Home is Where the Wall Trenches Are: Fort Ancient Period Houses at the Hahn Site
Posted On: 01/31/2018 - 12:00pm, Posted By: Bob Genheimer, Curator of Archaeology
Although archaeologists have never actually seen a Fort Ancient Period (AD 1000-1650) house, we have some idea how they were built, what they were constructed of, and how they appeared. The above ground portion of the houses was dismantled, burned, or simply succumbed to the elements when the Fort Ancient villages were abandoned prior to Euro-American settlement of the region. But often, much of the below ground portions remain – giving vital clues to what once stood above. It is this footprint and the materials that are associated with it that allows archaeologist to reconstruct the homes of Ohio’s first true farmers.
The very first house we exposed at the Hahn Site was the result of happenstance. In fact, the very first unit (excavation block) that we excavated in our initial year at Hahn in 2008 came down upon the remnants of a house footer trench to an early 14th century residence at the north end of the site. For the next three years (2008-2010), we expanded our units to expose the footprint of all four walls. And, we also explored the interior of the house looking for additional architectural elements and remnants of the house floor. After placing 20 units, and exposing nearly 70 square meters (750 square feet) of ground, a house that had stood some six centuries earlier became visible again (Figure 1).
Plan view map of 2008-2010 wall trench house with wall trenches and post holes. Note large interior support posts for supporting a central roof beam.
The rectangular house is represented by four separate wall footers referred to as “wall trenches.” These trenches, which never touch, were dug first into the subsoil about a foot or two (Figure 2). The structure these trenches formed is approximately 6 meters (19 to 20 feet) long and 5 meters (16 to 17 feet) wide. Post holes were then dug at the base of the trenches, and upright timber posts were placed firmly into the holes before the trenches were backfilled. Sections of daub walls were identified within the wall trench fill indicating that the exterior walls of the house were made of sculpted clay or daub. Although no remnant of roofing materials was identified, work at other Fort Ancient sites indicates that grass bundles or thatch were used to cover a timber superstructure.
Southwest corner of 2008-2010 wall trench house. The large pit feature at top removed the doorway to the structure.
By today’s standards, houses such as this Fort Ancient example, are extremely small. Our Hahn example tops out at 29.6 square meters of useable floor space, or only 318 square feet. Compare this to 2265 square feet – the average square footage of new residential construction in the American Midwest in 2010 (US Census data). Indeed, our Hahn house would easily fit into many modern suburban garages. Believe it or not, earlier Fort Ancient houses were even smaller.
As you might expect, with increasing populations at these agricultural villages, house sizes began to increase. Many early (prior to 13th century) houses were 200 square feet or less, but by the late 14th or early 15th century excavation data reveals that houses were approaching 400 square feet. Interior post and stake hole data indicates that Native Americans made maximum use of square footage by constructing benches and perhaps tiered beds along the interior walls.
Since 2010, our annual excavations at Hahn have uncovered portions of at least three additional wall trench houses. Of particular interest, from 2015 to 2017, much of another wall trench house was exposed along the eastern margin of the site (Figure 3). This structure is approximately the same size as the initial one we discovered, but unlike the first, it has paired wall trenches suggesting that it may have been repaired or enlarged. It also has an intentionally filled depression above the floor that resulted from settling of an earlier deconstructed house.
Southwest corner of 2015-2017 wall trench house.
It is difficult to estimate the number of houses that once stood at Hahn, but it is suspected that during its initial Fort Ancient occupation during the 14th and 15th centuries, a ring or multiple rings of houses were once present surrounding a large central plaza. Each of these rings could have contained upwards of 20 or more houses. By the 16th and 17th centuries, even a greater number of houses are projected since it appears that much of an 8 to 10 acre landform was filled.
If you want to see what a Fort Ancient village and its houses may have looked like, visit sunwatch.org/