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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Archeology at the New Philadelphia Site

Archeologists and historians are telling the story of New Philadelphia through historical documents, oral histories from town descendants and community members, and artifacts recovered at the site. The first extensive archeological investigation of New Philadelphia took place in 2002 and 2003. In 2004 the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates funded a three year program to study the site. Researchers were seeking a better understanding of the social and physical development of the town from its founding to its demise. By 2006 archeological excavations had exposed building foundations, underground structures, and many artifacts.

No original buildings stand on the site of New Philadelphia. No photographs or drawings of the town are known to exist, and no one knows for certain when or where the first structures were built after the town's founding in 1836. Oral histories and written recollections tell us that the homes were typical of frontier towns. They were one or one and a half story log cabins or wood frame dwellings built over shallow cellar pits with outlying structures to house livestock. One building was a two story structure. Among the sites archeologists believe to be related to the town's early settlement were cellar pits, a substantial building foundation, and some wells. The wells remain as deep circular holes in the ground. They were eventually filled with soil and household trash, including animal bones, ceramics, and glass manufactured in the 1850s. That filling-in indicates the wells had been constructed prior to 1850 and were used as trash repositories after they were abandoned.

Archeological finds tell us about the day-to-day lives of New Philadelphia's townsfolk. For example, the discovery of an ink bottle and decorated glass flasks manufactured in the Ohio Valley, along with English ceramics, confirms that New Philadelphia's merchants traded with market centers such as St. Louis, Missouri to make goods produced in distant places available to residents of the town. The large fragments of canning jars, along with several intact milk glass lid liners attached to metal sealing caps, found at various locations tell us that residents preserved food, such as fruit and vegetables probably grown in their gardens. Stems and bowls of clay tobacco pipes popular in the 19th century and a portion of a mouth harmonica show how some adults spent their free time.

Analysis of animal remains can reveal information not only about diet, but also about the backgrounds of the town's inhabitants and the food preferences they brought with them when they came to New Philadelphia. For example, the fish, chicken, pig, squirrel, rabbit, opossum, and duck bones found at one household are indicative of an "Upland South" diet. This suggests that the people who lived there might have come from areas in Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas where they traditionally had eaten these foods. Deed and census records tend to confirm that many of New Philadelphia's residents did, in fact, come from that region.

Archeology also provides a glimpse into the activities of the town's children. Various types of marbles; a miniature pewter teapot, spoon, and pitcher; several porcelain doll parts; and a portion of a metal diesel locomotive found at the town site are toys that most likely belonged to the town's children.

Mancala is a mathematical game that made its way from Africa to the Americas via the slave trade. At New Philadelphia archeologists found gaming pieces they think may be related to this ancient game. There are many variations of the game, but in Africa players placed counters, which might be pebbles, seeds, or beans, into a series of small depressions carved into wooden playing boards or dug into the ground. The purpose of the game was to capture counters and the player who succeeded in taking the most pieces from his opponents won the game. Smoothed, unglazed ceramic and glass fragments about half an inch in diameter found throughout the New Philadelphia site may be mancala gaming pieces, possibly reflecting the survival of African cultural traditions among the town's African-American residents.

Census records show that New Philadelphia's population declined significantly after the Hannibal-Naples Railroad bypassed the town in 1869, and that many of the townsfolk moved away in search of jobs and economic opportunities elsewhere. The recovery of a small badge inscribed "ILLS. STATE FAIR 1903" and a quantity of wire nails manufactured after 1880 seems to confirm reports from descendants and local residents that a few people continued to live in New Philadelphia into the early decades of the 1900s.

By the 1940s, none of the original buildings remained above ground. The land was used for farming and pasture for livestock for many years, but now prairie grass and wildflowers cover the fields. By telling the story of New Philadelphia, archeology is giving a voice to people neglected by American history and painting a more accurate portrait of our nation's past. New Philadelphia was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in August 2005 in recognition of its archeological significance and its place in our country's history.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What kinds of information have the archeologists found at New Philadelphia?

2. Where did the mancala game originate? What do you think finding game pieces possibly used in the playing of this game suggests about the people who lived in New Philadelphia?

3. Which of the following do you think is important to study when telling the story of a place like New Philadelphia: historical records, oral histories, artifacts? Why?

4. Review Reading 3 and make a list of the things that archeologists have learned about life in New Philadelphia. How much of this information could have been found in written documents? How much in recent oral histories? How important do you think information like this is in telling the story of New Philadelphia?

Reading 3 is based on Michelle Huttes, "New Philadelphia Town Site" (Pike County, Illinois) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior 2005); a Bureau of Land Management website on bottle typing/diagnostic shapes; "2006 Archaeology Report," prepared for the Center for Heritage Resources Studies; James Davis, Frontier Illinois (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998); personal communications, Dr. Terrance Martin, Illinois State Museum Research and Collections Center, Springfield, Illinois, 2006; Jane Shadel Spillman, Glass Bottles, Lamps and Other Objects (New York: Knopf, 1983); Maj. P. H. G. Powell-Coton, "A Mancala Board called 'Songo'," Man, Vol. 31, No. 132 (1931).

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