Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Diggin' in Virginia XXV: Brandy Rock Farm

This is part two of the recap of my 8 day detecting trip to Culpeper, VA.  Part one talked about our pre-hunt and Diggin' in Virginia XXIV at the Excelsior Brigade camps.  We had a one day break between DIV XXIV and XXV, so how else could we spend it?  We went metal detecting of course!  I went out to a site with some of my good friends, and while I ended up getting skunked on finds, I still had a lot of fun looking.  Almost everyone in our group found some Civil War relic, so I got to enjoy their finds as well as excellent company.

Then it was off to DIV XXV at Brandy Rock Farm.  The farm included part of the Battle of Brandy Station, as well as winter quarters from the Union 6th Corps during the winter of 1863 - 1864.  The property we detected didn't include the historic Farley House (also known as Welford House), but we were able to search many of the nearby fields and woods.  Farley was the headquarters for Union General John Sedgwick and Confederate General JEB Stewart, though obviously not at the same time!

Union General John Sedgwick and officers of the 6th Corps at Farley House, winter 1863 - 1864.

Day 1

The start of DIV XXV was a cold one!  With frost covering the frozen ground, we made our way out onto the farm.  I tried to start in a small patch of woods, but I wasn't the only one with that idea.  Between other detectorists and the briars, I didn't have much luck and didn't stay long.  Instead, I joined my friends Phil and Todd in a nearby field.  Todd was having some luck with a rare Confederate New Austrian bullet, and we all pulled out a few deep targets.  Unfortunately, given the depth of the relics in that field, the mineralization of the ground, and the taller grass I was struggling to hear the good targets.  While I did find a pair of three ring bullets in that area, I felt I could do better elsewhere and joined my friends Lanny and Lisa on a nearby hill.  Not fairing much better there, I continued to look for my "spot" where I could hunker down for the hunt.  I finally decided on the soybean field near the headquarters tent, home to a large Union 6th corp encampment.  The shorter crop field helped get my coil closer to the ground, and I did have some better luck.

Detecting in the soybean field at Brandy Rock Farm

Several large holes from 6th corp winter huts were starting to open up in the soybean field.  One of these was my friend Kieth, who got an impressive array of relics from below the plow line, including two complete bottles, bullets, buttons, clay pipes, and a canteen half.  I was thrilled to be able to watch him work.  I did get into one pit of my own, the signal coming from a complete barrel band.  While the hole was filled with considerable ash and even some larger pieces of broken glass, I only recovered one other relic from hole.  At first I thought it looked like modern plastic, but was quickly ID'ed by my friend Todd as a broken piece of a soldier's comb.  Sure enough, as I rubbed the dirt from the object I could see a maker's mark from the India Rubber Comb Company, Goodyears Patent May 6 1851.  The Goodyears patent refers to the rubber vulcanization process, developed by Charles Goodyear, namesake of Goodyear tires.  It would have probably been used for de-lousing, as body lice were a significant problem in Civil War camps.

Broken comb recovered from a hut on day one.

Day 2

I started off day 2 by following a group of friends to a spot where Brian had done well the day before.  But again the mineralized ground and taller grass had me struggling to hear the good signals.  Before long I wandered back up to a hill near the headquarters tent where I had some success at the end of the day before.  With my VLF detector unable to discriminate conductivity at depth in the hot soil, I instead relied on the pinpoint mode to pick out targets based on size and depth ratio.  What that also means, unfortunately, is digging square nails.  Lots and lots of square nails.  They weren't all nails though - some of those targets turned out to be bullets or other relics from the war.

A three ring Minie ball bullet comes into view.

I was pursuing another target right in a huge patch of iron, when I saw something exciting in the bottom of the hole.  A rounded edge standing straight up on end, with a green brass front and white lead back.  I had my finger crossed that it would be an accoutrement plate of some kind, although I resisted using the "p" word on camera so I didn't jinx it! I was elated when I finally pulled it from the ground to reveal a US cartridge box plate!  This makes my fifth Civil War plate find, three of which have come from DIV events.

The edge of the plate in the bottom of the hole.
US Cartridge Box Plate.

