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 .

Friday, April 27, 2018

Journey to the Petroglyphs: Rock Art in Pennsylvania’s Lower Susquehanna River Valley

A previous blog identified the Lower Susquehanna River as containing one of the largest concentrations of prehistoric petroglyphs, or rock carvings, in the Northeast. Out of the multitude of these sites which were once accessible in the area, only a small handful remain intact. Although several publications discuss the images found on these petroglyphs, fewer accounts convey the beauty and natural wonder of their surroundings.

The golden hour on the Susquehanna. In the background, you can see people standing on Little Indian Rock, the most well-known of the petroglyph sites in the Lower Susquehanna.

 Despite the looming presence of Safe Harbor Dam and the alarms which signal dam releases at frequent intervals, the water just down river remains relatively calm. It is important to remember that the river landscape of today is drastically different from what existed before the construction of several hydroelectric dams along the river. This section of the Susquehanna was once described by Donald Cadzow as having numerous rapids only navigable by canoe, quite a difference from the glassy waters that are found here today. From the confluence of the Conestoga and Susquehanna Rivers, a paddler can make their way past numerous rocky outcrops (some containing petroglyphs) and islands blanketed with thick vegetation. It’s not difficult to imagine why this was a place of significance to the prehistoric people who visited and lived here for thousands of years. Wildlife, resources, and natural beauty abound.

The petroglyph sites in this area of the Susquehanna were first documented in 1863 by professor T. C. Porter of the Linnaean Society of Lancaster County. Since then there has been periodic interest in the sites, which for many years were thought to have been lost behind Safe Harbor Dam. Unlike the abstract glyphs documented on Walnut Island, now submerged behind Safe Harbor Dam, those found on Little Indian Rock are more naturalistic and represent identifiable animals such as birds, humans, snakes, and quadrupeds.

A composite photograph showing numerous glyphs on the northern face of Little Indian Rock at sunrise.

 At first glance, it is apparent that Little Indian Rock has numerous carvings on its surface, but it isn’t until closely examining the site under optimal light that the sheer number of glyphs on this rock become apparent. No doubt that an immense amount of time was spent creating them. Although no definitive age has been established for the creation of these sites, they are thought to have been made no more recently than around 500 years ago but are possibly much older. It is agreed upon that they are of Algonkian origin as they bear similarities to other petroglyph sites and motifs of the expansive culture group that once inhabited this area.

Big Indian Rock at sunrise.

The other prominent petroglyph site in the Lower Susquehanna, Big Indian Rock, exists just downstream of Little Indian Rock. This location contains numerous, but less distinct glyphs and more widely spaced images than Little Indian Rock. Many of the glyphs on Big Indian Rock are nearly impossible to see without ideal lighting. This site is unique, not only for the motifs which adorn it, but also for its prominence in the river. It is the tallest and largest of the rocky outcrops in this section of the Susquehanna. From atop Big Indian Rock, individuals experience a breathtaking vista that stretches for miles.

The modification of these petroglyph sites extends beyond their most prominent petroglyph panels. Understandably, maps have failed to capture the full scope of the ways in which humans have modified these sites. The preservation of these sites has largely been attributed to their remote location in the three-quarters of a mile-wide Susquehanna River. As with any significant historic or prehistoric site, vandalism is always a concern. When visiting petroglyph sites care should be taken to avoid impact. With proper respect and conservation, these awe-inspiring sites will exist long into the future.

-          Do not touch the petroglyphs, even small amounts of oils from your hands can darken and destroy the carved images

-          Photograph and sketch the images but avoid taking rubbings which can hasten the deterioration of the petroglyphs. The best time of day for viewing petroglyphs is early morning or evening, when the Sun is low on the horizon.

-          Do not introduce any foreign substance to the rock surface such as paint or chalk, these actions can damage the image.

-          Do not repeck, recarve or deface the images in any way, these actions destroy the original image. Many rock art sites have been destroyed by the addition of historic graffiti.

Thank you for visiting our blog, we encourage everyone to learn about the archaeological resources in your community. We ask you to join us in ensuring that our archaeological heritage is preserved by supporting public programs and preservation laws so that we can protect the past for future generations. 

Additional Resources:

Cadzow, Donald A. Petroglyphs Rock Carvings in the Susquehanna River Near Safe Harbor. Pennsylvania... Vol. 3. No. 1. Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1934.

