J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Archeological Findings along Battle Road

Tim Greenman at Walking the Berkshires alerted me to a report from the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center:
Archaeologists in Massachusetts recently excavated several military artifacts from a Revolutionary war era site probably dating back to a well-documented skirmish of April 19, 1775 known as “Parker’s Revenge.” The previously undisturbed site, located on an unused area of Hanscom Air Force Base in Concord, is being prepared for transfer from the United States Air Force to the National Park Service.

Among the artifacts found are musket balls (fired and un-fired), a brass shoe buckle, a fascine knife or “bill hook,” and a musket ball bullet mold that produces a size caliber ball for pistols. All of these artifacts were fragile and corroded when excavated and required immediate treatment for preservation.

The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, one of the leading institutions in the northeast for archaeological conservation, was contracted by the United States Air Force to document and treat these important historical objects. Over the last year and a half the Conservation Department has photographed, x-rayed, removed corrosion, and stabilized all the artifacts from the “Parker’s Revenge” site to preserve them.
The bullet mold (at top) presumably belonged to locals; wouldn’t the British troops who marched to Concord have left their molds behind? I suppose the curved knife, used for cutting brush or as a weapon, might have been carried by a man on either side.

Incidentally, the phrase “Parker’s revenge” seems to be a twentieth-century coinage. It doesn’t show up in early histories of the battle, so far as I can tell. It’s now applied to a part of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, where and when Capt. John Parker’s Lexington men fired at the British soldiers withdrawing toward Boston—including soldiers who had shot at their militia company on the Lexington common.


rfuller said...

I doubt the British on their march to or from Concord would have left a ball mould along the way. Since they carried cartridges already, they most likely weren't making ammunition as they went along. The mould is probably from a rubbish pile, or dropped by a hunter.

The ball size is for a pistol of the time, probably .62 calibre or smaller, is smaller than the .69 nominal size for musket ball in cartridges. (Of course, the muskets commonly used were about .75 in bore size, but the balls had wrapped heavy paper around them as part of paper cartridges which were loaded down the barrel to make the guns fire.)

The mould also looks, from its proportions, rather small; if the ball size is 38 cal. or smaller, it might not be pistol shot, but rather, buckshot. Buckshot is/was used for the odd deer still roaming these parts. (Yes, fowling pieces and muskets could be used as deer guns, too.)

Such single-chamber moulds are still being made, and look much the same as they did 200+ years ago. Buckshot would have more commonly been made, however, in so-called "gang moulds", which made several ball at each pouring of molten lead into the mould. Individual casting of each ball could also be done, too, using a single-chamber mould, but it was just more time-consuming.

As for the numerous musket or pistol balls found in the exacvation, it is quite possible that they came from the battle, but some could also have come from hunters, since hunting also went on in the area up until the 1940s, when the air base came in.

Round ball ammunition would have been long obsolete, but hunting with flintlock and caplock went on into the 19th century in this area. Constant ploughing of the land mixes up the levels in which these artifacts can be found, too.

G. Lovely said...

I believe the word "wouldn't" in the second to the last paragraph should be "would".

mrichardson said...

If rfuller is right about the ball mould being a .62 calibre, it could easily have been used by any number of fowling pieces and not just a pistol. From my recollection of the many accounts of April 19th there are references to "ancient" flintlocks being used by the local militias on that day. Of course "ancient" is a relative term, but certainly doglocks and fowling pieces of all sorts (perhaps going back to the first quarter of the century) fit the bill along with older military style muskets (perhaps from any one of the previous French wars that were "issued" to provincial militias).

Is rfuller saying the balls that were found had wrapped paper around them (I'd find that hard to believe) or is the reference simply to how ball was made up for cartridges? I suspect the latter. Anyway, I do not recall a reference to pistols being carried by the local militias that day, but that doesn't mean they weren't, and I might not be remembering all I've read from original documents. I do recall pistol references in relationship to officers of the Regulars, but that, in and of itself, doesn't mean the mould or the ball that were found came from either side. When we do not know for sure, one can only speculate the mould came from a local militia man. Although the odds may suggest that more so than a Regular soldier.

I guess my point is, when one doesn't "know," one should be clear that they are only speculating when they make certain statements. rfuller states "The ball size is for a pistol of the time, probably .62 calbre or smaller..." and then goes on to say "The mould also looks, from it's proportions, rather small; if the ball size is 38 cal or smaller..." Which is it .62 or .38? Is rfuller personally familiar with the find, or is he just looking at the photo as we are? I'm confused by these statements, which make it clear there is only speculation going on here.

It's hard for me to understand just what has transpired between paragraph 2 and 3 by rfuller. If the mould and other artifacts were found at a site of action on April 19th, why would someone jump to the conclusion the mould would be from a rubbish pile or dropped by a hunter. Of course it's possible, but I wouldn't jump to that conclusion in my opening statement, and that's what has happened here. What is the evidence for either? Is there a period house site nearby where a rubbish pile would be found? Rubbish piles don't just show up randomly. They actually have a purpose and can be associated with sites of human habitation, either temporary or long term. Considering the action of the day, a hunter is far fetched in my mind, but let's look at the odds of a hunter dropping his mould at a site where some military action took place. Okay, I don't have real evidence one way or the other (and neither does rfuller), and one could argue that I'm speculating, and they would be right, but I'm going with the odds.

Well, enough of my rant. I think you get my point. If you don't "know," admit it and look for more clues. In this case, you have a bullet mould and musket balls from a site that is being dug for a specific purpose (Is it the site of Parkers Revenge?), nothing more. What are the clues to say yes or no? That's what people are looking for. With that information, one needs to clearly state what it is you're speculation (best guess) is about these objects and not present one's best guess as fact. An artifact out of the ground has no story of it's own. It is just an object, nothing more. While the object can be identified, it has to be placed in the context of where it was found, and only after further research can one make reasonable assumptions of where it came from, how it was used and if you're lucky, you might figure out who used it, when and why. Only further hard research develops the story of an object..., if you are really lucky.

J. L. Bell said...

As I read Roger Fuller’s comments, he wasn’t claiming access to or detailed knowledge of the artifacts, just sharing thoughts on, for example, what the mold might be if it made balls of a certain size. It seems clear to me at least that he was speculating in a limited way based on his knowledge of both weapons and Battle Road.

Roger also seems to be warning us that people using musket balls, pistol balls, and buckshot traversed this ground over many years, not just on 19 Apr 1775, so we can’t be sure these are artifacts of “Parker’s Revenge.” Of course, it’s most interesting to think so.