Soldiers during the war carried a leather pouch to hold their ammunition, known as a cartridge box.  A leather flap closed the box to keep out water and dirt, and the flap was kept closed by fastening it to a brass finial on the bottom of the box.  To help make sure the flap remained closed when it was unfastened, a large oval plate with a brass front and lead filled back was attached to weight it down.  The design I recovered was used by the Union army bearing the large letters "US" in the same style as the US belt plate.  The US box plate can be seen in use in the picture of this unidentified Union soldier below.

Unidentified Union soldier, wearing a cartridge box with a US box plate.

Day 3

Having success in the soybean field on the previous days, I decided to return for the third.  Once again I dug more than my share of nails, but several excellent relics as well.  I dug a thrilling "first" for me, a New York coat button.  In addition to being my first NY, it is in fact my first Union state button of any sort.  I also recovered an excellent carved bullet, most likely a chess piece.  This carved bullet was the nicest of several carved lead piece I recovered during the hunt. 

New York coat button, my first Union state, and an intricately carved bullet

Another highlight of the third day came when I stopped by a newly opening pit being dug out.  I introduced myself, and learned that the detectorist, Ed, had been digging huts in the area for many years.  He was kind enough to take his own precious detecting time to teach me some lessons in hut digging.  When we got to the bottom, we found the signal coming from an intact ration can, with little else but charcoal and animal bone in the hole.  Being an experience hut digger, Ed told me he had plenty of ration cans in his collection and offered it to me!  The kindness of the folks at DIV never ceases to amaze me.  There's a reason John and Rose refer to Diggin' in Virginia as a "family"!  The barbeque on day three was quite fun as always.  I love getting the chance to eat with my friends and see an impressive museum on display, freshly saved from beneath the earth.  We kept on swinging a coil until the sun was nearly set, hoping for that one last relic to save.  With darkness closing in, I climbed back into the truck to start the long journey back home to Saxapahaw.

Reflections on DIV XXV

This was my first time at Brandy Rock Farm, and it certainly did not disappoint!  Although the ground was some of the hottest I've come across yet, I still managed to find some great artifacts from the American Civil War.  My friends all made some great recoveries as well, especially Beau who racked up on bullets and Brian who recovered an amazing engraved corps badge.  The box plate was a welcome surprise in the hole, and one I will always fondly remember.  All of my finds from the three days at Brandy Rock can be seen below.

All my finds from DIV XXV

I would also like to share part two of my video footage from the week.  I hope you enjoy it as we watch a few relics come to the surface for the first time since they were lost or discarded 150 years ago.

The week in Virginia seemed to go by all too quickly, and although I was stiff and sore, I was sad for it all to end.  I want to take this time to thank John and Rose Kendrick and the DIV committee for giving me the opportunity to return to DIV; I am incredibly grateful.  All their hard work paid off with two highly successful back-to-back events, which seemed to go off without a hitch.  I would also like to thank Phil, Lanny, and Lisa for their hospitality during the week - it was a lot of fun getting to spend time with you between detecting.  Thanks to Todd and Brian in the carpool and all my DIV family for an amazing week of relic hunting.  Thank you to Sham and Randy for the break day hunt, even though I didn't find any relics, I found great memories!  Finally, thank you to my wonderful wife Emily and the VCS volunteers who made it possible for me to attend. 

I hope to have more finds to share with you all soon, but until then, thanks for reading and God Bless!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Diggin' in Virginia XXIV: The Excelsior Brigade

Hey everyone!!  I recently got back from 8 straight days of Civil War metal detecting - Diggin' in Virginia XXIV and XXV to be precise.  What a blast!  It was an honor and a privilege to be invited to attend both fall hunts this year.

The Pre-Hunt

The DIV event started with a pre-hunt meeting in the evening, so my friends Phil and Brian and I decided to take advantage of the daylight hours to detect a couple of sites on our own.  The first site we hit didn't produce much, just a single three ring bullet for me, but it turned out to be a cool one.  It's my first "swage base" bullet, identified by the spoke shaped indentations in the bullet's base.  The grooves were used to turn the bullet on a lathe in a unique manufacturing process.  After lunch we went off to a second site, where I did quite well on fired lead.  I managed 6 fired Confederate Gardner bullets, including another first for me, known as a "blow-through" Gardner.  A casting flaw in the bullet created weak points, causing the nose-end of the bullet to blown clean through from the force of firing.