Carr, Kurt W. and Nevin, Paul A., Advanced Technology Rubs Ancient Past. Pennsylvania Heritage, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Fall 2008 (

Diaz-Granados, Carol, and James R. Duncan, eds. The rock-art of eastern North America: Capturing Images and Insight. Vol. 45879. University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Lenik, Edward J. Making pictures in stone: American Indian rock art of the Northeast. University of Alabama Press, 2009.

Vastokas, Joan M., and Romas K. Vastokas. Sacred art of the Algonkians: A study of the Peterborough Petroglyphs. Mansard Press, 1973.

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

Friday, April 13, 2018

Sharing and Preserving the Archaeological Record

The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology staff are the stewards of the archaeological record for the state of Pennsylvania. As such, the staff undertake numerous tasks to preserve the artifacts and records from sites across the state that have been donated to the museum. Many of the duties performed in the Section of Archaeology have been discussed in detail throughout previous posts of this blog, but one major responsibility that each of us has is to preserve site information, catalogs and artifacts for use in future research. Researchers use the data collected from us to develop conclusions on theories or ideas and present their findings at conferences and through publications, which can then further our understanding of Pennsylvania’s rich history. 

Over the past few weeks, staff members and archaeologists from across the state have been attending annual conferences and meetings. Presentations at these meetings discuss any number of topics including new artifact or site studies, more accurate or efficient methodologies and tests, and new insights on previously studied sites or collections. As was noted in our previous blog, several staff members recently attended this year’s Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology (SPA) annual meeting. Once again, this conference was a success with topics covering prehistoric population movement, numerous site analyses, ceramic and bead analyses and much more. With the SPA annual meeting now over, our sights are set on another conference, taking place right now.

The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) annual meeting began on Wednesday April 11, 2018 and is running through Sunday April 15 in Washington D.C. The SAA meeting brings together archaeologists from across the country to continue sharing knowledge and developing a more in-depth understanding of the archaeological record across the continent. After a quick glance through the extensive conference program, staff in the archaeology lab recognized a few names. As is mentioned above, one of the principal goals of the Section for preserving artifacts and documentation is to open our doors to researchers who would like to use the collections to further our understanding of the archaeological record through various forms of analysis. Two of our more recent researchers, Lucy Harrington and Amy Fox, who spent long hours performing such research will be presenting at the SAA meeting. These young women are finalizing their projects and will be sharing the results with the archaeological community.

Amy Fox presenting her research at the SAAs

Past intern John Garbellano presenting poster at SAAs

Researchers like Lucy and Amy are some of the most common type of researchers we have at the Section of Archaeology, college students working on advanced degrees. Lucy and Amy both analyzed different types of projectile points in order to determine various aspects of their use. Both young women built upon older methods, using different types of measurements and/or three-dimensional imaging to analyze the projectile point attributes. Other recent student researchers examined animal bone assemblages from different archaeological sites to understand the use of different animal species in a culture and how domestic animals were transported across the landscape. We have benefitted from an array of research subjects from very specific topics, looking at one attribute of one type of artifact to more broad scope topics, such as comparing assemblages between sites.  

Dr. Bernard Means 3-D scanning turtle carapace from Monongahela site in Somerset County, Pa

 Other researchers frequently using the collections at the State Museum are professionals, who prepare papers, do background research for other projects or continue long-term projects. One such example is, Dr. Bernard Means a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who has a close working relationship with the Section of Archaeology. He has been working with us to 3-D scan various types of artifacts for his Virtual Curation Laboratory. With the data he has collected from our collections Dr. Means has been able to provide us with 3-D printed examples of some of these artifacts, which we use for outreach programs. Dr. Means will also be seen sharing information on his work at the SAA meeting this week. Finally, research is also performed in house. The Section of Archaeology staff are often found doing further research on various subjects for presentations and other public outreach programs. This and last year several staff members presented on various projects at the annual SPA meeting and two staff members are participating in the currently ongoing SAA meeting. 

Protecting and preserving Pennsylvania’s archaeological collections is what the staff of the State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology do on a daily basis, but in order to increase the knowledge about Pennsylvania’s past we encourage researchers to take an interest, perform research, develop ideas and share them with the world. It is through research and sharing that we learn and develop a better understanding of the archaeological record. By doing this we can truly Save the Past for the Future.

If you are interested in researching a specific type of artifact or site we encourage anyone with a scholarly research project to submit a research request for access to the collections. For additional information or to make a request, please contact Janet Johnson at, or Kurt Carr at

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