ANTH 491: Archaeology of the Bishop's Cabin

Month: October 2023

To Tame the Land

He is destined to be a King. He rules over everything on the land called planet Dune. 

Iron Maiden, To Tame  Land (1983) 


In July of 2019, a group of friends and I, a foreigner from the Yucatán peninsula in México,  traveled to the Hocking Hills to holiday in what was described to me as a log cabin in the woods. My expectations were little more than glorified camping. The word “log cabin” actively created a setting in my head’s brain: rustic living in the woods with basic living facilities. I had questions that needed clarification upon arrival. The log cabin in the middle of the woods was massive and looked imposing on top of a hill. The front porch was massive, as big as the hallway in Pierce Hall (with the flags on top). Inside, it comprised two levels, equipped with multiple TVs, internet, a full kitchen, a living room, furniture, a “basement” with two rooms, a full bathroom, games, and quick access to a hot tub. I was experiencing a big culture shock.  I was confused, head stretching, beard clutching, feeling like an uncanny prank. I didn’t get it. 

Figure 1: Typical log cabin rental 

Let’s untangle this.

Log cabins in the us are a kind of Vernacular Architecture. For Oliver (2000), vernacular architecture means a building of people made by the people out of locally available materials. It does not refer to buildings designed and built by professional architects and builders. For W.M. Heath (1988), vernacular architecture is a craft whose value is not in style but in its capacity as cultural messaging.

Original American Log Cabins from the 19th century are crude, windowless, and chimney-less, built around logs without nails or sawn lumber (Hoagland 2020:16). Moreover, they have multiple meanings associated with the pioneer or settler way of life: a home in the wilderness, settling in a hostile environment and isolated surroundings with a mission to tame the land, and making a good living for themselves and their family (Hoagland 2018:13). Cabins represent the idea of mobility since they were a critical tool in the American expansion from the East to the West in the 19th century (Figure 1). Log cabins are created from the material that dominates the natural environment; they represent a transformation of the environment from the wilderness to a building, the uncivilized to the civilized, and some nothing to something. 

Figure 2: An original log cabin home built by the Swedish in Delaware during the 1700s.

Hence, the humble log cabin can be interpreted as a sort of folk origin story, one in which families can have a fresh start from nothing and construct a home from the land that “god gave them.” For example, we can see this origin myth adopted and used politically in Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, a log cabin in Kentucky. The cabin is now a shrine in the middle of the woods where people can pilgrimage. The Center for Land Use Interpretation ( defines it as follows:

A Romanesque memorial, with 56 steps, one for each year of the president’s life, built on the location of his original birthplace cabin…Inside the structure is his birthplace cabin—which, however, is not really the actual birthplace cabin. The Lincoln family moved to another farm two years after he was born, and it is likely that the original log cabin was burned up for firewood by subsequent owners, probably in the 1830s.”    

Does it matter that it was the original cabin? No. That is the point of symbols and myth-building. It constructs an idea where people base their identity and create a community.    

Figure 3: Memorial to Abraham Lincoln’s birth cabin

Going back to my culture shock for a bit, the root of it has to do with, as a foreigner,  not being submerged into the log cabin ecosystem of meanings. Not raised in the US, my ideas and values of vernacular are very different and have other contexts and meanings. The Log Cabin is more than a holiday house infused with amenities. It’s an idea of how much people have accomplished from scratch. 

The log cabin is, by excellence, the vernacular architecture of the US. It is heavily rooted in the collective imagination as people tame the land and make something out of nothing. This idea, of course, has problems. There are some colonial, racial, religious, and other issues with this myth. The most obvious one is that people were here before the Europeans arrived, and the land was lived and modified many times by different Native American groups (who themselves have vernacular dwellings). The Log Cabin myth is only one of many stories people attach to a place. 

The Kenyon archaeological project has been digging an old dining hall made of logs from 1828 for about six weeks. Using vernacular architecture at the beginning of Kenyon College while massive stone buildings, such as Old Kenyon and Ross Hall, were constructed did not happen in a vacuum. It can be interpreted as settlers – pioneers taming the hill, transforming it from “nothing” into something. 


The blog’s title, “to tame the Land” is based on the 1983 Iron Maiden song of the same name. Believe it or not, the song is about Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune. The novel is about resources, taming the land, and myth-building. It seemed appropriate.   


Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace Cabin Shrine. (2023). The Center of Land Use and Interpretation.

Asadpour, A. (2020). Defining The Concepts & Approaches In Vernacular Architecture Studies. National Academic Journal of Architecture, 7(2), 241–255.

Heath, K. W. (1988). Defining the Nature of Vernacular. Material Culture, 20((2/3)), 1–8.

Hoagland, A. K. (2018). Log Cabin: An American Icon. University of Virginia Press.

Oliver, P. (1996). Vernacular Studies: Objectives and Applications. Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, 8 (1), 12–12.

Iron Maiden (1983) To Tame a Land, A Piace of Mind, EMI. Youtube.  

An Unexpected Brick Deposit By Lucy Regnier-Kline

During our initial excavation planning, sub-operation G, the only unit not placed over a corner of our potential foundation, was thought to maybe be a doorway into the Bishop’s Cabin. Of course, this was only an educated guess based on GPR data, but what we found when we started digging was more complicated and surprising than we thought. Sub-op G is located on the north edge of the site, towards the center, as shown in Figure 1.