Fired Confederate Gardner bullets, including a blow-through Gardner, from our pre-DIV dig.

After the pre- pre-hunt-meeting hunt (if you can follow that, haha!), we gathered in a Germana college lecture hall with some 200 relic hunters from all over the country to kick off DIV XXIV.  Here we had the chance to reconnect with one another, shop the various vendor tables, pick up ID badges, and learn about the two sites we were to search over the coming week.  I got to see many of the great friends I've made through DIV, many of whom I hadn't seen in person since the spring hunt.  The location of the site for DIV XXIV was a closely guarded secret, but was now finally revealed - the camp grounds of the New York Excelsior Brigade!

Image from a recruitment poster for the New York Excelsior Brigade

The Excelsior Brigade was raised in 1861 by General Daniel Sickles of New York, and was comprised of the 70th - 74th N.Y. and 120th N.Y. regiments.  The brigade saw significant combat, and General Sickles himself lost a leg to a cannonball (and earned a Congressional Medal of Honor) at the Battle of Gettysburg.  From the winter of 1863 - 1864, the Excelsior Brigade went into camp near Brandy Station, Virginia and it was here that we would spend the next three days searching for the artifacts they discarded or left behind.

Review of the 72nd - 74th New York, Excelsior Brigade
 Officers of the 70th and 72nd New York, Excelsior Brigade
Brandy Station, Virginia, October 1863
Dr. Charles K. Irwin, 72nd New York Infantry, Excelsior Brigade
Brandy Station Virginia, September 1863
Day 1

I started off on the first day of DIV XXIV by exploring the farm and trying to get a feel for the area.  I finally settled in to a little field by a creek with my friends Phil, Lanny, and Lisa, and each of us made some good finds in that spot.  Phil did quite well digging deep bullets with the GPX.  Lanny dug an amazing canteen spout, into which a particularly religious soldier carved a cross (one of my favorite finds of the entire week).  His wife Lisa made a great discovery of two kepi hat buttons in the same hole - probably the spot where a soldier's hat was left and only the brass buttons remained after 150 years.  My best personal finds in this spot included a canteen spout, a flattened eagle coat button, and a broken curb chain.  A curb chain is a short brass chain which attached to a horse bit to help control the horse, and it's something I've wanted to find for quite some time.  All in all, a fabulous day of detecting in weather that couldn't be beat.  We returned home tired and happy.

Curb chain fresh from the ground

Day 2

The vast majority of Day 2 saw me in a large field by the road.  It was obviously a camp area, and there was melted lead all over.  The field gave up quite a few bullets and some brass items, including a knapsack J hook and knapsack triangle hook.  I also found a dropped Confederate Gardner bullet near the edge of the field, which was a nice surprise.

My good friend Lanny detecting

Day 3

Day 3 started off with a bang, with several period targets in rapid succession.  I ended up spending the entire day in a very small area of the field just down the hill from the headquarters area.  The ground in this field was a lot less mineralized than in many areas around Brandy Station.  This was good news for me, as VLF detectors like mine often struggle in highly mineralized ground and eliminate any chance to discriminate good targets from iron trash.  I spent the first part of the morning picking out good-sounding targets, until I happened upon something interesting - a strip of barrel band pointing straight up at about a foot in depth.  Wooden barrels were used to transport many different types of goods, and were also often used as chimney stacks in winter camps.  When the soldiers left and the farmer reclaimed his fields for agriculture, the holes were simply filled in with all their contents.  Recognizing that I might be on to something, I called up my friend Phil to tell him of my discovery.

Opening the hole, and a piece of the barrel band that got me into it.

The Firebox

"It could just be nothing" he said.  "Definitely dig it out some more, and let me know if you start to see charcoal or ash."  I called him back shortly and said "How about a melted bullet further down?  Will that work?"  He quickly responded "I'll be right over!"

