Friday, September 28, 2018

Rain drops keep falling on my head, but that doesn’t mean we won’t continue at Fort Hunter

The 2018 field season at Fort Hunter Mansion & Park is coming to a close soon and it has been a wet one! Last year we marveled at not having a single rain day, this year is quite the opposite. It has been a terrific year for visitors, the press, social media and just general interest in our excavation. Fort Hunter Day was one of those rare beautiful days when everyone was eager to get outside and enjoy the sunshine as demonstrated by the more than 3,000 visitors at the site.   We welcome everyone to visit and observe our excavation but especially, to ask questions.

Some of our visitors have been following us and our progress every September and early October since 2006 so they know the routine.  Others are visiting for the first time and are new to the archaeological process. Most of our visitors stand off to the side, a little unsure whether to come closer. Once they see that we’re just harmless, crazy archaeologists, the exchanges between visitors and staff demonstrate that there is an increasing interest in archaeology and our heritage in central Pennsylvania.

As with any job, once you have done something for a while you take for granted the process and begin to overlook some of the minutia of the task. You complete the process without really thinking about how or why you do things a certain way.  For an individual who has never visited an archaeological site or had an opportunity to observe the process, it can be confusing and perhaps a bit overwhelming. This is the challenge of public archaeology; make it understandable and relative to the general public.  So, some of the questions that our visitors ask may seem insignificant to us but are obviously important to their understanding of archaeology.  This blog will address some of the questions we’ve received and hopefully some of our followers have had these or similar questions of their own that will be answered.

PHMC archaeologist Janet Johnson speaks with visitors to the site during Fort Hunter Day.
(Photo: PHMC, Section of Archaeology)

Probably the most common question- what are you looking for?

Our immediate response is something to the effect of “We’re archaeologists with The State Museum of Pennsylvania and are looking for evidence of the French & Indian War period fort that stood here between 1755 and 1763.” It’s true we began this project in 2006 with hopes of finding a stockade trench and a blockhouse described in historic documents. However, while this was and is our ideal, the search goes far beyond the French and Indian War period.  Fort Hunter Mansion and Park has been used for thousands of years and we are literally peeling back the soil to discover the lives of the Indians, colonists, industrialist, farmer and businessman who left their trace.

Why are you digging here?

The initial area of excavation was prompted by ground penetrating radar that indicated areas of ground disturbance that seemed most promising. The discovery of a feature interpreted as the bake oven in 2006 was facilitated by that technology. Subsequent investigations were based on soil changes and trenching that provided a window into activity areas for which we later explored.  Our investigation is also guided by the archaeological evidence recovered in previous excavations, the artifacts and features. Artifacts are the tangible evidence of the past- their presence in undisturbed soils, as identified stratigraphically, is priceless.  So when asked, “Why don’t you dig down on the bank, closer to the river and Fishing Creek?” the answer is all about the stratigraphy and that undisturbed soil.

As stated earlier, lots of people have lived on this piece of ground and all of them have dug in the dirt, had campfires, disturbed soils and left their “mark” or presence on the landscape. It is all this activity that is challenging to sort through and identify the intact soils and the undisturbed stratigraphy. This year, we have uncovered an undisturbed living floor that dates to the Woodland period, 1000- 2900 years ago.  Significant not only for its integrity as an intact soil package but also for the picture of the past provided. Envision Indians sitting around a campfire cooking fish or game recently caught while they sharpen their projectile points (arrowheads) and polish a stone axe.  Our evidence of this picture comes in the form of lithic flakes, fire-cracked rock, broken pottery and a stone axe- tangible evidence of the past.

This drawing depicts indigenous people sitting by a camp fire.
(Drawing: Jonathan Frazier)

Another frequently asked question “What are those colored pins in the ground- the red and blue things?”  The soil markers designate stratigraphy- soil layers- within our excavation unit. Red pins define natural soil changes while the blue pins designate incremental soil levels of .25/10ths or 3 inches. Archaeology is a destructive process and it is only through careful excavation that we can examine the soils and identify anomalies we refer to as features. Features are activities that leave evidence in the soil- a cooking hearth is a feature identified by charcoal flecks and fire cracked and reddened rocks. 

The red pins define a natural soil change in the wall of this excavation unit
(photo: PHMC, Section of Archaeology)

What happens to the dirt that you dig out?

