From the Trenches: Farms, Forts, and Penn State’s Commitment to Local History

The popular view of archaeology often conjures images of Indiana Jones or spelunking through booby-trapped pyramids. Recently it has been dramatized and turned into television entertainment. This is not an accurate image. My personal experience confirms to me that it has deeper meaning. Archaeology is almost a social science—like piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of our collective past. Through Penn State’s summer program, students work to ensure one less piece is lost, no matter how small.

As a recent graduate of 2015, with a major in History and minor in Anthropology, I concentrated my studies closely around the human race and its history. This path led me to join Penn State’s archaeological field school under Dr. Jonathan Burns over the Summer of 2014, and later return as a staff member for the summer field school of 2015 under Penn State’s Matson Museum director Dr. Claire Milner.

Penn State’s graduate anthropology program has consistently ranked among the top 10 in the nation, which provides excellent opportunities for all students. The Summer archaeological field school is one unique facet that sets Penn State’s programs apart from those at many other universities. These are multi-week, hands-on courses that provide students the opportunity to learn field techniques intrinsic to the profession while under the supervision of a professional archaeologist. Many universities lack such programs, and I was excited to welcome students from other campuses and universities during my two-year involvement. Whilst providing students with a unique developmental opportunity, the Summer field school also preserves local history. Much of this local historical record is known by few in the community and rarely publicized. However, this does not limit the inherent value found within these local sites.

Would you believe me if I said that bucolic Huntingdon County, specifically the small town of Shirleysburg, was more culturally diverse in 1755 A.D. than today? Fort Shirley began as a trading post for Native American agent George Croghan in 1754. I excavated here over the summer of 2014 under self-proclaimed local fort expert Dr. Jonathan Burns. The fort was fortified by provincial aid starting in 1755 and stayed active through 1758. It was a crucial frontier fort during the French and Indian War. The theatre spread across western Pennsylvania, with the French entrenched at Fort Duquesne (located where Pittsburgh is today). Although the French and English were the primary belligerents, both sides recruited heavily from Native American populations. Most of the Natives sided with the French; however one tribe, the Mingo Seneca, remained loyal to the British and lived adjacent to Fort Shirley in a village called Aughwick.

Croghan also owned slaves who worked around his establishment. This was not readily apparent in the preserved records; however, a copper Muslim charm was recovered in a test unit during a Summer field school. This is suggestive of an indentured servant or slave, possibly from the transatlantic slave trade. The inscription roughly translates to, “one god above all.”

In another interesting unit, we recovered Native American beads at the bottom of a palisade posthole. It seems Native Americans worked alongside Europeans in erecting the wall around Croghan’s post— a rare exception of a provincial fort showing evidence of a Native American presence, let alone cooperation. Fort Shirley symbolized a cultural melting pot in rural central Pennsylvania during the mid-1700’s. Today, the location is half pasture, half backyard in a normal, homogenous small town.

Known locally for its springtime blossoms and as a quixotic locale to tie the knot, the grounds of the H.O. Smith Arboretum at Penn State are undoubtedly some of the most charming on campus. To look below the open arboretum fields, turning back the wheel of time to the mid 1800’s, reveals the story of family after family carving out a living on their farmstead. Over the summer of 2015, I returned to the program as a staff member. Headed by Dr. Claire Milner, our project was to begin initial excavations of an old foundation discovered by grounds-crew. Though we desperately wished to find the outhouse for its rich deposit layers (seriously, these things are like historical garbage cans!), it remained elusive, so much of our time was spent excavating the foundation, cellar, and laying smaller test pits throughout the location.

We dubbed the site Foster Farmstead, after the first recorded family living there. We recovered hundreds of ceramic and glass shards, tobacco pipe fragments, horseshoes, buttons, faunal remains, and other artifacts. Studied on an individual level, one could ascertain only limited details. Yet viewed as a collection, lifeways become more apparent—like the diet habits over time, the family’s social status and make-up, how the farmstead evolved, and other similar themes. Much of this analysis will happen in the lab at Penn State, but one find resonated within me immediately. As I was excavating a unit in the cellar, I uncovered a glass cat’s eye marble. A short period later, we found the remnants of a leather child’s shoe. It became clear we were unearthing someone’s childhood. Here, lost for decades beneath bramble and bush, was the site where local lives once began.

My studies inspired and required me to be a dutiful advocate and ambassador for archaeology; and the one thing I noticed frequently when speaking to someone outside of the subject was that they found it interesting—archaeology, without the bombastic metal detector personalities, or death-defying treasure hunters, is interesting to the public. Without a bombshell find published in the newspaper or these knock off popularized television programs, archaeology receives relatively little coverage. This is unfortunate as archaeology is literally all around us.