With the help of Phil and Todd, very good friends with much more hut experience than myself, we proceeded to carefully excavate.  What we discovered was a firebox, complete with brick and stone from the hearth, sections of barrel band from the chimney stack, and large pieces of animal bone from the soldier's meals.  It also included eight discarded bullets and broken fragments from several different bottles.  Three of these broken bottles had been embossed, including a mineral water and two others which are only complete enough to read "...& Co. / ... N.Y."

Finds from the fire box - barrel bands, animal bones, bricks, broken glass, and bullets.
 Several of the hearth stones from the fire box.

Finally, at the very bottom of the box where the disturbed earth gave way to the hard packed red clay, Phil's digging tool knocked away a section of the side wall to reveal the side of a glass bottle which had not seen the light of day in 150 years.  I carefully excavated the dark glass bottle to find it nearly complete - only the very top had been broken off, and this was most likely done by the soldier himself.

A Civil War bottle in the fire box.

The bottle is embossed with the words "Clarke & White / C / New York".  Clarke and White bottled mineral water from the naturally carbonated springs of Saratoga Springs, NY.  The large letter C in the center of the bottle denotes which specific spring (in this case the Congress Spring) the water was drawn from.  The water was bottled and sold for the minerals and dissolved gasses the springs contained, which were thought to have medicinal and curative properties.  I was thrilled to have recovered a New York bottle from the New York Excelsior camp.  I can't help but think of that soldier, away from home to fight in the war, receiving a bottle emblazoned with the name of his home state during that long winter of 1863-64 in Brandy Station, Virginia.  I am truly blessed to have found it, and I am very thankful to have been given the opportunity to recover it.

Clarke & White, New York mineral water bottle.

Reflections on DIV XXIV

I had an incredible time at the Excelsior Brigade camp, and I know there's still a lot more relics there to find.  The highlight, of course, would have to be digging out that bottle with my friends.  I also got to see many amazing finds at the picnic on the third day, one of my favorite parts of the DIV experience.  Several of these finds were specific to the Excelsior Brigade, including Chasseur de Vincennes buttons and shako hat plates and even a gold soldier ID ring!  Congratulations to those lucky diggers.  I was quite pleased with my own finds over the three days of DIV XXIV, shown here (minus the bottle).

My finds from the hunt excluding the bottle.

I also took quite a bit of video footage from both the pre-hunt and at DIV.  I find that taking a few moments to preserve these memories on camera is incredibly rewarding, and I am pleased to be able to share them with you here.

I do hope you enjoyed reading about this phase of my trip.  To say I was exhausted would be an understatement, but I was only half way there.  Between the break day and DIV XXV, I still had 4 more days of digging to go.  Stay tuned to Detecting Saxapahaw to read about my finds over the next few days at Brandy Rock Farm!  And as always, thanks for reading and God Bless!

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Wax Bullet Mystery

Hey Everyone!  I went out once again this past weekend to the same picket post from my last blog entry.  It was H-O-T out for October, and the ground was still dry as a bone.  Despite the unfavorable conditions, I still managed a few more Civil War bullets from the same general area.  The landowner suggested I try another part of the farm towards the end of the day, and I recovered one more three ring Minie bullet there on the way out.  That area will certainly be worth a more thorough search in the future.  I also found a brass tack rivet and a large iron spoon bowl, which may or may not be of the period.


I did have a bit of a surprise while I was cleaning up my finds for the day.  The vast majority of Minie ball bullets have a plain conical cavity base.  Some bullets, however, have special markings inside the base cavity from the bullet making machines from specific manufacturing locations.  Regular readers may recall the star-base Washington Arsenal bullets I recovered at DIV XIX and DIV XXII, the 57 base Enfield bullet I dug at the RRRHA Mine Run hunt, or the US base bullet I won in the token contest from that same hunt.

