Friday, September 23, 2016

Excavation continues at Fort Hunter

  This week in Pennsylvania Archaeology we review the foundation of an early smoke house uncovered by the archaeological excavations currently being conducted at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park by the Section of Archaeology of The State Museum of Pennsylvania. The structure was built by Colonel Archibald McAllister in the early 19th century on his plantation along North Front Street in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Col. McAllister started his plantation at the site of a French and Indian War fort in about 1787 by building a large stone house at the junction of Fishing Creek and the Susquehanna River. He was a very successful entrepreneur with his farming activities, eventually his operations included a grist and saw mill, a blacksmith shop and a tavern.

The smoke house was described in the agricultural newspaper Cultivator by Daniel Chandler in 1835 based on his visit to the farm in 1828. He described Col. McAllister as “a gentlemen of science and refined observation”. Chandler was especially impressed with his household conveniences notably the milk house, smoke house and clothes line, describing each in detail. The smoke house “was a wooden octagon building ….. perfectly tight except the door-way”. Chandler noted that the smoke house was unique in that it was elevated off the ground by a foot or more and that “no fire was admitted into the building” therefore reducing the chances of the building catching fire. The smoke for curing the meats was introduced into the building by a tube from a stove in an adjacent room.  Typically, in a conventional smokehouse the smoke is generated by a brick fireplace in the center of the earthen floor or by an iron stove in the building.  It was noted that McAllister’s arrangement provided a perfectly dry building allowing him to store his meats in the smokehouse until they were consumed.

The smokehouse foundation is not an artifact in the traditional sense, but is an archaeological feature, a technical term that applies to objects such as post molds, foundations, walk ways, roads and other remains that cannot be removed from the site. This treasure is the rocks which form the foundation of a structure – as in this case the base for the smokehouse. The archaeological footprint of Col. McAllister’s innovative smoke house design consists of a circular stone foundation 12 feet in diameter allowing for the unique octagonal building. The connecting room for the stove can be seen in the picture as an “L” shaped alignment of rocks to the right of the main foundation.

Excavations at Fort Hunter will continue weekdays 9am - 4pm, through October 7th.
For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Thursday, September 15, 2016

In the Public’s Eye - Out and About with Archaeology

The Section of Archaeology of The State Museum of Pennsylvania has been out and about with public programs the past few weeks and has returned to our excavation site at Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, Harrisburg.   Archaeologists understand the value of sharing research and discoveries with the public in order to engage them in our preservation efforts.  This becomes all the more evident when we are at large events like Harrisburg’s Kipona festival, Indian Steps Native American festival and Fort Hunter.  The public is hungry for information about the past and so enthusiastic to learn about our archaeological heritage. Thank you! Your interest and enthusiasm makes going out on weekends and evenings worthwhile and enjoyable.

Look for the new banshee flag at our next event

As mentioned above, we have returned to Fort Hunter where we’ve been engaged with school groups- from elementary thru college age, bus tours and the Mansion’s regular visitors.  Everyone is surprised by the amount of detail and paperwork necessary to record our excavations.  From the most basic information such as site number (36Da159) to the measured elevation below datum of features- it is this precise scientific process that allows us to examine the results and evaluate the activities of the site occupants. 

School students peering into our shaker screen

Our focus this year is concentrated on the area east of the milk house, inside the milk house and adjacent to the porch.  Despite some record breaking temps we have plugged away at re-opening units along the porch and expanding upon this area with two additional units-yeah F & M students! Excavation of several features within the east block interpreted as a smoke house has produced few artifacts.   We are currently investigating two postmolds and additional stains to determine if they might follow the pattern. 

Setting up our grid in the East block 

Inside the milk house we are examining an area in the northwest corner of the building.  Gravel fill noted though unexplained until now was removed in an effort to determine if this is a builder’s trench associated with the well adjacent to the milk house.  This section has been void of artifacts, but is frequented by a regular visitor fondly (or not so fondly?)  referred to as “Rocky”.   The regular appearance of shed snake skins is an indicator that there may be more than one “Rocky” visiting our site.

"Rocky" hanging out in the milk house

The units adjacent to the porch are continuing to produce a mix of 18th, 19th and 20th-century materials.  Sorting out multiple occupations and ground disturbances to interpret the activity and time period in which they occur is always a challenge in archaeology.  Our lab volunteers will assist with sorting, washing, labeling of the artifacts so they can be examined later this fall. Historic records indicate that this area was heavily utilized and the variety of artifacts and numerous soil disturbances supports these documents.
Visitors to Fort Hunter from the Archaeological Conservancy

Speaking of out and about- come join us this Sunday, September 18th at Fort Hunter Days to learn more about the investigation and this rich archaeological site.  Archaeologists will be on site from 10:00 to 4:00, weather permitting

Snapping turtles came out to visit after our last rain event! 

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