Artifact of the Week: Lead Ball

Two views of our Artifact of the Week, a lead ball that appears to have been chewed by human teeth. Cinnamon Bay, St. John Islands, Virgin Islands National Park. SEAC Accesssion 156
Civil war surgeons kit: a box of reasons to bite the bullet? Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Quadell.

“Bite the bullet.” If you’ve never heard this phrase then you’ve probably lived a charmed life. The idiom generally refers to enduring something difficult, unpleasant, or painful, and unavoidable. Its etymology usually involves a military inevitability or unpleasantry.

For example, it is often suggested that patients undergoing surgery without anesthesia (i.e. wounded soldiers in the field) were given a bullet to clench between their teeth as a way to cope with extreme pain. Other sources associate the expression with the mid-nineteenth century British phrase “refused to bite the cartridge” referring to native Indian soldiers who mutinied during Indian Rebellion of 1857. In this case, “biting the cartridge” refers to biting open a paper cartridge containing a lead ball and gun powder to load a rifle. The British army in the mid-nineteenth century greased their cartridges with pork or beef fat to keep them dry. Consuming pork is forbidden in Islam and consuming beef forbidden in Hindusim. It has been suggested that these matters of religious freedom directly influenced the Mulsim and Hindu soldiers’ refusal to bite the cartridge, and the punishment they received for their disobedience led to the military mutiny that precipitated the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

sepoy rifle load from guns_dot_com
Rifle loading instructions for Indian soldiers. Step 1 shows a soldier “biting the cartridge.”

Our Artifact of the Week wasn’t found in India but the West Indies. 

It is a lead ball that may have been chewed by human teeth

recovered in 1964 during  power line and water line installation at Cinnamon Bay, St. John Island at Virgin Islands National Park.

Another view of the chewed lead ball.

Unfortunately, some of the provenience data has been lost and the sampling procedure is unknown (Hanson 1969). A brass side plate for a musket was recovered from the same trench and the caliber of the ball is in the general vicinity of a musket ball. Another lead ball was found with a hole bored through it possibly to be used as fishing weight.

Two views of a lead ball with a hole through it also recovered durin gthe 1964 trench excavation at Cinnamon Bay, St. John Island, Virgin Islands National Park.
Source: Wikipedia

Were lead balls used as some sort of toxic, makeshift confection? Not likely. Lead poisoning may be one of the oldest known hazards of its kind. The ancient Romans knew that lead was toxic. Yet they used lead acetate or so-called sugar of lead as a food sweetener.   However, a soldier in the 1777 Battle of Walloomsac, New York wrote that he chewed a bullet to promote salivation (Sivilich 2016:109).

Of course, maybe the ball wasn’t chewed by a human being at all. Many lead balls chewed by rodents, pigs, and even deer have been found on battlefields. In some cases, the shape of the markings on the ball are a clue to the kind of animal that did the chewing (Sivilich 2016:102). For example, deer teeth can leave a horseshoe shaped pattern of impressions. Rodents often leave long parallel grooves from their incisors. Wild and domestic swine may leave markings similar to those made by human teeth but the size and depth of the impressions are usually greater. In fact, swine can flatten lead balls with their powerful jaw muscles, sometimes swallowing and partly digest them.

Battlefield archaeologist Daniel M. Sivilich conducted several experiments in which he chewed musket balls cast from lead alloy and 99.9 percent pure lead using different teeth. While this kind of procedure is not recommended given the dangers of lead poisoning, his results suggest that some lead balls were chewed by people.


Interested in learning more about historic ammunition?

Check out Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification: A Guide (Sivilich 2016) featuring the work of SEAC’s very own Michael Seibert. Chapter 7 is devoted to chewed musket balls.

Though hardly more than speculation, it is possible that the military artifacts from the trenches at Cinnamon Bay found their way into the archeological record during the 1733 African revolt. Briefly, the 1730s were particularly volatile in the social and environmental history of St. John Island.

1848 notice of emancipation (Danish National Archives).

Marronage, the self-emancipation of enslaved Africans by running away, was especially high. Attempting to suppress marronage, the Danish government instituted extremely brutal methods for punishing disobedience among enslaved Africans and maroons. In 1733, drought, two hurricanes, and insect plagues decimated island crops and fresh water supplies dwindled. Combined, these developments strained inherently taut relations between Dutch planters and enslaved Africans.

Among the St. John maroons were African royalty, noblemen and women, and wealthy merchants who had been captured as prisoners of war and sold to Danish slavers in the 1730s. The revolt is believed to have been orchestrated by several these enslaved aristocrasts – Bolombo, an Adambe king, Aquashi, an Aquambo prince, and Kanta, an Amina nobleman. After a six month standoff, the rebellion was defeated by French and Danish soldiers, slaves from other islands, and a militia of free creoles. The abolition of slavery in the Dutch West Indies and the emancipation of enslaved Africans would not happen until 1848.

 This is the second post on uniquely used military artifacts from Virgin Islands National Park.

Check out the first: Grapeshot from Christiansted.


Video and other info about archeology at Cinnamon Bay from the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park

Explore the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park blog!


Sivilich, Daniel M.

2016 Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification: A Guide. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman.

Hanson, Lee H., Jr.

1969 A Study of the Artifacts Recovered from Two Construction Trenches Through the Cinnamon Bay Site, St.John Island, Virgin Islands National Park. Manuscript on file at the Southeast Archeological Center, Tallahassee, Florida.


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