While I didn't find any base stamps in any of the bullets from this weekend, I did discover something very peculiar about one of them while cleaning out the base.  It appears the base of this particular bullet has been filled with some sort of wax!  I've honestly never seen anything like it.  The best guess I have is that one of those soldiers was passing time in camp 150 years ago, and filled the base of this bullet with candle or sealing wax.  We'll probably never know exactly why, but it's an intriguing mystery and a very unique relic.  Artifacts with a personal connection to the soldiers are always my favorite to find, and I feel very fortunate to have recovered this one.  As always, thanks for reading Detecting Saxapahaw and God bless!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Civil War Lead and Colonial Puzzle Pieces

I recently obtained permission to hunt a new Civil War site, so I invited my friend Phil to go check it out with me.  The general area was along a strategic crossroads leading to major river ford, and saw significant activity during the war.  Somewhere nearby is a camp used by thousands of Union cavalrymen on their way to battle.  The property we were searching was comprised of picturesque green pastures and rolling hills.  The landowner's horses ran about us, manes flowing in the cool autumn breeze.  The more curious ones came to investigate the newcomers to their paddock.  It was all very serene, and I couldn't think of a better place to spend a morning looking for some history with a good friend.

While we weren't able to locate the main cavalry camp, the property we were searching was most likely home to a smaller picket, or advance guard post.  Extremely dry conditions and other complicating factors made for difficult detecting, but we still both managed a handful of nice relics.  We recovered a total of twelve Civil War bullets over the course of a few hours in the field.  Most were standard three ring Minie balls, but Phil recovered a round musket ball and one particularly neat carved Sharps carbine bullet.


This particular bullet has been hammered at the nose, and a hole drilled cleanly through.  This was done by a soldier to use the lead bullet as a fishing weight, and examples of bullet-weights are not uncommon for Civil War river detectorists.  They are much less common to find on land, though!  What a great find!

Phil also found the odd shaped piece of brass in the same photo later in the day.  What is it?  Phil correctly ID'ed it in the field as the chape (part of the inner workings) from a colonial era shoe or knee buckle.  It's important to remember that roads used by soldiers were around long before the war.  It isn't at all uncommon to find colonial era relics scattered in with Civil War era ones, particularly around old roads and homes.

Some readers may recall back in April I recovered a fragmented piece of a colonial shoe or knee buckle, and lamented that I had not yet found a complete frame.  One of my first recoveries today happened to be this complete colonial era knee buckle frame, likely predating the War between the States by 50-100 years.  While researching images of complete knee buckles for this post, I happened across a picture showing an almost identical knee buckle with a chape that matches the one Phil recovered.  It was only then that I put the pieces together in my mind - we had both found parts of the same buckle!  Only the prongs remain to be found, and we hope to look for them on a return trip sometime in the future.  In the interest of preservation, the frame and chape will be reunited the next time Phil and I get together.

I really couldn't have asked for a better day out relic hunting.  Thanks so much to Phil for coming out, it's always more fun to share the experience with a friend.  Thanks also to the generous landowners for allowed us the opportunity to detect.  I'm extremely grateful for the beautiful weather, the good finds, and the chance to share that experience with all of you.  Once again, until next time, thanks for reading and God Bless!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Back to Basics - Detecting a Snow Camp Homesite

The last several months have been full of changes in my personal and professional life, leaving precious little time for the long distance full-day detecting trips I was able to go on last year.  So last week I got "back to basics" in the way I began relic hunting - searching old homesites in Alamance County.  I was invited by DS reader Mike to search an old homeplace in Snow Camp with him.  Built in the 1840's, now only the building's tall chimney stacks remain in a grassy field.

My favorite find of the day was this large flat button in excellent condition, with the shank still attached and standing straight.  Buttons of this type were typical of clothing in the early to mid 1800's.  Markings on the back often indicated the button manufacturer or the quality of the gilding applied to the button.  This button has a clear backmark reading simply "GILT", meaning the button once had a thin coating of gold when it was new to make it shiny and bright.  I always enjoy finding flat buttons, and this one is a very nice example of a typical mid 19th century button.

Towards the end of our short hunt I got a strong signal that kept going down, down, down.  Black charcoal indicated the presence of a fire-pit.  With Mike's help we were able to unearth the original signal - a simply massive iron pot lid!  Note the modern penny in the picture for size reference!

