New England archaeologists have tended to interpret any stone chamber large enough for a person to get inside as a historic "root cellar." The stone structure community has long maintained that many of these structures are actually Native American ceremonial constructions. This long standing debate has been handicaped by a lack scholarly research on historic root cellars. In an effort to address this shortcoming in this important debate, I undertook a two and a half year study of root cellars. This study was only recently possible with advances in full text digitalization of many source materials. There is a wealth of information on root cellars but much of it consists of only a few paragraphs and the occasion illustration in larger works on agriculture. Computerized searches were the only effective means of locating this information. All together, the study located slightly over 100 period sources materials from the 1600's through the 1940's.
One of most interesting findings of this study was realization the classic root cellar is only one of number of different subsurface food storage techniques used in America over the past 400 years. Interesting enough, houses and and barns cellars were used extensively as "root cellars" because of the convenience of access to them and cost effectiveness of using an already existing structure. In addition, this study found that root cellars need to follow specific design criteria and failure to follow those design specifications would result in major losses of the crops stored within. This relevant for establishing what is and what is not a root cellar.
This study raises the standards of proof for establishing a root cellar interpretation for a structure. Any such interpretation must be firmly based upon scientific and scholarly investigation not on mere opinion. This study is part of our ongoing efforts to develop methods for distinguishing historic agricultural structures from Native American ceremonial structures.
Root Cellars in America: Their History, Design and Construction 1609-1920 by James Gage (ISBN 978-0-9816141-3-7)