Dirt is screened through quarter inch mesh to identify artifacts that may have not been recovered during excavation. This process can be time consuming but is so very important to ensure that we don’t overlook artifacts or indicators of activities. The backdirt piles (sifted soil piles under the screen) are eventually used by the grounds crew at Fort Hunter to fill in the excavation units.

Staff and volunteers screen dirt through 1/4" wire mesh at Fort Hunter.
(Photo: PHMC, Section of Archaeology)

What happens when you stop digging for this year?

The units (5x5 square) that we have opened are covered over with a heavy black plastic. The grounds crew at Fort Hunter will use soil from the back dirt pile to fill in the open units and the black plastic is a marker for us should we wish to return to a unit the following year.

Where do the artifacts go?

The artifacts go to the archaeology lab of the State Museum for processing which involves washing, labeling, and identification.  Research and analysis of all the artifacts is conducted over the winter and spring prior to permanent curation. Conservation treatment is preserved on the most fragile or corroded of the artifacts. Specialized treatment aids in the preservation of these artifacts and ensures stability for many years to come.

What do you do if it rains?

This record-breaking year of wet weather has taken a toll on excavations and a frequent question has to do with how we deal with bad weather. We are able to continue excavations if the rain is light, but any periods longer than a few minutes create a muddy mess that is more likely to damage features. We screen the soil in our buckets, bag any artifacts and cover the units with plastic to preserve the exposed floor. The next day we bail out water from the top of the plastic and then carefully remove the plastic to see if we were successful in our endeavors to save the units from damage.  

Water from overnight rain sits atop the black plastic used to cover excavation units.
(Photo: PHMC, Section of Archaeology)

What have you found? What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found here?

We have found many artifacts that represent the activities of Fort Hunter and several of them provide interesting stories of the residents of this site.  No one object tells the story of Fort Hunter so there is not an easy answer as to the most interesting or important artifact. This year’s recovery of a stone axe will be a highlight since these are rare discoveries during excavation.  The volume of musket balls and swan shot are of particular interest and further analysis will look for density of these materials this year as compared to other years and locations.

A full grooved stone axe recovered during 2018 excavations at Fort Hunter.
(Photo: Don Giles)

This historic reference to supplies issued in December of 1755 references Swan Shot and the delivery of twenty-five pounds to the site. There are spent (used) and unused shot present in the excavations adjacent to the summer kitchen at the rear of the mansion.
“Decemr 9 [1755], By Thomas Forster Esqr & Thos McKee, at Hunter’s Fort,                                                                                                                                              12 ½ lb. Powder and 25 lb Swan Shot

An intriguing feature has appeared in the excavation block that has created a lot of questions and speculation by our team. A linear ditch or trench approximately a foot wide was exposed that runs through at least two of the units. The depth of this feature is being investigated and careful screening of the artifacts conducted. Unfortunately no artifacts have been recovered in this feature that provide a solid date of its construction or indicate its purpose.  Reference to the ditch at Hunter’s is made in the following;

PA Archives, Vol. III, page 442 – Engineer Rich’d Dudgeon to Gov. Denny, Carlisle , 7th July, 1758
“Pursuant to an Order Received from Genl Forbes, the 5th Inst., I have been to Inspect the State of Fort Hunter, & am of Opinion that Stockading of it, & Opening & Deepning the Ditch, according to the Scheme left with the Commanding Officer there, will be  Genls Order, is to see the Work Executed, by imploying the Country People. But as it’s apprehended he may meet with difficultys in calling this assistance, I am desired by the Genl to signify this to you.”

Further investigation of the linear feature is necessary to understand it’s use and time period of construction, but for now we are happy to explore the possibility that this may be a portion of the ditch referenced above.

The lighter colored soil running across the units near the top of the photo indicates a yet unexplored linear feature. (Photo: PHMC, Section of Archaeology)

We only have a week left for the 2018 field season; our last day is October 5th .  With a forecast of a dry weekend we can only hope that the trend will continue into next week and we’ll be able to explore these questions and others before the plastic goes on and we let the site rest until next September. We hope you will find the time to visit us and observe the process of discovering the archaeological heritage of Fort Hunter Mansion & Park, Dauphin County. We encourage you to continue to check the blog for updates on the analysis of the artifacts and data throughout the winter months as we explore the story of this important site.

