Nails are among the most commonly occurring artifacts found on nineteenth and twentieth century archaeological sites, while their importance are too often overlooked by some historic archaeologists. The reason we often discount the artifact type from in depth analysis is fairly simple. Unlike ceramics and glass, nails left in the ground for any prolonged period of time become heavily corroded and malformed and are just not that pleasurable to study or easy to identify. However, like all artifacts, nails can provide clues about the people who built with them and the structures of which they were once associated.
While it is true most nails recovered from archaeological sites are too often cheetos-shaped hunks of rusted iron, occasionally well preserved nails are sometimes recovered. Such was the case at Eutaw Manor in Herring Run Park. The fire that destroyed Eutaw in 1865 left it’s mark on the artifacts left behind. While the fire burnt, melted and generally damaged many of the site’s ceramic and glass artifacts, the opposite was true for the nails and other iron building materials in the house. In their case, the fire acted to further temper the nails, making them more resistant to rust. At the same time, not many of the building materials were salvaged after the fire. As a result, excavations of Eutaw provide a large collection of well-preserved nails from a house that stood for nearly a hundred years and likely underwent at least a few major renovations by its various owners.
While today you could walk the aisles of your local Home Depot or Lowe’s today and chose from a variety of different nail types each designed for a particular task, our ancestors also had options and chose accordingly given the task at hand. Depending on the size and style of the nails recovered from Eutaw, archaeologists are able to determine their specific use within a given structure, be it common construction nails (above), long flooring nails, or short roofing nails (below).
In addition the technology of nail production also evolved over time. The earliest nails found on colonial sites are the hand-wrought variety, which were produced individually and in their entirety by a blacksmith. These nails were wrought from nail rods or from nail splits cut from a plate. Smiths hammered the red-hot iron rods into a point and then placed them in a vise, hammering down to produce a head. By the late-eighteenth century, a method was devised to produce nails from sheets of iron plates using a vice was to cut the nails in uniform shapes. At first the vice was operated by hand and later by water or steam power. These early machine-cut nails were still individually hand-headed by a blacksmith. Eventually, the technology evolved to produce the entire nail (head and shank) by the nail cutting machine. The last step in the evolution of nail technology came in the mid-to-late nineteenth century with the introduction of the wire nail. Wire nails were produced from coils of wire, usually drawn through a series of dies to reach a specific diameter, then cut into short rods that formed into nails. The nail tip is usually cut by a blade and the head was formed by reshaping the other end of the rod under high pressure. The first wire nail factories were established in the 1850s but this nail type was not perfected or in wide use until the 1880s and 1890s. Even then, machine-cut nails remained the preferred type for most construction through to the early twentieth century.
Given that the fire that destroyed Eutaw Manor occurred in 1865, no wire nails are present among the collection. However, the excavation of the site in 2015 alone produced over 800 nails of both hand-wrought and machine-cut types and included numerous varieties. An analysis of this collection and those recovered in future excavations at Eutaw will help archaeologists understand whether the former manor house was built entirely at one time, the materials used in the home’s construction, and whether the building was subjected to any additions, alterations, or general maintenance measures in the nearly 100 years it stood along the Herring Run.
For more information about historic nails and manufacturing technology check out this paper prepared by the National Park Service.