Archeologists can do a lot with artifacts recovered from a battlefield. Usually, we look at large numbers of artifacts at once. By looking at the densities and patterns of find locations, we can tell where soldiers stood to fight one another and how they moved around on the battlefield. Sometimes, though, single artifacts can tell us a lot, which is true for this month’s Artifact of the Month.
Pictured is a small piece of iron, roughly shaped like a triangle, and curved. It was once part of a cannonball. Shaped somewhat like a cartoon bomb, the cannonball was a jet-black iron ball that, on May 7, 1862, was fired at a group of Iowa artillerymen perched atop a ridge north of Elkhorn Tavern, during the Battle of Pea Ridge, in Northwest Arkansas.
This was one of thousands of battle-related artifacts recovered by a National Park Service crew from the Midwest Archeological Center, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during fieldwork at Pea Ridge National Military Park in 2001. What makes this one piece of cannonball so special? Well, a few things.
First, since we recovered it during an archeological field project, we plotted its location exactly, and know from where we found it that it was one of the cannonball fragments fired early in the battle. When we looked closer at it, we found out that it was fired by a larger cannon than the other pieces of cannonballs recovered during the fieldwork. This piece was fired by a 24-pounder howitzer, a kind of cannon whose barrel measured 5.62 inches across on the inside. Almost every other piece of cannonball recovered at Pea Ridge was for the 12-pounder or 6-pounder cannons used by both sides. It would be impossible to fire this 24-pounder howitzer cannonball from a 12-pounder or a 6-pounder, as it’s too big to fit down the barrel.
Second, we know who fired it. Thanks to work by historians such as Ed Bearss (who appeared frequently in Ken Burns’s series, The Civil War), William Shea, and Earl Hess, we know that only one unit equipped with the 24-pounder howitzer ever served west of the Mississippi River. That was a Confederate artillery battery known as Landis’s Missouri Battery. They had two 24-pounders. This cannonball fragment came out of one of those two guns.
Third, historians were not sure that Landis’s Missouri Battery even made it to Pea Ridge. Some thought that it was still on the way to northwest Arkansas when the battle took place. Finding the 24-pounder ammunition proves that the battery, or at least a portion of it, did arrive in time to participate in the battle. Our one small find settles the debate. We know Landis’s Battery was present.
We often say in archeology that “it’s not just what you find, it’s where you find it.” That’s certainly true here, as the context of the find and its recovery during a careful, consistent archeological project helps us tell its story.
A first principle of archeology is that the significance of artifacts depends upon documented information about the context of their discovery. At what site was the artifact found? Can we figure out the age of the artifact? Where was it found in relation to site features (houses, trash deposits, activity areas, etc.) and the distribution of other artifacts? Only with knowledge of those facts can we assess further information about the manufacture and use of artifacts, and their role in other spheres of activity such as social organization, trade and exchange, and religious practice.
In this series, we feature select artifacts that are extraordinary both for the context of their discovery and for their unique qualities that contribute exceptionally important information about Arkansas culture and history. New artifacts will be added monthly throughout 2018. Find the list of artifacts here.