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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Archeology at the King of Prussia Inn

Archeology is the study of the past through material remains--the possessions we leave behind, or artifacts, and the marks we leave on the landscape like building foundations, trash piles or road beds, known as features. Taken together, artifacts and features make up archeological sites. By studying these items, an archeologist can learn about past or more recent cultures. To find these objects, an archeologist must dig, or excavate, in an area that humans once occupied. Then, through the type of artifacts and features found, and through historic records, archeologists reconstruct what the site's occupants were doing and when they were there. Determining the age of an artifact or feature is called dating, and there are many methods used to do this. The most simple is relative dating, which can tell us which artifacts are older than other artifacts through the law of superposition; that is artifacts closest to the surface are younger than those further down. There is also absolute dating, a technique that gives us an exact range of dates for an artifact or feature. One popular method of absolute dating is through artifacts, like specific types, shapes, and colors of pottery and glass beads, which were only made for short periods of time. Another commonly used at prehistoric archeological sites is radiocarbon, which provides a reliable estimate of age based on measurements of radioactive decay in wood charcoal, bone, and other formerly living remains found in a site. Using these methods, an archeologist can study the past and come to new and important conclusions.

Between 1991 and 2000, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation conducted several archeological investigations at the King of Prussia Inn. Through these efforts it was possible to identify a number of features and artifacts linked to different periods in the inn's history. Concentrations of refuse, the trash discarded by the property's occupants, were uncovered just to the rear of the inn and around the property. The following passages reveal what was found.

The Material Culture of the Rees and Elliot Households, ca. 1775-1860
The oldest concentration of trash on the site was found between the rear of the inn and the northbound lanes of Route 202. This remnant of the rear yard consisted of several soil layers deposited during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The two lowermost levels were datable from the 1770s through 1810, the latter part of the Rees occupation and the early years of the Elliot ownership. Many of the artifacts collected from these two levels were broken into very small pieces. This suggests that the larger portions of the broken tableware were disposed of elsewhere. What ended up behind the building were the smaller bits that were swept out the door and then trampled.

One of the more interesting aspects of the artifact collection is the relative scarcity of things common to tavern sites--tobacco pipe fragments and sherds from drinking vessels. While a few pipe fragments and a handful of mug sherds were recovered, many of the other artifacts appear to have been related to the everyday of the household activities. These items include teacups and saucers, plates, bowls, pans, and jars.

The upper levels of this area produced artifacts associated with the households of John Elliot, Sr. and his son. The few wine bottles represented can as easily be associated with a prosperous household as they can with a tavern. It is quite possible that these artifacts represent a mix of domestic and tavern-related trash.

The great majority of household goods recovered are, in fact, fragments of ceramic vessels, most of which are either teaware or tableware. Like many middling households of the early 19th century, the elder Elliots used inexpensive tableware for everyday purposes, while reserving expensive wares for special occasions. Typical of the period are the hand-painted cups and saucers and the shell-edge plates that were probably used on an everyday basis. Costlier hand-painted Chinese porcelain and English printed wares were used in more formal situations. John Elliot, Sr. appears to have replaced some of their cheaper, ceramics with more expensive blue transfer-printed forms. This increasing preference for blue tea and tablewares was maintained by John, Jr.'s family.

The excavation also provided information regarding the types of food eaten by the Elliots and their patrons. Animal bones indicate the consumption of beef stews--dishes that can be kept warm for considerable lengths of time. More expensive cuts of meat were also served, including beef loin, prime rib, mutton, and lamb. The excavations also produced a variety of items that had been discarded in the yard. Construction, repair, and maintenance of the building were attested to by glass sherds and nails. Furniture tacks and personal items were also present.

Rubbish Behind the Wagon Shed: Material from the Hoy occupation, 1871-1906
Only one archeological deposit can be linked to the Hoys, which contains nearly 900 artifacts. The datable finds indicate that trash had been deposited between 1880 and 1910. Like the earlier material, many of the artifacts related to the Hoy's occupation could have been used by both the household and the hotel patrons.

