Archaeological Field Schools Get the Dig On for Summer 2009

Archaeological Field Schools Get the Dig On for Summer 2009

In addition to its world-class archaeology, natural history and history collections, the Ohio Historical Society is steward to a statewide system of prestigious historic and prehistoric sites – second only to the National Park Service in type and variety of locations. Among the more notable of OHS properties are Fort Ancient in Warren County and the Piqua Historical Area in Miami County.

This summer significant archaeological research will be undertaken at both places to better understand the sites’ purpose and function and/or events that occurred there in the past. Field work is particularly labor intensive and it is often the case that it is preformed during the summer season by college and university students, under their instructor’s direction. Many hands make the work go faster. Summer schools offer both a foundation in the discipline of archaeology for the students and a chance for the Ohio Historical Society to learn more about their holdings.

Fort Ancient Field School Uncovers Ancient History
Fort Ancient in Warren County is a hilltop enclosure consisting of nearly 3.5 miles of earthen walls that range from 4 to 23 feet in height. They encircle a high bluff above the Little Miami River near Oregonia. The earthwork walls are broken by more than 80 irregularly spaced gaps or “gateways,” the purpose of which is not particularly well understood. Fort Ancient was constructed approximately 2,000 years ago by the Hopewell culture.

In 2004, OHS received a Save America’s Treasures grant to do erosion control and restoration at various locations throughout the site. Preliminary to actual construction, affected areas were surveyed with geophysical instruments designed to see what might be located below the surface in a given area without actually having to dig exploratory excavations. The results come back as sub-surface anomalies that can be individually investigated.

In 2005, a series of anomalies in the northern portion of the site turned out to be perhaps one of the most significant discoveries of its type in the past several decades. The geophysical data indicated there was some sort of very large pit feature with a very high magnetic signature at the center of what appeared to be a 200-foot diameter wooden-post enclosure, or henge, with a single out-turned opening or gateway just a few degrees off from due south. Inside the henge there are at least two of what was been interpreted as house structures or perhaps ceremonial floors.
In 2006, Dr. Robert Riordon, students from Wright State University and selected volunteers began an ongoing investigation of what became known as the Moorehead Circle, named in honor of Warren King Moorehead, former curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society and an early investigator of Fort Ancient. In fact, it was largely through his efforts that the state legislature was made aware of the site’s importance and Fort Ancient being set aside as Ohio’s first archaeology reserve.

The past four field seasons at Fort Ancient have revealed that the large central pit was filled with soil burned at a high enough temperature to turn it bright brick red. However, it appears that it had been burned at some other location, scooped up and gleaned of any foreign material, including charcoal, and redeposited in the pit at the center of the circle. Surrounding the central-pit feature is a shallow ring-shaped feature that contains a sizeable number of pottery fragments and small flint artifacts. The henge that surrounds the site was tested in two places and it was found that the posts used in its construction were of a large diameter (up to 12 inches) and placed with fairly regular spacing. Most were deeply set and held in place with up to 200 pounds of stone chinking. The slip trenches used to erect the posts, their large diameters and the amount of stone needed to hold them in place indicates that the posts were likely of a telephone-pole size – architecture on a truly monumental scale.

Work on the interior of the circle begun last year and continuing at present indicates a single large or complex set of smaller limestone slab plazas inside the south side of the circle possibly associated with the supposed house structures. To complicate things even further, it would appear that these plaza features were cross cut by a series of shallow, squared trenches some time after their original construction.

What does it all mean? It is far too early to connect all the dots, so to speak, and it will probably take many more field seasons of work to make a correct interpretation. An area of nearly 35,000 square feet and working just a few weeks a season makes work to understand the Moorehead Circle slow going.

Pickawillany Field School Enters Second Season
At Pickawillany, a part of the Piqua Historical Area, the rationale of investigation is the opposite of that at Fort Ancient. At Fort Ancient, investigators need to figure out what happened there. At Pickawillany, because several accounts of events that took place exist, the problem is not what happened, but where on the site did things in fact take place.

