“Do you ever find musket balls?” Military Artifacts at the Kids Dig!

By on 7-23-2018 in Archaeology

“Do you ever find musket balls?”

Most of what we find in the Archibald Blair dig site is… trash. That’s great news for us! We can learn a lot about people’s lives from the things they throw away. Occasionally, however, we get surprised by something unusual coming out of the ground, and each of us archaeologist has a favorite. After years of teaching curious folks about muskets and how soldiers fought in the 1700’s, my favorite oddball artifacts are musket balls and gun flints.

The projectile that comes out of a musket is round, so it makes sense to call it a musket ball. These balls are made of lead, which is why they feel heavier than they look. To make their ammunition, soldiers would heat up lead until it’s liquid. The liquid is then poured into a mold- if you’re making a bunch of balls at once, you would call it a gang mold. Each ball is then snipped, filed and can be made into a musket cartridge (a paper bundle with the ball and gunpowder). Some of the lead balls we find are very large- definitely military sized! We find musket balls in both the British and French sizes, teaching us that both armies came through the town during the Revolutionary War. Some lead balls we find are much smaller and could be used in a fowling piece (a type of hunting gun that fires lots of tiny balls), a rifle or a pistol. Some of the hunting shot we find isn’t finished, or looks very homemade. Do you think if someone accidentally made a mistake in casting their shot, they might throw it away?

We also occasionally find gun flints. Flint is a very hard rock that is found in the earth in large roundish pieces called “nodules.” Nodules from different parts of the world are different colors, helping archaeologists and historians figures out where the flint is from. It’s much harder than metal, so when flint and steel strike together a tiny piece of steel is shaved off. These tiny pieces are very hot, and we normally call a spark. The spark sets of the gunpowder, and the ball goes flying with a boom! Just like our lead shot, our flints are sized to fit military muskets, hunting guns, and pistols. And like our shot, the flints we find are both French and British.


Our dig site had people living or working on it throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th century. Just like the plates, glass and nails we find, our ammunition can be from any one of these time periods. Less common than round lead balls, we sometimes find Minie Balls. Invented in 1849 by Claude-Etienne Minie, these type of bullets are from the American Civil War and made loading rifles much faster. Although it’s harder to tell with round balls, it appears that none of our Minie balls have been fired. Along with Minie balls, we also find percussion caps. In the 19th century, tiny brass or copper caps used a chemical reaction to ignite gunpowder. By that time period, flints were antique! Although our percussion caps don’t seem like they’ve been fired, we find dozens of pieces of early 1900’s ammunition from a small gun used either as a target pistol or for hunting small game- very small game. We find a lot of rat and squirrel bones in our trash… do you think they could be related?


Reading and learning about what we find is definitely fun- but if you want to see it for yourself, visit the Magazine and Guard House! The soldiers from the Virginia State Garrison Regiment love showing people how their muskets work, and you might even get to hear the boom for yourself!

~Katie Watkins



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