Topic ID #8991 - posted 11/20/2010 12:35 PM

charcoal burner's hut??

Frank Antonson

I think I owe it to this forum to allow for a different response from the one my last topic title brought.

In the woods, at the base of a mountain, near the end of a narrow-gauge railroad, and downwind from some extensive iron ore mining of the 1880's, are the footprints of three human-made structures -- one tiny, square, with a collapsed fireplace in the upwind corner and what seems more like two stone "chairs" rather than a floor, from which the seated person or persons (whose feet would be touching) could look out a door toward the other two footprints, which are oval rings with openings at the downhill end,  too small to really be considered doors.

The square footprint is of stacked stone with no sign of mortar.  The two ovals do not appear to involve any stonework. 

This "complex" is just above a clay bank and a spring.  There is an old road that connects the complex to a collapsed shaft mine.

The site might have been forgotten except for the name my neighbor learned for it -- this from his father, who bought his house from the son of the former owner, the Italian foreman of the mining crew.

That name suggested black.  I have a clear memory from when I was in the Peace Corps in Brazil of a charcoal seller, a boy, who came by my house with a donkey and bags of charcoal on its back.  This kid was so black that the only things not black about him were his eye balls and his teeth.  At the time, I thought I was William Wordsworth, looking at a chimney sweep.

I now believe that I mistakenly thought the three footprints were of three huts instead of one with two adjacent charcoal "kilns", and that I thought the name for them referred to African-Americans.

I am not very concerned about the site now because I believe it calls not for excavation, but rather restoration -- something I have some experience with.  

Does anyone on this forum know of a similar site?

Post ID#18321 - replied 11/24/2010 6:00 AM

Frank Antonson

Since my last post I have been able to watch an episode from "Der Letzte seines Standes" which deals specifically with "Der Koehler" i.e. the charcoal burner.  This series comes out of Bavaria and is probably not known in the USA, partly because it has no English subtitles.  In any case, the 30-minute episode shows a charcoal burner named Guenther Birkelbach going through the whole process, complete with building his hut and firing two "kilns".

It all seems to fit my description. 

The website for the film is 

It was made in 2004. 

I would still like to know if there is any knowledge of something comparable here in Pennsylvania.  Even after coke was begun to be used, charcoal was still favored for some smelting.  That charcoal must have come from somewhere, and the same transportation system for the iron ore would have served to deliver it.

Post ID#18323 - replied 11/24/2010 12:49 PM


I believe that on the west side of Owens Lake (in CA), there are a couple of charcoal burning huts....beehive shaped, but were related to mining and such back in the late 19th Century.  I may have a book with a photo in it of them, if this would be of some help.  Just let me know your email and I can send a pic.

Post ID#18324 - replied 11/25/2010 5:48 AM

Frank Antonson

Yes, that would help.

My email is <>.

In the Bavarian video the charcoal burner's hut is built like a teepee, but out of wood, and would leave no permanent footprint. 

It should now be very easy for me to figure out if my guess is correct because now I am not afraid to make a small excavation into one of the oval rings.  Certainly there will be evidence of charcoal within that clay (if it is in fact clay).

If you are interested, I recommend looking at the website and seeing if you can watch a trailer for the video about "Der Köhler".  It is too bad that that series is not available in English because it is astounding.

Thanks for you response.


Post ID#18331 - replied 11/27/2010 6:58 PM


This document has a section on "Woodcutting/Charcoal Production Camps" as well as a bibliography.  Although it is focused on the US West, much of it it should be relevant.

Work Camps: Historic Context and Archaeological Research Design – 2nd DRAFT

Post ID#18343 - replied 11/29/2010 7:27 PM

Frank Antonson

I wonder if the US West might have been more influenced than the East by Latin (Arabic) culture (as it is with irrigation)  -- even in charcoal production.  In the East, our ideas about water control come from a completely different perspective than the West -- riparian rights. 

Diderot's "Encyclopedia of the Trades and Industries" , which, of course is French, shows charcoal burners, but I don't believe any of them have kilns other than mounded earth over the wood.  Tomorrow I will check in school, where I have a copy of the plates from Diderot.

Post ID#18346 - replied 11/29/2010 8:38 PM


That's a bit of an exotic explanation.  Most resource and extraction law in the Western US is thoroughly grounded in the "Eastern" legal system at its finest and most corrupt.

Charcoal-burning mounds are not uncommon in the US, but hard to identify.  You may have a more industrial-scale operation. BTW, why do you think it is a charcoal kiln?

It took me some time to dig up the reference (my time back East was an age ago), but a pretty handy book for kilns was Victor Rolando's 200 Years of Soot and Sweat:  The History of Vermont's Iron, Charcoal and Lime Industries.(Vermont Archaeological Society 1992).

Post ID#18348 - replied 11/30/2010 5:11 AM


Khodok - that book is still a standard, and Vic is still at it.  He is a pretty amazing guy, into his 70s and within the last few weeks he took a colleague of mine traipsing in the mountains to see some iron mining related features - and she had trouble keeping up with him. 

Frank - Vic might be someone worthwhile for you to contact about your features.  The last e-mail I had for him was - .