A number of smaller metal and non-metal targets surfaced from the pit as well.  These included pieces of broken crockery and china, the neck from a small glass bottle, several square nails, and a silver washed copper disc.  I suspect that this may be a pocket watch back, although I'm not entirely sure.  One of the most useful item for dating the time-frame of the original burn pit was an intact bullet and casing.  I am fairly certain that it is a 22 LR, which would date the pit to absolutely no earlier than the development date of that round in 1887.  The 22 LR is still incredibly popular, and is the most common bullet in terms of units sold to this day.  I'm still not entirely sure how old the fire-pit is, but I would guess somewhere in the early 1900's.  We barely scratched the surface before it was time to get back to work - perhaps you'll see an update someday if we decide to go back and dig it out properly.  Thanks for the invite, Mike, and for a fun day out saving some history!

I have a few interesting relic hunts planned for the fall, so with any luck I should have some more cool finds to show you soon.  I was also recently selected to attend the Fall 2013 "Diggin' in Virginia" events in November of this year.  Regular readers will recognize the name, but for those who don't, DIV is an invitational relic hunt and gathering at well documented Civil War camp sites in Northern Virginia.  Which reminds me - I finally completed video editing for DIV's XXII and XXIII.  Check it out below!  And as always, thanks for reading and God Bless!

Friday, September 20, 2013

How old is "old"?

Last weekend was my 30th birthday.  I kept joking that this was the year I turned "officially old".  Just a few short years ago I was rocking my twenties, and now here I am at the big three-oh.  How time flies.  It's fitting, then, that I put time into sharp relief for this milestone year with a different kind of collecting trip for something REALLY old.

My oldest definitively date-able find so far is a large US penny, known as a "Liberty Cap" cent.  Although the date is worn smooth, the size and style place its manufacture in either 1795 or 1796.  My oldest man-made object is a Native American stone projectile point, found by eye while metal detecting.  Known as a Guilford point, it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 4000 years old.  For perspective, that's right around when the Pyramids of Egypt were under construction.  Now that's old!  And yet, it's a drop in the bucket compared to my weekend finds.  My brother Tim and his wife Beth took me out on one of their collecting adventures to look for fossils going back 55 MILLION years.  Maybe 30 isn't so bad after all!

Using a combination of sifting, chiseling, and scanning by eye we collected several different types of fossils from the Paleocene era along the banks of the Potomac River in Maryland.  There was a narrow strip of beach at low tide (and none at all when the tide came in) butting up against a fossil rich deposit known as the Aquia Formation.  It's highly illegal to dig into the side of the cliff for reasons of erosion control and property rights, but anything that erodes out from the cliff face is fair game.  Several large recently-fallen chunks of the cliff face lay on the beach, with mollusk and gastropod fossils clearly exposed.  The sand of the beach contained many thousands of fossils which had previously eroded out into the river.

By far the most common finds for all of us were shark teeth ray teeth (referred to as "plates").  Most of the shark teeth were from various species of sand tiger sharks or the extremely funny-looking goblin shark.  The more interesting teeth included a few from either Otodus or Cretolamna, Beth's angel shark tooth, and Tim's massive 2 inch ray plate.  Beth found several fossilized bone fragments, though it's impossible to say what they may have come from.  Tim found a small piece of fossilized turtle shell.  Any my favorite find was a fossilized crocodile tooth!  Can you imagine a croc in the Potomac river nowadays?

Thanks again to Tim and Beth for taking me out fossil hunting with them. Check out the video below for some live-action shots and additional images.  Oh yea, and I've been out metal detecting since then too, but you'll have to wait for another blog post for that one.  Thanks for reading, and God Bless!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Durham Cannonball Drama (Part 2)

Last week I posted about a Civil War cannonball, recently recovered by a Durham homeowner, which was destroyed by the city's bomb squad.  I ended by mentioning that it’s possible that what was found and destroyed wasn’t even a cannonball at all!  This may seem like a bold claim, but there are some discrepancies in the news stories that I will point out below to support this hypothesis.

