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Archeologists unearth history at Carlisle Barracks

Carlisle Barracks (US Army/Released)

An archeological survey completed last week has put to rest a persistent question surrounding a Revolutionary War-era building at Carlisle Barracks.

A team from Juniata College found the underground remnants of support buttresses that confirm that the Hessian Powder Magazine was designed and built in 1777 to store gunpowder for the Continental Army.

The survey is part of a three-step process to research and prepare an Historic Structures Report on what experts believe is the nation’s oldest building constructed by the U.S. Army.

The mystery remains on whether Hessian prisoners-of-war participated in constructing the building that was converted into a guardhouse in the early 19th century.

Structure report

Two years ago, the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center got operational responsibility for the Hessian Powder Magazine, curator Jack Leighow said. From the start, the leadership wanted staff to document the building’s history in part to answer lingering questions, he said.

Leighow suggested the center complete a report that consists of an archeological investigation, an architectural assessment and historical research that draws from primary source materials.

Arrangements were made with Juniata College to bring in an archeology professor and five students, who started working the site on May 13.

“The most significant thing we discovered is indeed this was a powder magazine,” Leighow said. “There are massive foundations below the surface that supported triangular buttresses to support the wall.”

Professor Jonathan Burns said that each limestone buttress went down to the bedrock and emerged out of the ground to push up against the exterior walls of the structure. That type of construction was only used in the building of churches and powder magazines, he said.

Maps from 1820 and 1828 identify the structure as a powder magazine, but, over the years, some people have said the structure was not built to store gunpowder, Leighow said. The recent discovery of the underground remnants supports the historical record.

Buttresses were used to reinforce the walls so that, in case of an explosion, the blast would blow off the roof but leave the walls intact enough for tradesmen to reconstruct the building, Leighow said.

Unearthing history

The recent dig was guided by a geophysical survey done in March. “What that did was create reflections of underground anomalies,” Leighow said.

That survey helped the Juniata College team focus on key locations.

“The regularly spaced anomalies tipped us off from day one that they are probably substantial features,” Burns said. That first day, his students dug a hole against the west wall.

“That’s where we were lucky enough to hit a buttress,” Burns said. “We found the other ones without having to did too much soil. We just did it surgically. Until we found those buttresses, nobody was willing to say that it was definitely a powder magazine. This kind of work pushes the interpretation a lot further along.”

Over eight days of field work, Burns and his students were able to confirm the existence of seven of the eight buttresses believed to be located along the exterior walls. Team members also dug about a dozen shovel test pits — smaller and more shallow holes in the yard area of the powder magazine — mostly on the east and west sides.

“Those allowed us to look for artifact distributions around the building,” said Burns, who is also director of the college’s cultural resource institute.

That uncovered items including a lead musket ball, a coat button, a fastener for either a bayonet or a scabbard, pottery shards, pig bones and the remnants of pipes soldiers used to smoke tobacco.

Burns will include the findings in an archeological report to the Army Historical and Education Center.

Mystery remains

For the architectural assessment and historical research, the center is working with the National Park Service, Leighow said. “We want to have this thing documented by next summer. The following summer, for 2026, we want to have an unveiling of a new interpretation of the building in time for the 250th birthday of the United States.”

A completed Historic Structures Report would also enable the center to develop a long-term maintenance plan for the powder magazine to include details on its original materials and construction techniques.

“It could be the oldest building constructed by the U.S. Army,” Leighow said, adding there is a 1787 map done by a traveler that shows the magazine, along with barracks and officers’ quarters.

A pre-Civil War map includes the powder magazine building, but no buttresses, leading some to believe that the support structures were removed between 1828 and 1859. Artifacts found during the archeological survey reinforce the belief that the guardhouse conversion took place in the 1840s.

“It also served as a gatehouse to guard the entrance to Carlisle Barracks when the entrance was at that part of the post,” Leighow said.

The building has been used as storage, to detain prisoners and to tell the history of the Army post as a museum.

“We can document that there were Hessian prisoners-of-war here in late spring-early summer of 1777, when this was built,” Leighow said. “We don’t have any primary sources yet that say yes, they did work on that specific building. There was a lot of stuff going on here in 1777.”

Back then, the Carlisle area was the site of Washingtonburg, a major logistics and training base for the Continental Army. “It was a lot of people doing a lot of activity,” Leighow said. “You name it, from making shoes to casting cannons. It was a massive operation. The main areas of Washingtonburg would have been up on Marshall’s Ridge.”

Pushing the button

For the students, the field school survey was an opportunity to practice the tricks of the trade for archeologists, Burns said. “They learned how to dig holes and do paperwork.”

Lauren Metzger of Denver, Lancaster County, was removing soil from around a buttress when a glimpse of the past popped out. It was a brass object slightly smaller than a quarter with a rounded surface.

Though discolored by age, the find turned out to be a pre-Civil War button of the type used by soldiers to fasten an overcoat. She shared her discovery with her teammates.

“We just huddled together and kind of screamed,” Metzger said. “We’re all kind of nerdy. We had the USAHEC conservator here. She was able to completely remove all the dirt. The button is beautiful. It’s in mint condition. It was military style, pre-Civil War, from when Carlisle Barracks was a cavalry school.”

The button included a design of an eagle holding an olive branch and three arrows in its talons.

Aside from the artifacts, the students removed about a gallon bag of brick and mortar fragments that technicians can use to confirm the age of the buttresses.

“It has been exciting to so quickly accomplish the goals that we have,” Metzger said. “I’ve always wanted to be an archeologist. You only get to find the artifact in its original location once.”


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