Grapeshot is a grizzly kind of cannon fodder possibly used as early as the 15th century and extensively as projectiles for naval and land artillery through the 18th and 19th centuries. Grapeshot consists of iron balls clustered together like grapes and wrapped in a canvas bag or stacked between metal discs secured together with a bolt. The balls scatter when fired, like a shotgun blast, inflicting severe damage to massed infantry, ships’ sails and rigging, and whatever else might be on the dangerous end of the barrel.
Grapeshot is not uncommonly found during metal detector surveys of Civil War, Revolutionary War, and War of 1812 battlefields in National Parks throughout the Southeast. But, like so many archeological finds, the secrets of today’s Artifact of the Week are to be found in the context of their discovery rather than their form and perceived function.
These specimens were recovered by SEAC archeologists, Meredith Hardy, Rusty Simmons, Michael Seibert, and Eric Bezemek during recent excavations at the Church of Our Lord Zaboeth, also known as the Steeple Building, at Christiansted National Historic Site (CHRI), St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, consecrated on May 27, 1753.
SEAC’s 2015 excavation supported Section 106 compliance for the removal of a 60-70 year old mahogany tree from the area of historic cisterns and a platform built ca. 1916-1925 for the hospital.
The SEAC team was assisted by CHRI staff, Student Conservation Association intern Akeem McIntosh and volunteers from the public.
During excavation, it was not clear how the grapeshot found its way into the archeological record. Was is deposited during or prior to the original 1750s construction or somehow during a substantial remodeling of the Church in 1842? Alternatively, was it displaced during the demolition and renovation in 1933 and 1957?
As part of the 1957 excavation and restoration, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) produced as-built drawings that noted the use of grapeshot in the fabric of the building itself!
In as much as the context of the grapeshot’s discovery and the details of the HABS drawings have shed light on the function of the artifacts as part of the structural fabric of the Steeple Building, more questions than answers emerge:
Where did this grapeshot come from? Was it made intentionally for use in construction? Did it come from a Danish military armory? Was it collected from a battlefield, shipwreck, or some other site? What purpose did it serve and was it successful? Is this practice seen with any regularity anywhere else?
The importance and potential of the objects alone need not necessarily be disregarded.There are a suite of tools available to archeologists for studying objects themselves. Simple measurements of an object’s dimensions can provide clues about its origins and use. For example, the caliber of a bullet might indicate the kind of gun that fired it. Metallography of the grapeshot might allow archaeologists to study the microstructure of the artifacts and determine how they were made. But that would require the partial destruction of one or more specimens.
Portable X-Ray Fluorescence (pXRF) is a relatively new, non-destructive technology employed by archeologists for quickly evaluating the elemental composition of an object. SEAC archeologist Michael Seibert successfully used pXRF to distinguish between Mexican and American ordnance found with metal detection at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park (PAAL). This information was used to reevaluate contemporary maps of the battlefield, map troops movements and positions, and to identify locations of specific landmarks and actions recorded in contemporary accounts of the battle. A pXRF analysis of the grapeshot from the Steeple Building might likewise be useful for testing hypotheses about where and how the grapeshot was made.
Hopefully, this Artifact of the Week sheds some light on the importance of context and multiple lines of evidence in archeology.