Instead of hitting flat stone, as a few other units did, we found a large deposit of brick. In particular, some of the brick was very burnt. A lot of the brick fell apart very easily, and was found along with charcoal and a white, powdery substance we assumed was mortar. As we dug deeper, we noticed that the deposit was mostly along the north side of the unit, but there was also a more burnt section in the southwest corner.

Toward the east side of the unit, we additionally found two large blocks of glazed brick. The bricks have a black, shiny coat painted on top of them, giving the bricks a smoother texture.

When looking at the vertical stratigraphy of our unit, we could see a line of mortar that separated our layers. Below the mortar is where the soil began to consist of a combination of dirt, brick, mortar, and charcoal, dispersed in almost all sections of the unit, but highly concentrated in certain areas.

The large amounts of burnt brick and charcoal may indicate that we are located above where a chimney or hearth may have been. The glazed brick could have been used for a few purposes, as it is both decorative and adds a layer of protection. The glaze can help prevent staining or damage to the bricks.

The brick industry in Ohio did not take off until the 1880s, about 60 years after the time period we are looking at with our research. This makes our large brick deposit particularly interesting, as brick would have been more difficult to produce in large quantities. The brick is also soft and crumbly, which is a sign of a longer, hand-made brick making process. Future lab analysis may help us determine exactly where these bricks came from. Hopefully, as we continue excavations in the coming weeks, a more distinct shape of the brick layout will become apparent, and we can determine what we are looking at within the spatial context of the Bishop’s Cabin.

Artifact Spotlight: Nails and Screws By Maya Vaccaro

For the past few weeks, we have been excavating 1×1 meter units along what we suspect is the perimeter of our structure’s foundation. My specific sub-operation, sub-op E, is towards the southeast of the site (Figure 1). Our current goal is to reach the foundation. We hypothesize that the floor of our structure consisted of wooden planks laid on top of flat stones. The wood may have decomposed, but the stone foundation would have remained mostly intact. Thus far, we have peeled back the lawn from our excavation unit and scraped and pick-axed our way through a layer of fill dirt and stones placed on top of our structure. Artifacts in the fill layer were sparse, but in recent weeks, we have hit a much higher density of artifacts, meaning we are closer to finding the stone foundation.

Figure 1. A rough diagram of our excavation site. The site is 15 x 20 meters. Foundation of the structure detected with ground-penetrating radar is shown in red. Sup-operation E is shown in white. Other sub-operations are not shown. The diagram is not to scale.

Among the most common artifacts we have been finding in our sub-operation are nails (Figure 2.). We have found a variety of shapes and sizes of nails used in our structure. There are three kinds of nails typically found in American building

Hand-wrought nails

This kind of nail is made by pouring iron into a mold and hand-hammering it into its final shape. It is characterized by a taper on all four sides and a wood-like grain (Wells 1998). This type of nail has been used for centuries and remained in frequent use until the late 19th century. In the 1820s and 30s, when our structure was most likely built, both cut and wrought nails were in frequent use (Nelson 1968). 

Cut nails

Cut Nails first appeared in the United States on a large scale after the Revolutionary War. There was a heavy overlap of hand-wrought and cut nails between 1790-1830. These nails were cut from one large, flat sheet of metal and can be distinguished from hand-wrought nails by their taper: only two sides of the nail are tapered, while the other two remain flat (Nelson 1968). 

Wire nails

These nails are most commonly used today. They have long, cylindrical bodies with a four-facet point. They are held by a gripping device and headed, then sheared. This gives them a distinctive gripper mark towards the head of the nail (Nelson 1968). 

Manufacturers of wire nails in the US started popping up in New York around the 1850s, but this variety of nail was not commonly used until the 1890s. Finding this kind of nail at our site would imply additions to the structure long after the initial construction in the 1820s (Nelson 1968). 

Figure 2. Sample of nails found at sub-operation E of Bishop’s Cabin archaeological excavation. The scale bar is in centimeters.

Along with an abundance of nails, we have also uncovered two screws (Figure 3.) and several metal balls and longer metal pieces, which I haven’t photographed (but am very excited about). Once we switch to the laboratory analysis phase of our investigation, we can clean and analyze our artifacts more closely. Although nail chronology is one way to date an archaeological site, using ceramics and glassware can give a more reliable sense of time (Wells 1998). It would still be useful to see if we can glean information on the time during which construction or renovation of the building occurred. Combining this information with documentary records could give us a sense of when and where these nails were being made. 

Regardless of what information we end up getting from them, the nails have been one of my favorite finds so far. Picturing them in the hands of workmen putting down planks two hundred years ago while holding them rusty and bent on Friday afternoons in 2023 makes me feel connected to the past in a way our other artifacts haven’t. 

Figure 3. Slot-headed screw found at sub-operation E of Bishop’s Cabin archaeological excavation. Scale is in centimeters.


Nelson, H. Lee

1968  Nail Chronology: As an Aid for Dating Old Buildings. History News Technical Leaflet,. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History. pp 24-1.

Wells, Tom

1998  Nail Chronology: Technologically Derived Features. Historical Archaeology, Vol. 32, No. 2 , pp. 78-99