Harrisburg-area locals may know Fort Hunter from its many Victorian-themed events each year. But its history goes deeper than that—deep enough to dig for it.
Kurt Carr, senior curator of archeology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, has held an excavation on the grounds of Fort Hunter annually since 2006. Artifacts unearthed by his enthusiastic team of professionals and volunteers help piece together past events and people, sometimes even answering big-picture questions about societal trends.
“We’re looking for an unbiased description of the past,” Carr said, “We ask questions and base hypotheses founded on our research.”
This year, his team dug on the side of the mansion’s summer kitchen, through the muddy path meandering through the garden. They sliced through layers of soil 3 inches at a time to form a grid 5-feet squared. When they reached the layer that used to be topsoil from the time period they were researching, they scraped sediment and brushed away loose dirt to find items hidden beneath.
“You have to Bob-Ross it,” said Kim Sebestyen, State Museum curator of archeology, referring to the PBS icon who gently painted happy little trees.
The curator leaves the objects in place because the position and context of the object is just as important as the found object itself. Then they control how deeply to dig.
“We take elevations on tops and bottoms of every layer and every feature and changes to soil caused by human activity,” said David Burke, another curator of archeology at the State Museum.
For this particular excavation, the team dug for artifacts from the French and Indian War and compared their findings to other forts from that time period situated around Pennsylvania: Fort Loudoun in Franklin County, Fort Augusta in Northumberland County and Fort Le Boeuf in Erie County.
“We see how Fort Hunter fits into that pattern,” Carr said.
His team’s partial list of artifacts is mostly metal- and rock-based: a cannonball, musket balls, musket lock, chunk of iron, crucible pieces, metals for blacksmithing and gun-smithing, flint, spear points, grinding stones, Indian pottery and dishware.
Over the years, the range of artifacts has incorporated various phases of settlement and use in and around Fort Hunter: Native American, military and agricultural.
“Hunter-gatherer tribes were indigenous to this area,” Carr said. “The different tribes put their unique tribal designs on their pottery.”
The evolution of Native American cookware found onsite correspond to what seeds the tribes ate at the time, the grinding of the seeds against the pottery, and how long they had to boil the seeds.
Unearthed bones from a later period indicate that some former residents were wealthy enough to own pets and that they had a barnyard. Infrastructure-wise, the team also found a gristmill, blockhouse, a walkway and a bake oven that soldiers used.
Lab manager Calli Holmes washed, catalogued, inventoried and bagged everything the team found.
“Single artifacts don’t mean much,” Holmes said. “Context is everything in archaeology. We take elevations and site surveys. It’s how we can understand what we find.”
Artifacts are related by function and time period—except when they’re not.
“Some things have mixed context due to human intervention,” said State Museum Curator Elizabeth Wagner. “When the builders dug foundations, they dumped dirt and trash. We also found a sewer pipe.”
In part of the grid, Burke brushed past the French and Indian War sediment layer to dig into the prehistoric layer. Knowing what to look for requires a trained eye.
“Shapes and colors, pieces larger than a thumb,” Burke said. “We look for sharp edges that can indicate part of a tool or piece used to cut or shape something else.”
The most remarkable artifact found at Fort Hunter was a rare button from a Navy uniform. This was exciting for the team because they could “connect the artifacts to the people who once used them and tell a good story,” said State Museum Curator Janet Johnson.
“One of [former landowner] McAllister’s sons was a Navy officer, and the rare button was awarded from a specific skirmish involving a Mediterranean ship,” she said.
Rachel Shin, a junior at Cumberland Valley High School, volunteered at the excavation site during afternoons after being released early from class.
“This is good hands-on experience,” said Shin, who had helped find nails, washers and pottery.
Things that seem to be missing are also significant, Carr said.
“A hospital and a stockade appear in historical records, but the team has not found evidence yet,” he said.
Undiscovered artifacts give the team goals for future excavations.
Through archeological excavations, we can “connect to the past and the people who lived here,” Johnson said. “We’re painting a picture, a visual depiction, of these people.”
Fort Hunter Mansion & Park is located at 5300 N. Front St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.forthunter.org. The State Museum of Pennsylvania is located at 300 North St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.statemuseumpa.org.