Friday, September 27, 2019

The First Three Weeks of the 2019 Field Season at Fort Hunter

As is our tradition since 2006, The State Museum of Pennsylvania is conducting archaeology at the Fort Hunter archaeological site five miles north of the state Capitol. The focus of our research is the French and Indian War occupation (F&I - 1756-1763 aka the Seven Years War; the first global conflict as the French and English struggled for control of colonies on several continents). Beginning with the Frontier Forts and Trails initiative under the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in the 1930’s, the Museum has a long history of French and Indian War investigations including forts Augusta, LeBoeuf, Presque Isle and Loudoun.

Initially, we were interested in the soldier’s life on the frontier. However, the site turned out to be multicomponent with significant prehistoric components dating back at least 9000 years. In addition, post French and Indian War occupations representing the growth of a plantation dating between 1787 and 1860 followed by a Victorian mansion complex.

Fort Hunter was built in the fall or winter of 1756 in response to Indian raids in the region. After Braddock’s defeat near present day Pittsburgh, the British decided to establish a defensive line of forts in the Susquehanna valley with the main fort being Fort Augusta, sixty miles to the north, at present day Sunbury. Fort Hunter served as a supply fort for Fort Augusta. One of our problems since starting this investigation is the lack of historic documentation. There are general maps of its location placing it on the south side of Fishing Creek and descriptions of the fort having a commanding view of the Susquehanna river, but no details on the size or configuration of Fort Hunter. There are several references to a block house; an unfinished fort; the need to replace the stockade; the need to deepen the defensive ditch around the stockade; officer’s quarters and a hospital, but nothing on size or orientation. Based on folklore, Fort Hunter mansion was built over the block house, so in 2006 we excavated trenches around the Mansion with the goal of intercepting the surrounding stockade or the defensive ditch.

Surprisingly, those early investigations in the back yard of the Mansion encountered a high density of mid-18th century pottery (dishes), gun flints and musket balls along with a bake oven in the style typically used by the British army. We have been expanding our excavations in the back yard ever since. We also conducted extensive trenching in the front yard but, unfortunately, we have not found the stockade or defensive ditch. On the positive side, we have found a layer of soil (identified as a buried A horizon) that represents the ground surface at the time of the French and Indian War and we have continued tracing this across the site.

This year’s excavations at Fort Hunter has continued our work at the north end of the mansion. Our excavations immediately adjacent to the east side of the mansion in 2017 produced 18th century artifacts and features but the results were confusing and inconclusive. We have continued around the house opening units to the north in 2018. The buried A horizon that we have been following has become more distinct and thicker, but in 2018, a clear picture did not emerge.

A view of this year’s excavations at the north end of the mansion.

Our first few days of the 2019 season involved removing the back fill from last year’s units. We shoveled out seven 5’X 5’ units, about 6 tons of dirt, in two days of sweltering heat. We continued to follow the buried A adjacent to the north wall foundation of the mansion. This
contains prehistoric artifacts, and 18th and 19th century artifacts.  However, we have found a thickened part of the buried A that only contains mid-18th century artifacts, possibly from the French and Indian War occupation.

Artifacts from the disturbed B horizon.

Below this, what first appeared to be the undisturbed tan B horizon now seems to be disturbed based on the presence of scratch blue, delft and porcelain ceramics, iron objects, glass seed beads, brass straight pins, a musket ball and dietary bone. The unit is not finished, but these artifacts were found at a depth of over two feet into the disturbed B horizon along with a large number of flakes and projectile points never found at high frequencies at this depth. In plan view, only one side of this feature has been identified and the difference between the disturbed and undisturbed B is very clear. Our interpretation is that this soil was excavated during the mid-18th century and replaced during the same period but with other soil from the B horizon. This may represent the defensive ditch surrounding the fort or some other structure from the fort period. We were beginning to suspect that the fort never really had a stockade or defensive ditch, but this feature may be our first indication of a fortification.

A view of the thickened buried A horizon in the background and the normal thickness of the buried A in the foreground.

This season we also investigated an area across Front Street about 400 feet from the mansion. Historic references note additional structures such as officer’s quarters, a hospital and enlisted men’s quarters and we have always wondered where they are. A drone survey using infrared photography identified lineal anomalies across the road, so we decided to investigate them. We began with a 4” bucket auger but were refused by rock within a foot of the surface. We opened four units and encountered approximately three feet of cobbles and pebbles that we thought might be fill. Just to be sure, we utilized a backhoe and excavated down six feet exposing the same profile. In conclusion, we are not sure what caused the anomalies but without exposing a much larger area, we don’t think they are cultural.

Backhoe excavations east of Front street.

A second goal of the Fort Hunter project is to engage the pubic in the importance of archaeology to our understanding of both the historic and prehistoric past and its contribution to planning for the future. Over the past thirteen years we have averaged between 3000 and 6000 visitors per year. Local high school students have volunteered and college students from Franklin and Marshall, Dickinson, Shippensburg, Harrisburg Area Community College and this year Wilson College have been able to introduce their students to basic archaeological field methods. As part of our public outreach program, a new exhibit opened in early September on the second floor of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, in the Anthropology and Archaeology gallery which features our investigation of Fort Hunter and its rich cultural heritage.

The 2019 field season is coming to a close on October 4th and the work of processing and cataloging the many artifacts recovered will begin. This process allows us to further analyze the artifacts and soil layers in which they were recovered. This important analysis is valuable in documenting the activities of the former occupants of the site. Finally, none of our work could have been accomplished without the support of Fort Hunter Mansion and Park and we sincerely appreciate their cooperation.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment