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Archaeological Explorations at Stenton

Archeological finds at Stenton.

Teapot with applied grapevine sprigging.

“IL” seal from the Wistarburg glass bottle.

Rare ‘Balsam of Life’ bottle.

‘TD’ mark used on tobacco pipes

Samples of small pharmaceutical bottles.

Since 1968, three separate archaeological excavations at Stenton have uncovered numerous features dating from the earliest occupation of the property by James Logan (1674-1751) to the present, and have yielded tens of thousands of artifacts that illustrate the social and material culture of the many people who have called Stenton home. In late 2005, Debbie Miller, a Master’s candidate in American Studies at Penn State University, began a comprehensive inventory and analysis of Stenton’s most voluminous archaeological assemblage, Feature 14, which was a sealed brick vault located along a series of outbuilding foundations behind the east side of the mansion excavated by City of Philadelphia archaeologist Barbara Liggett in 1982. The vault contained more than twenty-two thousand artifacts dating between c.1730-1770, primarily associated with the first two generations of Logans to live at Stenton. William Logan (1717-1776), James Logan’s first son who took up a primary residence at Stenton from 1753 until 1759, is likely responsible for the burial of the artifacts, many of which appear to have been tossed into the pit whole.


Recovered from their original context, the 22,132 artifacts are indicators of the Logans’ active participation in a refined culture and reveal the diversity of the eighteenth-century American marketplace. The ceramic assemblage of the feature is particularly significant, and ranges from refined, high-styled wares to locally made utilitarian redwares. Blue and White Chinese porcelain, press-molded white salt-glazed stoneware, and refined Staffordshire earthenware including Whieldon, Tortoiseshell, Jackfield, and Astbury types represent a majority of the ceramics. Most of the ceramic artifacts are primarily related to table and tea services in the form of plates, soup plates/bowls, slop bowls, teapots, teabowls, and saucers. Several matching patterns were noted, occurring most frequently in the white salt-glazed and blue and white porcelain teawares. The tea-related ceramics are of particular interest, considering that the remains of no less than eleven teapots were recovered. Five examples have been restored including three white salt-glazed teapots with elaborate chinoisserie and rococo press-molded decorations, an early Whieldon example with applied grapevine sprigging, and a Tortoiseshell glazed example with applied rosettes and applied grapevine accents.


Thirty-two percent of the collection was found to be glassware, including wine bottles and glasses, tumblers, pharmaceutical bottles and phials, and decorative vessels. Of the wine bottles, thirty-six French and English examples were found intact. Locally produced Wistar glass, manufactured at New Jersey glass maker Casper Wistar’s Wistarburg as early as the late 1730s, is represented by two bottle seals bearing the initials “IL” and additional body fragments. The bottles bearing the seals were made specifically for James Logan, though the extent of the business relationship between Logan and Wistar has not been established. Pharmaceutical bottles and phials ranging in color from dark-to-light green to aqua may have been used to ease James Logan’s discomfort late in his life. One particular example, a small clear violin-shaped bottle advertising Turlington’s “Balsam of Life” is exceedingly rare, and, according to Ivor Noël Hume’s Guide to Artifacts in Colonial America, is only the second example to be recovered from a colonial American context.


One artifact commonly recovered from most historical contexts is the tobacco pipe. Feature 14 contained examples with six different maker’s marks as well as a large sample of unmarked fragmented bowls and stems. The most common mark was the “TD” mark, typically found stamped on the back of the bowl facing the pipestem. The initials are set inside either a heart or circle, and often have stamped heels bearing the same initials with a fleur-de-lis cap. These pipes are attributed to Thomas Dormer and Thomas Duggan, two mid-eighteenth century London pipe makers who exported their wares via Hudson’s Bay and other large provincial ports. “TD” marked pipes have been found in many colonial contexts including urban and rural sites in Virginia, Maryland, and New York.


Analysis showed that forty percent of Feature 14′s assemblage is comprised of faunal, or animal, remains. Although the material remains untyped, the largest examples suggest the Logans’ diet was comprised of many domesticated herbivores including sheep and swine. Large numbers of fowl were also present, including chicken, duck, goose, and turkey and large sample of smaller birds that have yet to be identified. Hundreds of eggshell fragments were also recovered. Fish bones, turtle shell, and a variety of shellfish such as oyster, clam and mussel were also recovered. Analysis of the faunal assemblage will be conducted by Teagan Schweitzer, a Doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania beginning in Spring 2007.


A pair of gold sleeve links may be the most unique object recovered from Feature 14. The ornately decorated links are inscribed with initials on the obverse and are the only personal object from Feature 14 that can be directly attributed to an individual member of the Logan family. The initials “L” and “S” appear on the obverse of each link. These initials suggest the links were likely the property of Logan’s wife or eldest child, both called Sarah.


Additional objects of interest include a bone toothbrush and five bone and horn combs. Commonly called “lice combs” or “head combs”, these small instruments had two opposing sides of narrow teeth. The narrowness of the teeth assisted in the removal of louse and their eggs from individual strands of hair, however the combs were also used for everyday grooming. The bone toothbrush is approximately four inches long with a large head and modified pick handle. While toothbrushes are common in colonial contexts, this is the first example that Miller has encountered with a pick modification.


In addition to analyzing Feature 14′s material culture, the Miller’s thesis also summarized and interpreted the 1982 excavations. The original documentation collected during fieldwork was not returned to Stenton, making it impossible to understand fully the archaeological significance of the vault and its artifacts. The absence of the documentation and a final report led many to speculate on the original function of the vault, and the role it played in the historic landscape. Though she failed to complete a report or return the field information, Liggett’s lectures on her work at Stenton commonly referred to Feature 14 as “the old privy”, but provided no resources to support this claim. After analyzing the limited documentation available in Stenton’s archives and evidence from comparable sites, Miller concluded the vault had not served as a privy, but was a cistern. Cisterns of the period were commonly placed along a line of service structures as a potable water source. Similar eighteenth century vaults have been excavated throughout Philadelphia, including one at the Hill-Physick-Keith House in Society Hill. Like Feature 14, the Hill cistern was constructed of brick, sealed with a quarried limestone floor, and featured a brick shaft opening cut into the vaulted ceiling. Both were approximately nine feet wide by five feet high. Privies of the period are typically more than ten feet deep and have partially capped ceilings with a large opening beneath the seats.


Largely forgotten by researchers over the past two decades, Stenton’s archaeological collections have the potential to yield invaluable information about the Logans’ ever-changing worldview and shed light onto the identity and material culture of the unnamed servants, slaves, and tenants who called Stenton home. Miller’s recent study underscores the importance of studying Stenton’s archaeological collections, and has created more research questions than answers. In addition to providing information about the Logan’s taste for fine goods, hygiene, and diet, the artifacts also tell us about provincial emulation of European society, the diversity of the colonial marketplace, trade networks, and the dissemination of attitudes and aesthetics from one world to another. Feature 14′s artifacts offer scholars the rare opportunity to study eighteenth-century material, social, and mercantile culture in its original context. Sealed for more than two centuries in a long forgotten vault, the artifacts represent not just the material culture of the provincial British elite, but also the attitudes and behaviors that dictated human behavior and interaction.


Deborah Len Miller received her B.S. in Anthropology and Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. She previously served as Site Administrator at the Flowerdew Hundred Foundation, a non-profit archaeological site in tidewater Virginia. Miller recently completed her Master’s Degree in American Studies at Penn State University and is currently employed as an Archeologist at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.

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