Block House dig tells Pittsburgh's history

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Tyler Pisarek, 11, was hoping to find an old coin or a musket ball as he sifted dirt dug up by archaeologists working Friday morning outside the Fort Pitt Block House.

Instead he found some pieces of blue-and-white pottery.

Those small artifacts can be just as important in providing information about the lives of the people who worked or resided near the Block House, Christine Davis said. She is president of Christine Davis Consultants, which is doing the archaeological "dig" at the historic site in Downtown Pittsburgh. The two-day project continues today.

Tyler, who lives in the Harrison City neighborhood of Penn, Westmoreland County, will be a sixth-grader at Penn Trafford Middle School this year. He likes history, but he admitted that science is his favorite subject.

He was one of many Block House visitors and passers-by who took a turn Friday with the portable sifting screens used to look for small items turned up in the earth around the Block House.

Molly Fuchs showed off the pieces of pottery and shards of glass that she had found in the top layers of soil. "This is the first time I've ever witnessed an archaeological dig," she said. "Now I've had a chance to take part in one and to find some historic things."

Ms. Fuchs, a senior majoring in history at Westminster College, is a summer intern at the Block House. A resident of Pine, she was part of a team of professional archaeologists and volunteers working on the site of the oldest structure in Pittsburgh.

The items recovered this weekend should tell historians something new about the people who lived near the Block House for more than two centuries, Ms. Davis said.

The Block House, built in 1764 as part of the defenses for Fort Pitt, has been owned and maintained by Daughters of the American Revolution since 1894. Much of the building is still original 18th-century material.

The historic structure, a landmark in Point State Park, will mark its 250th birthday next year, and the Allegheny County DAR group is planning a memorial garden and walkway on part of the Block House property to mark the anniversary.

The two-day "test" dig is an effort to learn more about the history of Pittsburgh's Point and recover any artifacts buried there. A similar effort in 2003 below the concrete floor in the Block House turned up 135 items, including an arrow point, Native-American pottery and a French gunflint.

"I am getting butterflies in my stomach," said Emily Weaver, the Block House curator. She watched as field lab supervisor Carrianne Love used small trowels and brushes to reveal a square of dark soil. Ms. Love had found the remains of a late 19th-century ash pit where residents had dumped their trash.

Discarded items found there would tell researchers about the everyday life of people who lived in the neighborhood when it was a crowded mix of industrial plants, railroad yards and tenement homes, Ms. Davis said. Its presence also was a sign that material below the ash pit had been undisturbed since the 1800s.

While the block house is within Point State Park, the building and the land around it are owned by the Fort Pitt Society, which is part of the Allegheny County Chapter of the DAR. The building was a gift from the heiress Mary Schenley, who also gave Pittsburgh the city park named for her.

The new garden and walkway will be dedicated next year in memory of Edith Darlington Ammon, an early DAR member.

Mrs. Ammon led successful efforts to halt plans by industrialist Henry Clay Frick and the Pennsylvania Railroad to move the building elsewhere, according to Joanne Ostergaard, coordinator of the upcoming "Block House 250" commemoration.

Admission to the Block House and the adjoining archaeological site is free. Saturday hours for the building are 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159. First Published August 17, 2013 4:00 AM


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