The museum’s 1719 Herr House is the oldest original Mennonite meeting room still standing in the Western Hemisphere, and helps tell the story of early pioneering life in Lancaster County, according to the museum’s website. But many details of the 18th-century sandstone house’s story are hidden beneath the ground.
After 300 years of ploughing, ploughing and ploughing, the land contains a chaotic record of centuries of life on the Willow Street estate. This includes the early days of the pioneer Hull family, as well as the Aboriginal culture that preceded them.
In the fall of 2020 and 2021, a group of 40 Millersville University archaeology students led by Timothy Trussell, Ph.D., director of the university’s archaeology program and co-director of the Millersville University Atlantic World Center, which oversees the school of international excavations, gathered at the site for some real-life field work, and excavated approximately 90 3-by-3-foot and 5-by-5-foot test cells on the 5-acre site. They unearthed 40,000 historical artifacts, which Trussell shared in a recent lecture on Mennonite Life – the historical organization that runs the 1719 Museum and the Archives and Books on Mill Creek Road, Lancaster Hall.
“It’s huge,” Trussel said. “I estimate we moved 4,500 tons of dirt by hand. Every piece of it was hand excavated, hand screened, and stratigraphically excavated.” (For non-archaeologists, stratigraphy means vertical inspection layer by layer.)
According to Trussel, the purpose of the excavations was to learn about materials that have survived over the centuries, with the hope of uncovering remnants of the original settlers’ cottages before the historic sandstone houses.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t find that,” Trussel said. “I suspect they may have built a late outbuilding on it and basically destroyed all the evidence. If I had to guess, I’d say the barn due east of Hans Hull’s house is probably the most likely location .”
The artifacts represent a typical cross-section of material from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and beyond, Trussell said. (Some projectile sites are estimated to date as far back as 5,000 years ago.) The finds provide background information and reveal details of life on the property.
Tiffany Fisk, the curator of the 1719 Museum, said she was particularly impressed by the students, who went out of their way to check on the excavations every day.
“I’m really excited,” Fisk said. “It’s like a child on Christmas morning.”
Fisk was particularly excited when the students discovered what appeared to be gouge marks in a layer of sandstone, which may have been used as a quarry when the stone house was being built.
“That was one of those moments when the story came to life,” Fisk said.
The experience was successful on multiple levels, Trussell said.
“For me, every time I do a project, there are two things: the first is research and the second is training,” Trussell said. “You never know what you’re going to find. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s almost what you expect. But the training is invaluable for our students. We are very grateful to the 1719 Museum because it was an absolute Great training opportunity.”
Trussell spent some time last week describing and providing historical context for some of the items excavated from beneath the museum property in 1719, which are currently being stored and catalogued at the University.
19th century ceramic pieces
The broken ceramic pieces found by the students provide a record of the kinds of household items owned by generations.
“We found thousands of them,” Trussel said of the ceramic shards from the late 18th and 19th centuries.
According to Trussell, the blue piece comes from some hand-painted pearl vessels from the late 18th or early 19th century that could have been used as cutlery. The smaller red sections are from the 19th century, and the design process is more complex.
“They would basically use a printing press, print an image with ink on stenciled paper, put it on a glaze, then fire it in a kiln, and the image would transfer perfectly,” says Trussell.
A piece of Moravian-style pottery
In the 18th century, German Moravian potters settled around the central Bethlehem area of Pennsylvania and began making their own red pottery, which Trussel says is a decorative style that Moravians prefer.
“It shows that they were trading with other German immigrant settlers who made pottery and then bought pottery from them,” Trussel said.
Several pieces of pottery found on the pottery indicate the family’s taste for finer things, which Trussel said may go against the stereotype of the historic German-Swiss Mennonite family’s understated simplicity.
“There are a lot of very decorative pieces here,” Trussel said. “What the ceramics are telling us is that they are more than happy to have some of the more expensive, higher-end decorative ceramics.”
Trussel said he believes the Philadelphia-style red pottery may date from the mid-to-late 1700s.
“Potters in Philadelphia worked throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries,” Trussel said. “That one wasn’t particularly fancy. It was a practical commodity, but it showed their trade connections and where they were buying from.”
Much of the supply at the time, Trussell said, came from British merchants working in Philadelphia or German wagon owners who brought items into the area. According to Trussell, almost all of the ceramics found on the property are British and colonial American works.
“They were buying from supply lines that existed at the time, which were mostly connected to England in the 18th century,” Trussel said.
The decorative pipes dug by the students date back to around 1710-1740, Trussell said. It’s fairly common to find a pipe handle, but it’s unusual to find a decorative bowl intact, Trussell said.
“In those days, English pipes were relatively rare, and German pipes seemed to be more common,” Trussell said. “So this is one of the few projects that I suspect is actually related to their traditional home in the German-Swiss Low Country.”
The tube is made of white kaolin and the decorative surface is about a quarter the size.
“I always tell my students that we can’t find everything they have, we only find what they have that isn’t rotten,” Trussel said. “One of the advantages of ceramics is that it doesn’t rot, so it can stay in the soil for thousands of years.”
Bronze Socket Link
Trussell estimates a pair of dime-sized bronze cufflinks dating from 1740-1790, known as cufflinks at the time, indicating that whoever owned it had a sense of style.
“Just knowing that they’re going to have really nice brass cufflinks and that they’ll be worn in a way that calls for cufflinks shows a level of fashion awareness, which is maybe a little bit against our stereotype again,” Trussel said. “But these people didn’t mind dressing nice in that period.”
Trussel said the anchor theme is related to Philadelphia’s ocean economy.
“A lot of the decorations, especially the buttons, are made with a nautical theme on purpose, because sailors are a very big market for them to sell,” Trussel said. “So, it’s kind of interesting to find those here.”
The oldest items in the collection include Aboriginal projectile points dating back 5,000 years. It’s a bit difficult to date these items or determine which groups are using them, but they are evidence of the indigenous people who lived in the area.
The little red dots are known as late woodland projectiles, a pattern commonly used about 1,000 to 300 years ago, Trussell said.
“It’s interesting that it’s made from jasper, which isn’t a very good source here,” Trussel said. “It was probably traded from Mississippi culture in the Ohio Valley, so it was hundreds of miles away, but it probably spread through Native American trade networks sometime in the last thousand years or so.”
The larger gray bullet points are called transition ancient points.
“That would be from about 5,000 years ago to 1,800 years ago,” Trussel said. “It’s an older piece.”
Visit mennonitelife.org to find prices, hours of operation and more information about the 1719 Museum and Herr House.