The site of Pickawillany, a combination Miami Indian town and English trading post from between 1748 and 1752, is located on a low bluff on the west side of the confluence of the Great Miami River and Loramie Creek, just north of Piqua in Miami County. In the middle of the 18th century, Pickawillany was at the eye of the storm in the international geopolitics of the day and events that transpired there were a foreshadowing of what would shortly become known as the French and Indian War. To understand its importance 257 years after the fact, it is necessary to put Pickawillany in its proper context.
Up until the mid-point of the 18th century, Pickawillanyand the entire Ohio Country, that is, all that land north and west of the Ohio River and west of the Allegheny Mountains in general, was claimed under the sovereignty of the French. In 1747, Chief Memeskia of the Miami Indians was fully involved in a general rebellion of native tribes against the French. Incensed at the lack of proper tribute, Memeskia set fire to the French trading post of Fort Miamis (near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana), part of the principal Miami Indian town of Kekionga, and moved his village to Pickawillany where he openly invited the English to trade with the Miami and other western tribes. As a trading venture, Pickawillany flourished. Seeing the potential for French military intervention, the English built a stockade and blockhouse at Pickawillany for the protection of the traders and their goods. The explorer Christopher Gist visited Pickawillany in the winter of 1750-51 and recorded in his journal that it had 400 Indian families and was daily increasing and should be considered one of the strongest Indian towns on the continent. That same winter, the French militia leader, Charles Langlade, arrived to give Memeskia, who by then was being referred to as “Old Briton,” an ultimatum to return to the French or else. Memeskia stood his ground. On June 21, 1752, the French militia and Ottawa Indian force stormed Pickawillany. They killed or captured all but two of the English traders, sacked the trading post and destroyed the Indian town. A wounded Old Briton was brought before Langlade where he was quickly executed. After this final event, the site lay mostly fallow for the next 250 years except for farming.

In 1999, the state of Ohio purchased 35 acres thought to contain the site of Pickawillany and incorporated the property into the Piqua Historical Area. OHS field work began at Pickawillany in 2002, trying to make sense of the property and what the historic layout might have been. Even to the trained observer the site looked a lot like every other crop field in western Ohio.

A comprehensive metal detector survey of the entire property was begun. This type of survey was based on National Park Service work at Custer Battlefield and, more locally, by Dr. G. Michael Pratt’s work at Fallen Timbers Battlefield near Toledo. Detector surveys only function as hoped for on sites from the European contact period forward and don’t work at all in purely prehistoric situations. The survey netted more than 1,000 artifacts that can be directly dated to the Pickawillany period, including musket balls and lead scrap, brass arrow points, metal jewelry and gun parts. This is out of the several thousand objects that included modern nails, fence wire and the like. The Pickawillany-age material seemed to make up one large and three or four smaller discreet concentrations, which could easily translate to the trader’s stockade compound and their outlying work shop areas. From there we used the same instruments used at Fort Ancient looking for anomalies and trends in soil magnetism and electrical resistance. The point is that no matter which method was used the same areas continued to give the best returns.
As a final stage of investigation, a summer archaeology field school under the direction of Dr. Annette Ericksen of Hocking College in Nelsonville will return this summer for their second year to investigate the most promising anomalies looking for structural remains hoping to identify just where on the site the stockade and blockhouse may have been located. Perhaps the best case scenario would be to find the dug water well, which by just about all accounts was located inside the stockade.

At both Fort Ancient and Pickawillany, the research will be ongoing for the next several years. Archaeology done properly is a cumulative process and something that seems absolutely off the wall one year makes perfect sense after further work the next. In the end, a comprehensive report will be written and data recovered will allow for a more correct interpretation at each site giving the people of Ohio a better understanding of the people that came before them and events that shaped our collective history.

Visiting the Field Schools
Fort Ancient Field School will continue Monday-Friday through the first week in August. Visitors are welcome. Volunteering opportunities are handled through Dr. Riordon and Wright State University. For more information, call 800.283.8904.

The Pickawillany Field School will run July 20-August 6. Because of its relatively remote location, site visitation will be in a tourist group fashion. Tours will assemble at the museum and be transported to and from the site by canal boat. Public visiting days take place July 23 and July 30. For further information, call 800.752.2619.

Post courtesy of
Fort Ancient images courtesy of Joe Shaffer. Pickawillany images courtesy of Bill Pickard

Posted July 23, 2009
Topics: Archaeology

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