US Route 301 Archaeology Update

February 5th, 2013

For the past month Hunter Research has been busy in the lab processing dozens of soil floatation samples, entering information into databases and preparing graphics and End of Fieldwork Summaries for the Cardon-Holton historic site 7NC-F- 128 and the Elkins sites 7NC-G-174.  These sites were evidently not occupied for an extended periods of time and may represent examples of what are termed “contract plantations”.  Contract plantation arrangements were recorded in Articles of Agreement, whereby one or more individuals contracted with a plantation owner for a short, set period of years (5 and 7 being the most common), chiefly to clear woodland and establish viable livestock herds and orchards.  Profits from these items would be shared between the contractor and the owner, and the contractor could also profit independently from crops.  Those engaged in such a contract would be motivated to keep the number of improvements to a bare minimum, making capital investments in only what was necessary to make the property viable for a short period of years.  The limited number of substantial features (i.e. features other than postholes), and the artifact assemblages at the Cardon/Holton and Elkins sites indicate short-term occupations.

Flotation conducted from the Elkins B site cellar hole continues to produce glass trade seed beads (round and tube), scales, straight, pins, egg shell, fish scales, small lead shot, daub, bits of gunflints, small animal bones, charcoal and small land snails.  Land snails are important indicators of past environmental conditions.  Another artifact type of note is the freshwater mussel.  Freshwater mussels (Elliptio complanata) are typically found on Native American sites, and as a rule were not consumed by Europeans during the 18th century in the east.  Mussels are an ingredient of a nutritious Native American food known as pemmican, a concentrated mixture of fat and protein, which was widely adopted as a high-energy food by Europeans involved in the fur trade west of the Appalachian Chain.  Glass trade beads and freshwater mussels suggests the possibility of a Native American presence or at very least interaction with the inhabitants of the site.   

The circular feature thought to be a possible wolf pit (trap) contained 263 tabular slabs of sedimentary stone weighing 202.5 pounds that were mainly located in the center of the feature fill. These slabs were resting in a vertical position.  Cross-mending of the slabs revealed they may have originated from a single slab.  These sedimentary stone slabs contained numerous fossils and according to David Parris, Curator of Natural History at the New Jersey State Museum, the fossils are the impressions of Crinoidea columnals (Order Echinodermata) and Mucrosphirifer mucronatus, a brachiopod shell (also known as butterfly shells) from the Middle Devonian strata of the Hamilton Group of New York (with equivalents elsewhere in the Appalachian chain). 

Continued research on this feature, including examination of ethnographic accounts of Native American wolf pits in the 19th century American West, now suggests quite strongly that this is indeed a wolf pit, perhaps from the late 17th or early 18th century, possibly dug and used by Indians.  The colonial authorities were very concerned to eradicate wolves in this time period, encouraging and requiring the digging of wolf pits or trap houses, and Indians are recorded to have been paid for wolf pelts.  If our interpretation is correct, this is a remarkable example of cultural interaction in the early decades of Colonial Delaware.