First, let’s talk about the probability that it is the real deal.  As regular readers of this blog probably know, more than 100,000 soldiers fought, marched, and camped in central North Carolina at the end of the war in 1865.  Bennett Place, the site of the largest surrender of Confederate troops during the war, is just a few miles from where the cannonball was found.  It’s certainly not out of the question that a cannonball could be found in the area.  On the other hand, there have been many millions of similar sized iron balls created in the United States that have absolutely no relation to artillery projectiles.  The most common non-cannonball use for these iron spheres would be mill balls, used in a large rotating cylinder to crush and grind material such as raw ore.  Other uses of large iron spheres include fence fixtures, steam engine governors, shot-puts, and crane counter-weight balls to name a few.  Many even have threaded holes (such as filled shot-puts) that can resemble fuse holes in an exploding shell.

(Left)  While they bear a resemblance to solid shot cannonballs, these are steel mill balls used for grinding in cement mills.  (Right) Iron balls are used in a centrifugal force governor to control the speed of a steam engine.  Photo credit here.

Identifying the fuse in the cannonball would be able to identify it as ordinance definitively.  Unfortunately, while several articles on the Durham cannonball mention a fuse, there are no images of the ball before detonation and no mention of the recovering the fuse afterwards.  Without a fuse, the next best way to ID a cannonball would be extremely accurate measurements of the ball’s diameter and weight.  Manufactured ordinance had to meet very exact size standards in order to enter and be fired from the cannon’s barrel safely.  If an iron ball deviates from the measurements in the known ordinance shot tables, it is incredibly unlikely that it was ever intended as a cannonball.  Once again, though, the diameter of the Durham ball isn’t listed in any of the articles I have seen.

Next we’ll look at the weight of the ball.  The Durham bomb squad reported that the shell was a “6 pounder Bormann fused ball".  While the Herald Sun reports that the name refers to the weight of the powder charge, this is incorrect.  The “6 pound” refers to the weight of a solid cast iron cannonball of the diameter used in that gun.  A fused cannonball is not solid, however, and includes a hollowed out cavity filled with lead or iron balls, gunpowder, and a packing matrix.  According to the Ridgeway Reference Archive, a fused 6 pounder ball typically weighs between 4 and 5 pounds.  The Durham bomb squad reported that the recovered ball weighed “about 6 pounds”, but that reported weight is inconsistent with a cannonball with a fuse.  This could be a misstatement by police or a misinterpretation by reporters, but without a more accurate measurement of the cannonball’s weight prior to detonation, we can’t use this method for ID either.

This is a cross-section of the so-called "cannonball" detonated by the Durham bomb squad last month.  The photograph is from the Durham Sheriff's Department via the News and Observer.

What we do have, however, is a cross section of the ball after the controlled detonation.  We can see here a cylindrical hole running through an otherwise solid ball.  Compare this to the cross-section of an authentic Bormann fused 6 pound ball below.  The central “hole” in the Durham ball bears no resemblance to the spherical powder chamber of an authentic 6 pounder shell.  Neither opening in the Durham ball matches with the distinct cross-section of the Bormann fuse hole.  The differences are striking.  Artillery expert Peter George, who has disarmed shells for the National Parks Service and literally wrote the book on Civil War artillery, had this to say:  “Absolutely no cannonballs had a tunnel going all the way through the iron body.”

Now this is the cross-section of a 6-pounder Bormann fused ball.  Note the significant differences from Durham "cannonball" above.  Photo from the Ridgeway Reference Archive.

I’m not an expert, and wouldn’t claim to be, but it appears to me that what was presented as the Durham “cannonball” probably isn’t.  Or, at the very least, there are a few too many discrepancies and unanswered questions for my liking.  Sadly, we will probably never know the answer – the Durham police didn’t return the fragments of the “cannonball” to their finder.  the truth behind this mystery appears to have gone up in smoke!

Until next time, thanks for reading, and God Bless!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Durham Cannonball Drama (Part 1)

Hey everyone!  First of all, let me apologize for being slow on posting.  This summer in NC has been hot, wet, and extremely busy with personal and professional obligations.  Crops are in fields and the woods are overgrown, so it's been tough to get out much.  I'm looking forward to the fall for sure!  Okay, now on to the good stuff.