Good Luck

Post ID#18350 - replied 11/30/2010 4:04 PM

Frank Antonson

Thanks, Dmack89,

This forum has become VERY helpful to me.  I am having trouble keeping up with it. 
I looked at the Diderot plates and the result was that I now have doubts again.  In the plates, charcoal burning sites are round, not oval.  This has to do with the way that they stacked the wood -- on end instead of laying it down. 
The excavation will, no doubt, shed light on the story.  When I was thinking that those oval rings might be remains of dwellings I was much more concerned about disturbing them.  Now I am a little concerned again.

But WHY would there be a mixture of a tiny square footprint adjacent to two oval ones?

As soon as it is convenient I will try to post some pictures on this site for those of you who are being so helpful.

Also, I will try to see Vic's book.


Post ID#18351 - replied 11/30/2010 5:33 PM


Photos would definitely help.

I wouldn't speculate on the oval features, but the square one (with collapsed chimney, no less) sounds suspiciously like a foundation for a fireplace and chimney that was part of a frame structure-obviously so much weight would have been supported from the ground, rather than atop the beams of the floor.


Post ID#18352 - replied 12/1/2010 3:37 AM

Frank Antonson

But the stone "foundation" is so tiny.  The whole apparent structure is no bigger than a king-sized bed.  Also, the "floor" does not seem to ever have been level, but just a level spot by the "doorway" that is about 4-foot square. 

It is a real puzzle to me.  In any case, I am sure that an excavation will explain it. 

In the meantime, I have had another memory from my days in Peace Corps Brazil.  My interest in charcoal there lead me to a charcoal kiln that was mostly underground with a low brick vaulted roof.   The peasants told me that it had not been used in a long time.  I had forgotten about that.


This weekend I will make it a point to get some measurements -- and maybe some pictures.  I will also make a crude attempt to "draw" a sketch of the site.

Post ID#18357 - replied 12/3/2010 10:19 AM


In Pennsylvania charcoal sites are generally made up of the charcoal platform, the colliers hut, and associated roads.  The charcoal platforms are level areas, usually cut into hillsides, and are roughly circular in shape, 30 to 60 ft. in diameter. The small rectangular structure sounds like a hut to me as the colliers were required to tend to the burning wood from a few days to weeks at a time and they would live in the woods in these temporary shelters.  To my knowledge, not many of the temporary camps have been excavated. Although a number of charcoal platforms have been excavated.

The Rolando book is a one of the best references, but many of the parks in PA, Greenwood Furnace, French Creek, and Hopewell NP to name a few, have additional information on the charcoal industry in PA.

Another good reference if you can find it:

Hand-Book for Charcoal Burners by G. Svedelius.

Translated from the Swedesih Language by R.B. Anderson, A.M.,

Edited with notes by W. J. L. Nicodemus, A.M., C.E.

New York. John Wiley & Sons.  1875


Post ID#18358 - replied 12/3/2010 3:19 PM

Frank Antonson

Once again, I want to thank this forum for its useful information and help.

I will certainly try this Sunday to go up and make some measurements.  IF these are "charcoal platforms", they are much smaller than 30 feet.  That would be a HUGE pile of wood -- not to mention 60 feet.

I MAY even take a look to see if there is any evidence of charcoal on the ground.  That would certainly help to clear up the mystery.


Post ID#18359 - replied 12/4/2010 2:14 PM


A Google Book search on "Charcoal Burning" turned up a wealth of material, including historical descriptions and manuals. 

Post ID#18361 - replied 12/5/2010 7:03 AM

Frank Antonson

Today I plan to go up to the site and make some measurements.  My neighbor may go along with me.  He has a GPS unit and has the computer skills to very accurately place contour lines over GoogleEarth images.  So far he has only done it on the 300 acres surrounding that site down to the 2-foot elevation lines, but when we have zeroed in closer we will make the lines much closer.  Already, certain things about the site have appeared on the contour map that I had not suspected. 
I will probably also do a little "scratching" of the surface of the inside of the oval rings to see if I come to any evidence of charcoal.
This neighbor and I have, in fact, made our own charcoal, but that was not related to my thoughts about this site because I that time I was still thinking that they were three impossibly small dwellings.

More later.  Thanks for your interest.

Post ID#18384 - replied 12/12/2010 2:23 PM

Frank Antonson

Well, as promised, I went to the site and took some measurements.  The hut was approximately  14 foot by 14 foot. 

The other measurements I will eventually post in an attempt to make a diagram of the site.

When I tried to scratch into the center of one of the elliptical rings I found that I had only imagined how easy that would be.  One hundred plus years of detritus was not going to be simply scratched away.  Even an initial probe will require tools  and documentation. 

I am going to have to put the discussion of this whole issue (for which I am greatly indebted to this forum) on hold until spring comes.

Thanks for your useful inputs.


Post ID#18390 - replied 12/13/2010 6:49 AM


Frank - A suggestion as you go forward - stop calling the feature a hut for now.  by assigning labels before findings have been made we often subconciously set up expectations which can be hard to get past.  I would suggest simply identifying the features as Feature 1, 2, 3.... for now.  If you objective research eventually bears out your initial assumptions - hut - will be fine - but for now let it go.

good luck in your research

Post ID#18395 - replied 12/13/2010 4:48 PM

Frank Antonson

Thanks, Dmack,

That's probably a good idea.  I have continued to use the word "hut" because it is part of the oral record, although I have changed it from "(racial slur) huts".

That name is the only thing that I have to go on, other than what is actually on the ground.  There is absolutely no historical record to help me.

Again and again, I want to say, thank you for your help and interest.



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