New Light on Washington's Fort Necessity
A Report on the Archeological Explorations at Fort Necessity National Battlefield Site
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Archeology has been referred to as the "handmaiden of history", but only within the past twenty years or so has it come to be accepted generally by students of American history. Even so, the acceptance has not been without reservation, although the increasing number of spectacular demonstrations of archeology's contribution — Jamestown, Williamsburg, Saugus, and many others — are beginning to bear fruit.

There are several explanations for the reticence on the part of the "American" historian to take up with this newcomer, even though archeology has long been accepted by students of the Near East and other areas as a valuable historical tool. Foremost is the fact that the historian has for so long been interested in different problems and different approaches from those of concern to the archeologist. Probably of almost equal importance is the fact that the historian has utilized a different kind of raw material. Usually he has at hand such a wealth of recorded source material that the data provided through archeology, in comparison, seems pitifully meager and, at times, inconsequential. Then too, the archeologist has often been concerned entirely with objects, which makes him, in the eyes of the historian, an antiquarian of sorts. But excavations at a great many historic sites during the past two decades have shown that archeology can provide significant historical data. With increasing evidence that archeological studies can be set in a framework acceptable to historians, and that archeological data are of value to historians, students of the American scene are showing more interest in archeology as a useful accessory.*

*See J. C. Harrington, "Archeology as an Auxilliary Science to American History".

The Fort Necessity project not only brings out the value of archeology as a historical tool but clearly demonstrates the importance of the archeologist and historian working as a team from the outset, checking and interpreting each bit of evidence as it comes to light. By no means is this the first archeological exploration at a historic site in this country to have demonstrated the value of the historian and archeologist joining hands in the study of the physical and cultural history of a buried site. The Fort Necessity project, however, shows more clearly than almost any other the importance of conducting documentary research and excavations with the problems and progress of each being known and considered at every step by both the historian and the archeologist. In this case the excavating would certainly have terminated before the original remains had even been found had the archeologist not reanalyzed and reappraised the documentary information in relation to the results of the excavating from the first season's field work. The point should be evident from the present report, even though attention is not called to it explicitly.

The Fort Necessity project offers also an excellent lesson in historiography. For over a century, qualified scholars had had their say as to what the fort looked like on the day of the battle in 1754. Had they confined their ruminations to evidence from written records, they probably would not have gone so far astray. But quite properly they took into account the physical evidence observable at the site; some even resorting to archeology. Unfortunately, this led to two distinct and irreconcilable interpretations — neither, as it ironically turned out, being correct.

Frontispiece. Washington's 1754 expedition, showing route between Alexandria and The Ohio Country.

Even the most conscientious scholar would probably admit that the precise location and appearance of Fort Necessity is of no great consequence to American history. The most detailed account of the battle at Great Meadows is not affected particularly by whether the fort was round or square; whether it was 50 feet or 65 feet across; or whether the storehouse within the fort faced south or east. On the other hand, these data, if known, can make the narrative more realistic, even though they may have little effect on the historian's final conclusions. Moreover, a fact is a fact, and it is the responsibility of the historian, as well as his firm intention, to avail himself of as many facts as he can, even though his particular interest or approach does not exploit equally every fact available to him.

For the development of the site as an educational exhibit, knowledge of the most minute details of the fort's construction was important. Whether such an exhibit should take the form of a full-scale reconstruction or a museum diorama, the closer the reproduction can be to the original, the more intelligible it will be to the viewer. Normally, the relative amount known about the original structure determines whether a reconstruction can be undertaken. Other practical and theoretical considerations enter into the decision, but a reconstruction would not even be contemplated unless enough were known to make the final product highly authentic.

In the present instance, the archeological explorations were initiated with no real expectation of uncovering enough information to warrant a reconstruction. There was little hope, in fact, of determining the original size and shape of the fort, let alone sufficient construction details to permit the construction of a defensible reproduction. This fact, however, did not affect the research procedure, although there is no denying that it dampened the enthusiasm of the archeologist, particularly when the results of the first season's work were completely negative.

In this account, I will treat the historical background as briefly as feasible, since I have nothing new to offer and since it serves only as orientation for the archeological report. I will include a section on the century-long controversy over the shape of the fort, partly because it had a definite bearing on the archeological program, and partly because it is of interest as an object lesson in the critical use of historical data. Primarily, however, I will fulfill the researcher's professional obligation of entering for the record a detailed account of the excavations and the interpretations derived from the archeological and historical data. Finally, I believe it will be of interest to describe briefly the way the site was developed as an educational exhibit, since the interpretive development was, in fact, the primary justification for the excavating.

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Last Updated: 04-Mar-2009