One last question that visitors ask- What are your jobs or tasks when you go back to the office?

The analysis and processing of the artifacts is only a portion of our jobs as we curate over 9 million artifacts from across the Commonwealth. We also conduct a major outreach program at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January. There is an exhibit to design, brochure to develop and print and labels to prepare for artifacts on display during this event. Our most immediate attention will focus on preparing for the Workshops in Archaeology program on October 27th. This one day event will focus on the Susquehannock Indians who lived along the river and interacted with Captain John Smith in the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. The story of their tribe as seen from an archaeological perspective and through their artifacts is fascinating.  We invite you to check out the registration information and program information for 2018 Workshops in Archaeology.

It’s not raining today and we have school groups scheduled so it’s time to dig! Hopefully you’ll stop by to see our progress and ask a few of your own questions. 

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

Friday, September 14, 2018

A report by our summer intern on her experience in the Section of Archaeology

This week’s blog comes to you from our college intern this past summer. Working two to three days a week, she processed a huge amount of data and gained practical experience in the analysis of lithic artifacts. She was a quick learner and we enjoyed her stay.

My name is Alaina Helm. I am a sophomore at Oberlin College, and planning to major in Archaeological Studies and Geology. Over the summer, I volunteered with the State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology. I have been fascinated with anthropology and archaeology for as long as I can remember, dragging my family through natural history museums whenever the opportunity arose. As the spring semester drew to a close, I wanted to do something productive and educational over the summer, so I contacted the museum, where I was welcomed and given the wonderful opportunity to learn about the cataloging, processing, and analysis of archaeological artifacts.

Alaina Helm and Dr. Kurt Carr examining lithic material from Kings Quarry (36Lh2)

Most of my time at the museum was spent analyzing stone or lithic artifacts systematically surface collected in three-meter squares from a jasper quarry site in Lehigh County called Kings Quarry (36Lh2). The artifacts were mainly the chips from the making of stone tools rather than the tools themselves. While at first glance the lithics may appear to be regular rocks, at closer inspection you can identify signs of production or how they were made. Evidence of reduction with differing types of percussion instruments such as hammerstones or antler batons reflect all stages of tool making – from the harvesting of raw material from the quarry to the retouching of edges on already formed tools.

 Closely examining a piece of flaked jasper

Under the Direction of Dr. Kurt Carr, I learned to recognize types of percussion and predict the stage of production of a given artifact. After first sorting through a group of artifacts to sort out pieces showing signs of utilization or containing an intact striking platform, I would go through each artifact with an intact platform to determine if they were entire or proximal (broken). I could then determine what type of bulb of percussion was present, the angle of the platform, whether the platform had been ground or flaked, number of flake scars, amount of cortex material, and amount of thermal alteration. After recording each of those pieces of information, I would then make a judgement as to what stage of production likely created the piece and record that too. Sorting through over 7000 pieces, I was able to garner a comparison over different parts of the site to determine if certain types of production activities were occurring in specific areas.  I used an excel spread sheet to record all my data which enabled me to produce analytical graphs for each excavation unit.  These graphs allowed the areas to be compared to each other to determine the location of different types of reduction activities. One of our initial conclusions is that almost 90% of the tools and utilized flakes came two excavation units and these were correlated with a previously discovered fluted point. This suggests a Paleoindian occupation.

A pie chart showing each type of lithic material from Kings Quarry (36Lh2)

 I also spent some time helping to wash and process artifacts in the lab towards the beginning of the summer, a fundamental process for curation. Towards the end of the summer, I also worked on inventorying a collection of artifacts related to the Sheep Rock Shelter (36Hu1) recently donated to the museum.

Alaina showing off a piece of flaked jasper she analyzed

Prior to working with the Section of Archaeology I had very little experience studying and identifying lithic materials. Working with the state museum staff, I learned to identify the different aspects of knapping and the tool making techniques. Sorting through what sometimes felt like mountains of jasper, I learned to identify reduction methods utilized by Pennsylvania natives long ago. Although the summer has ended, and the next semester will begin shortly, only a portion of the surface collection was analyzed. I hope that in the future, analysis of the collection can be completed, and if I get the chance whenever I am next home in Pennsylvania, I would enjoy resuming the project.

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