The “Shield Nickel” was designed by James Barton Longacre and minted between 1866 and 1883. It was one of the first coins authorized by the post-Civil War government and was a precursor to the liberty or “V” nickel, Buffalo nickel, and the modern Jefferson nickel. In the years following the Civil War, Americans began to feel anxious over the availability of gold and silver coinage. “Shinplasters,” or a strange cache of fractional coins introduced during war time that were designed to ease market strains on the gold and silver pieces, such as the two-cent piece, the half cent, or the silver three-cent piece, were across the board hated and hoarded. In response, the treasury created a new five-cent coin from nickel until silver prices dropped low enough to allow for minting and the circulation of new silver “half dimes.”
Political pressure and lobbying by Joseph Wharton, owner of the largest nickel mine in the nation, helped create the problematic piece. Compared to modern nickels which are comprised of mainly nickel, the “Shield” nickel was mainly copper. It was prone to damage the dies and minting machines, and reoccurring issues with the design and manufacturing process caused the treasury to remove the “rays” on the face of the coin in an attempt to relieve the strain on the minting machines, replacing it with a simpler ring of stars. Problems with the coin persisted, creating a series of coins known for their minting flaws.
One of these unique coins was uncovered by Flat Earth Archeology, LLC in 2020 during a National Historic Preservation Act Archaeological Evaluation of 22 sites at Robinson Maneuver Training Center in Pulaski and Faulkner Counties. A one meter by one meter test unit revealed the coin along with square cut nails, an Albany slipped stoneware sherd, a Fletcher’s Castoria Bottle, and buttons and other clothing fasteners. A single “Shield” nickel was found at the second level, between 20 to 30 cm below datum.
The Castoria bottle (introduced as an alternative to castor oil), the nail type, ceramic and glass types, and coin indicate a period of occupation or use ranging between the 1900s to the 1930s. The lands currently occupied by the Arkansas Army National Guard for training once contained small communities of farms and homesteads. Looking at previous historic, archival, and archeological research, this site is likely associated with the Mount Pisgah Community. Based on the artifact assemblage, the excavation site is most likely an early to middle twentieth-century farm or homestead site. Overall, the material culture and history of the area were enough for a recommendation to be made for inclusion to the National Register of Historic Places based on the “potential to yield important historical information.” The discovery of a lost nickel dating back to the post-Civil War period establishes a direct link between local, state, and national history and Camp Robinson.
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. Find the list of artifacts here.