Archaeologist digging for clues to Camp Security


A senior archaeologist dusted some dirt off the tip of a spearhead pulled from a trench carved out of a field in Springettsbury Township on Friday morning during the effort to find remnants of a prison camp from the Revolutionary War.

Steve Warfel, standing in the center of the archaeological dig site off Locust Grove Road, turned the artifact in his hands which were tanned from days of working in the sun. It was interesting, but not from the correct time period to support claims that Camp Security — a facility where colonists held British war prisoners — had once stood where he was standing.

Since the excavation began Monday, volunteers and archaeologists alike, have found a variety of articles associated with the late 1700s and objects from thousands of years prior — such as the spearhead — and those from much later.

The process, which in its entirety is slated to take six weeks, began with shovelling and screening top soil which unearthed three dozen pieces of red earthenware pottery, Warfel said, noting the find could be from the late 18th or early 19th century.

"When we find objects associated with the time period," the specific window is 1781-83, only 22 months, "we can then get a better idea of when this pottery is coming from."

Metal detection prior to excavation revealed the presence of wrought nails, which are handmade.

"Handmade nails is what we'd be seeing around this time period," Warfel said. "We also saw some cut nails, which come into play around 1815. You really get to see the transformation of time in these pieces.

"Yesterday we found a piece of pottery perfect for the time period, it was a British tea cup."

The dirt: While uncovering interesting artifacts is always exciting, Warfel said his primary focus will be the dirt itself.

Warfel hopes to find evidence of the stockade — the fence surrounding the camp — by uncovering and researching variances and disturbances in the soil.

"There should be a very specific footprint for this stockade," Warfel said. "I'm looking for a soil stain," the result of a post from the stockade buried about a foot deep into the ground.

The subsoil is distinctly lighter than the top layer, Warfel said, pointing to darker spots at the bottom of the foot-deep trench, all of which will be photographed and recorded.

"I suspect these are from a tractor," he said, adding that rodents and roots could also cause change in soil color. "We won't know for sure until we expose and excavate the stained area."

A stain in the soil from the stockaded would provide a firm basis for the claims that the camp was in fact there, Warfel said.

"Once we get onto that we can follow it and really dig in, so to speak," he said.

A little history: British prisoners from the Battle of Saratoga were all initially housed in a prison in Charlottesville, VA., but British success in battles nearby forced colonists to relocate them, for fear they would be freed.

The thousands of prisoners in 1781 were sent to different camps, and approximately 800 noncommissioned officers and soldiers — the Hessian prisoners were sent to Reading and the officers to Lancaster — were sent to a new prison location in York, Warfel said.

"They probably picked this area for the same reason the nomads did," Warfel said of the open field, "Access to food and water."

At the end of the year, the Battle of Yorktown was fought, and those prisoners were also sent to the camp.

"They moved the first population of prisoners outside of the stockade and into huts and put the new prisoners inside," he said. "There were some higher-ranking officers in that mix and everyone was still fired up from the battle, so they were viewed as higher risk."

The prisoners outside of the stockade were less guarded and paroled to do labor. The additional freedoms inspired them to call the site Camp Indulgence, and the site inside the stockade Camp Security.

Camp Indulgence: In 1979, in a site just beyond the trees surrounding Warfel's dig area, thousands of artifacts were uncovered — which can be found in the State Museum of Pennsylvania — but no evidence of the stockade.

Memoirs and journal entries that have since been discovered suggest that Camp Indulgence was on higher ground than Camp Security, as was the site that was excavated in 1979, and about 200 yards away from the stockade, Warfel said.

"If you pull up Google earth and map it out, we're almost exactly 200 yards from that dig site," Warfel said.

Documents also say that Camp Security was smaller in size than a prison camp in Vermont which means, "Camp Security is probably about two to three acres."

So based on the distance from Camp Indulgence and the estimated size, Warfel sectioned off a two-acre parcel within the 9-acre field.

Strategically placed trenches will allow for the group of volunteers joining Warfel to eliminate portions of the site without unearthing the entire area, he said.

A challenge: The large expanse of land and the small window of the time in which the camp existed has made the project a difficult task, Warfel said.

"It's not quite a needle a in a hay stack, but it's going to be a challenge," he said. "I do have great hopes that we will find what we're looking for."

The potential discovery of Camp Security might be the only one of its kind.

"There were probably nine other prisons like this built during the war but it seems all the other ones have been built over," Warfel said. "This isn't just a part of our local history, this is national history, a part of the story of our country."

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