Several readers have sent me local news articles about a cannonball recently unearthed by a homeowner doing yard work on his property on Main Street in Durham.  The story goes that the owner, Michael Jacobs, tried to sell the artillery projectile to an antique dealer, who informed him that the potentially live ordinance was dangerous and refused to touch it.  Jacobs then called the Durham police, who used a controlled detonation to destroy the intact cannonball, splitting it in two.

The Durham cannonball, image from WRAL

The problems I have with this story are twofold.  First, I’d like to address the unnecessary destruction of this Civil War ordinance.  Post war artillery, including WWI and WWII artillery, can be extremely sensitive to handling when discovered after many years in the ground.  I would never recommend handling them in any way, and call authorities immediately!  Civil War ordinance, on the other hand, is generally much more stable.  I have watched live Civil War shells being excavated in person, and held them in my own hands.  While I have recovered solid shot artillery in the past (which contains no powder charge), I hope that someday I do find a complete shell!

Live ordinance dug at the RRRHA Mine Run Hunt.

So are CW shells completely safe to handle?  In some cases the black powder inside the shell can still be very much alive.  In others, water seeping inside the shell can cause a breakdown of the powder into hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen gas, which are also explosive.  So make no mistake about it – while simple handling isn’t going to set it off, it’s still a bomb.  Even though you'd have to be doing something incredibly stupid to make it go off (like subjecting it to high heat or trying to drill into it yourself), it should still be disarmed as soon as possible.

The Durham police chose to “disarm” the bomb by blowing it up.  While I appreciate that they were acting out of an abundance of caution, I do think it’s a shame to needlessly damage an object of such historical relevance when other options are available.  Many CW shells had paper or wood fuses which have rotted out long ago, exposing the powder chamber.  Disarming is as simple as flushing the powder chamber thoroughly with water.  For solid fused shells, the shell can still be disarmed by a trained professional with the right experience and equipment.  This will require drilling into the powder chamber, which can be EXTREMELY dangerous if done wrong, so please DO NOT try it yourself.  I really can't stress that enough.  The heat of the drill bit can be enough to set off a live shell, so the process should always be done slowly using a remote drill press and a water cooling system.  There are professional relic experts who can do this process safely and at a reasonable price.


Is it even a cannonball?  Stay tuned to find out why I think this iron sphere may not be a cannonball after all! UPDATE:  Read Part 2 here!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A good day in the woods

Hey everyone!  I went out today with my friend Lanny, aka CoinWhisperer.  The weather was beautiful for a walk through the woods!  The site we were detecting is in the area of an river old mill in central North Carolina, with settlement going back to the late 1700's.  Previous detection combined with a thick layer of iron targets in the ground made for difficult detecting conditions, but we still managed to eek out a few keepers.

CoinWhisperer must have worked his magic, because the first good find of the day turned out to be this "pocket-spill", a term detectorists use to describe a number of coins found together in one hole or in a very small area.  It consisted of three wheat pennies and two mercury dimes ranging from 1909 to 1928.  I was hoping for the more rare "VBD" variant of the 1909 wheat penny, but alas this is my second 1909 plain.  These coins were a bit more modern than what we were looking for, but I'll never turn down some silver from the ground!

The next cool find is probably one of my most unique discoveries ever!  It appears to be some sort of claw clutching an egg, and I believe it is likely the top for a cane or walking stick.  I have no idea how old it is, but I think it's a really neat recovery to say the least!  I'm quite happy to have found it.

My favorite find for the day, though, is this small broken piece of brass.  It may not look like much, but it's something I've never found before and always wanted to.  This broken piece came from a colonial era knee buckle or shoe buckle frame from the 1700's! 

It would have originally been a complete oval frame with a tongue and chape attached inside to close the buckle.  These buckles were viewed as decorative jewelry, and often support intricate designs such as the floral design shown here.  Below is a portrait by Ralph Earl from 1790 showing a man with both knee and shoe buckles clearly depicted.  I have always wanted to dig a colonial buckle - now I just need to find a complete example.  Maybe next time!

Last but not least, I finally got the video edited from the RRRHA Mine Run hunt.  Check it out, and I hope you enjoy!