Unlike the Elliot collection, where ceramics outnumbered glass vessels, the material excavated here was more balanced. This was not a surprising result, given the advances in glass manufacturing during the late 19th century that made glass containers cheaper to produce. Manufacturers found it inexpensive to package and market their products, so consumers were presented with an array of new goods. As the cost of manufacturing dropped further, purchasers became inclined to discard them once their contents had been used. The Hoy collection reflected the range represented by glass containers, including fragments of beer bottles, a wine bottle, a pocket flask, portions of liquor bottles, and condiment bottles. Tablewares were present as well.

If the glass artifacts were typical, the same cannot be said of the ceramics recovered. The majority of the vessels were produced during the early 19th century. The reasons for this disparity are unclear. Some of these early ceramic vessels may actually be associated with the Elliot occupation. Alternatively, some of these ceramics may have been heirloom pieces. If this was the case, these pieces may have been used to enhance the “old-fashioned” atmosphere of the place. The Hoys may have been aware of the growing interest in America 's colonial past. In 1876, the Centennial Celebration of American Independence at the World's Fair in Philadelphia is said to have began a Colonial Revival Movement and a fascination with "old-fashioned" artifacts. The inn's colonial roots and its proximity to Valley Forge would have helped draw in interested visitors. If the Hoy family embraced this movement, it is ironic that they altered the hotel's 18th-century appearance with the addition of a two-story veranda which was not typical of colonial times.

Archeology of the Vernacular Colonial Revival: Anna Heist, 1920-1952
As with most archeological sites, the most recent occupation was the most visible. Over 3,000 artifacts were recovered. Three features were found, and the character of the artifact collections from each was markedly different. The upper portion of one feature contained bottle fragments and 25 whole bottles. Altogether over 100 glass vessels were identified. Ceramics included a number of tea and tablewares. Also present were nails, window glass, machine parts, metal can fragments, an eyeglass frame, doll parts, and cow bone.

The second feature consisted of several soil layers that had been deposited during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. The 1200 artifacts recovered here were quite different from others collected. Only a relative handful of container glass fragments were found, while more than 400 ceramic fragments were recovered. The majority of the ceramics are decorated with blue transfer printing in a variety of patterns. The excavations also produced oyster shells, animal bone, personal items, horseshoes, nails, and window glass.

The third feature contained more than 1,300 artifacts, the majority of which are architectural hardware. The household artifacts recovered mainly consist of glass containers. The ceramics include sherds from five vessels; other food-related artifacts included bottle caps, a bone utensil handle, and a small number of animal remains. The rest of the collection includes machine parts, buttons, doll parts, furniture tacks, and hardware.

Much of the refuse uncovered in these features resulted from the inn's function as a place of entertainment. The liquor bottles were probably discarded after the end of Prohibition, and are likely associated with the tavern business, although some may have been used by the Heist household. In addition to serving drinks, the King of Prussia Inn also served meals. The animal remains recovered from the three features confirm the consumption of chicken, beef, pork, mutton, and oysters. These were evidently served in soups, stews, and roasts.

The presentation of food was evidently important to Anna Heist. She had assembled a collection of old-fashioned blue and white ceramics, most notably porcelain teaware from Japan. One thing the use of "old-fashioned" ceramics might tell us is that some 19th-century wares were also used as props to add to the “period” atmosphere. In an era when ceramics were being produced in new shapes and colors, blue and white pottery was “old fashioned,” which was part of its appeal to the consumer. For establishments like the King of Prussia Inn, “colonial” could mean anything two or three generations removed. It was a vernacular colonial revival that conjoined the 18th and 19th centuries into an old, but ageless, past.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What are artifacts and features? How might they help us learn about the past?

2. What was missing from the artifact collections of the Rees and Eliot occupations? Why is this noteworthy or unusual?

3. Which ceramics would the Elliots have used under normal circumstances and which for more formal occasions? How did these types change over time?

4. Which changes in buying practices did the drop in pottery during the Hoy occupation represent, and what caused these changes?

5. Why were the ceramics associated with the Hoy family unusual? Why might the Hoy's addition of a veranda to the King of Prussia be ironic?

6. What would the presence of alcoholic beverage bottles after 1929 symbolize?

7. Look up the words vernacular colonial revival. What does the term mean? Why would this tie the 18th and 19th centuries together?

Reading 2 was adapted from Richard M. Affleck, “At the Sign of the King of Prussia,” Byways to the Past, published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, 2002.

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