Friday, September 29, 2017

If Rocks Could Talk; Unraveling the History of Fort Hunter

It’s September and our followers know that means we are at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park continuing our investigation of this complex archaeological site.  Our mission remains the same, discover the remnants of the French & Indian War fort (1755-1762) but in the process, we have uncovered a lot more relating to the activities and occupations of those both before and after the war.

Our current excavation units are located to the rear of the mansion on either side of the milk house.  On the west side, closest to the corner of the yard and at the confluence of Fishing Creek and the Susquehanna River, archaeologists are uncovering historic and prehistoric activities.  The construction activities are modern (post-1900) water and sewer pipes that bisect the units through two distinct levels. This construction disturbed the soils, but a corner of our westernmost unit was spared.  Digging through the layers of soil and time, this unit has produced pre-historic pottery approximately 1100 years old, a fire-cracked rock feature (cooking hearth), and two Late Archaic points.   Once again, the landscape is reminding us that this was an important spot for peoples for thousands of years and continues to attract visitors to the park.  

modern waterline cutting through unit N75 W35

Recovery of  Koens-Crispin broadspear

A beautiful jasper broadspear

On the east side of the milk house, we continue to investigate a foundation identified as Archibald McAllister’s smokehouse  which still is not yielding many artifacts.  Documentation indicates that this was an octagonal, wooden structure approximately 16 feet in diameter. It also indicates that it was set a foot or more above the ground.  Our examination of the foundation has yielded little in the way of artifacts that would aid in dating the construction of this building, but it has provided insight into the construction methods employed.   The stone foundation that appeared “a foot or more above the ground” was actually set on a rubble stone foundation below ground at approximately the same depth.  This foundation of laid stone consists of sandstone and diabase rock of varying sizes with the largest (10-12”) boulder type at the base with medium and small stones fitted around this base layer.  Intermittent fill of soils mixed with small pebbles and wedge or cut rock complete the foundation.  This random rubble construction consists of stone that are not uniform in shape nor size but were arranged to distribute the weight of the building.  The bottom of the builders’ trench has proven to be consistently level, allowing for a solid foundation for the smokehouse structure.  
Feature 99, smokehouse foundation during removal

The description of McAllister’s octagonal smokehouse doesn’t provide a height dimension for the structure but Carl Lounsbury, architectural historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation states that a sharply pitched roof is essential for containing heat and smoke.  He goes on to state that the more intricate the roofing timbers, the more places to hang meat.  Meats were hung in a variety of ways with pegs, nails, hooks and chains.  Smokehouses from the 18th century don’t seem to follow a prescribed design as some are rectangular, square, round, and our octagonal shape at Fort Hunter.  Building materials vary from brick, stone and wood and there seems to be no set height- other than the need for a pitch sufficient for hanging the meats.  Preparation of meats for smoking requires salting which in turn affects the construction materials.  In wood, the cells of timber become infused with salt which weakens the wood cell structure and causes the surface of the wood to soften.  Brick smokehouses show signs of degradation on the bricks and mortar and the surfaces become friable from salt intrusions.  The smokehouse that was constructed without sufficient ventilation had humidity problems which led to molds and potentially harmful meats.  To repel insects- the cured meat was either coated with pepper or hickory ash.  

The following recipe for curing hams is dated December 6, 1841 from the files of John Newberry, Columbia, NC

To 12 hams of common size
take  8 lbs. brown shugar, 1 ½ lbs. christalised salt petre, 5 lbs. fine salt

Rub them with this and let them lie in a cask with the skins downward. Then make pickle with the strongest coarse salt that will bear an egg. Add about two or three quarts of lie refined by boiling and skimming. When cold, cover hams with it and keep them down with a stone and let them lie three or four weeks according to their size. Then hang then up in the smoke house and after 24 hours smoke them with good sound hickory wood and repeat it every morning till that are sufficiently smoked. If dipped in ashes when first taken from the pickle it is useful in preserving them from the fly.

Colonial Williamsburg smokes meats as part of their programming and indicates that smoking usually lasts about two weeks but that hams, shoulders and bacons age inside a smokehouse for at least two years and may be exposed to multiple rounds of smoke curing.  This agrees with the references cited for the McAllister smokehouse that the meats were hung there year- round. It is curious as to why such a large smokehouse was used at the McAllister farm when most of the family were gone by the time of the 1828 visit.  Was this meat consumed at the tavern or sold in the nearby communities?  Research we will pursue this winter after our field season ends. 

The location of an external stove referenced in the documentation is a source for research as well since there is no indicator as to its size, shape or location only that smoke is “conveyed through a tube from the outside”.  The stones to the north of our circular foundation have been removed and we found little evidence of burning or heated surfaces.  Unfortunately, the artifacts were unable to provide a date of placement for these rocks and excavation didn’t reveal their purpose.  Additional soil tests planned for later this year may aid in identifying the method and heat source for the interior of the smokehouse. 
Rocks to the north of smokehouse foundation

The media coverage this season has been great with Fox 43 , and ABC 27 both featuring Kurt Carr, Senior Curator of Archaeology and our crew leader. PennLive interviewed Kurt and posted some great excavation shots.  This media coverage has brought lots of folks to the site and we’ve enjoyed meeting everyone and sharing the significance of archaeology and our rich local heritage.  The school groups who have helped us to excavate and screen dirt and all of the volunteers are amazing.  We only have one more week, excavations close on October 5th and we will be cleaning up and closing the site on the sixth.  

We hope you can join us at Fort Hunter as part of our Archaeology Month in Pennsylvania activities, but if you aren’t able to visit us here- perhaps you can check out other programs offered by the Pennsylvania archaeological community.  On October 28th be sure to join us for the annual Workshops in Archaeology program. This year’s theme is Ethnicity in the Archaeological Record and once again we have a terrific group of presenters scheduled for the day.   

Smokehouses, Foursquare and Stolid, These Buildings Were a Hardworking Adornment to the Colonial Backyard, Michael Olmert. CW Journal: Winter 2004-05. 

The Cultivator: A Monthly Publication, devoted to Agriculture- each No. 16 pages. Albany, June 1835.

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

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