a crucible in use in a furnace (Courtesy of Pixabay free downloads)

Crucibles have been in use for thousands of years, likely from the very beginnings of metal making. Early metallurgists used crude clay crucibles to produce and form metals with low melting points, such as copper, lead, or bronze. As metal making advanced to materials with higher melting points and the study of alchemy became widespread, crucibles made of fireclays mixed with graphite and silicates became more common. Some of the best graphite crucibles were produced in Germany from the Middle Ages through the eighteenth century.

Base of a graphite crucible recovered from a site in Philadelphia (photo courtesy PHMC)

  Depending upon the amount of metal being produced and its intended use, sizes of crucibles can vary from very small to very large. Industrial-sized crucibles are used in the production of steel beams while tiny crucibles can be used when making delicate jewelry or other very small objects.

Very small crucible recovered from site in Philadelphia (photo courtesy PHMC)

 A number of fragments of crucibles were recovered from several years of excavation at Fort Hunter. These fragments appear to come from relatively small containers of differing shapes. Only one base fragment was recovered so it is unclear if all the crucibles had similar flat bottoms; however, varying thicknesses and slight differences in the rim fragments indicate that three or more different crucible vessels are represented. The majority of the pieces exhibit buildup on the interior and exterior vessel walls and most of them also show signs of miniscule green blobs on the interior. The presence of green residue, or verdigris, indicates that the metal being worked contained copper. 

Fragments of crucibles recovered from Fort Hunter excavations (photo courtesy PHMC)

A possible reason that these crucibles were used at Fort Hunter is that gunsmithing was taking place here in the mid-eighteenth century. Research indicates that James Chambers and his sister’s husband, William Foulkes, were making Pennsylvania (or Kentucky) long rifles at Fort Hunter in the late 1750s-early 1760s. William apprenticed in Lancaster City, possibly to Mathias Roesser, before ending up at Fort Hunter. Since a smithy is believed to have been in operation at Fort Hunter since the 1730s or 1740s it would have been easy for James and William to have taken over the business.

James Chambers was killed during Pontiac’s Rebellion and the 1764 inventory of his possessions reveals his occupation. Chambers, whose profession is listed as a gunsmith, had tools and items relating to that business including “Riphel Barrels”, bullet molds, files, gun locks, cast munitions, and “Old Gunsmiths tools” as well as blacksmiths bellows and tools, anvils, iron, steel, and “Beak Iron”. If Chambers and Foulkes were making and repairing rifles at the site, it is possible they would need to cast elements such as side plates and other small brass pieces, some of which have been found at the site. The small crucibles are likely all that was needed to make these parts. 

Possible brass gun sideplates recovered from Fort Hunter (photo courtesy PHMC)

One hurdle to the Chambers-Foulkes gun shop theory is that it is not known that any structure(s) stood in the location the crucibles were found prior to the fort’s construction. So, was there a previously unknown structure standing here prior to the fort? Another theory is that the fort itself employed a smith to keep the military guns in repair. This fact has not yet been noted in any of the primary documentation that has been found.

More work needs to be done on this subject, including conducting additional research into the Chambers-Foulkes gun making enterprise and having the crucible’s residues tested to determine exactly what was being melted in them. In addition, there are no known examples of Chambers or Foulkes work. If a marked piece were to be found in future excavations it could help to identify the location of their forge.   

The identification of the crucible fragments at Fort Hunter have allowed us to expand the activities that were conducted at this site and tell a more accurate story. Now we need to more accurately date this activity – is it related to the Chambers-Foulkes occupation or the military occupation.

Come visit our excavation at Fort Hunter this fall. We work weekdays from 9:00 until 4:30. The site will be opened September 5th for visitors and we close on October 5th.

For additional reading on gunsmithing and blacksmithing:

Crews, Ed
2018   The Gunsmith’s Shop. Colonial Williamsburg Journal website, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Heckert, Wayne and Donald Vaughn
1993   The Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle: A Lancaster Legend. Science Press, Ephrata, PA.

Lasansky, Jeannette
1980   To Draw, Upset, & Weld: The Work of the Pennsylvania Rural Blacksmith 1742-1935.     Oral Traditions Project of the Union County Historical Society, Lewisburg, PA.

The Kentucky Rifle Foundation
2018   The Kentucky Rifle Foundation website. As found at:, accessed May 10, 2018.

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

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