Military

Archaeologist as a war historian – writing a history

About a year ago I wrote about my situation as a conflict archaeologist:

http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/working-hard-or-hardly-working/

Year 2016 is a bad one for archaeologists in Finland. I have applied for several jobs without success. For example there were total of 21 applicants for one two week job as basic diggers and the chosen ones had worked as assistant researchers for years in the same archaeological unit.

I wasn’t depressed, though, because during year 2015 I managed to get few funds to start writing a book about a Finnish communication unit during Continuation War (1941 – 1944). Trouble was that none was willing to pay the whole sum I applied for, but from few sources I managed to get enough to get started. Currently I’m finishing the script. First rule of writing: no matter how much time you think you need to finish the script, it’s never enough! It always takes more time than you thought it would.

History of a military unit, as written by an archaeologist

The unit I´m writing about is Viestipataljoona 33 (short form VP 33), which could be translated as Field Communications Battalion 33. Unit differs from basic infantry or artillery units in several ways. This makes the job much more difficult. Field Communication units used a variety of equipment, most of which says nothing to even most enthusiastic war historians. Very little has been written about Finnish Army’s communications during the war, so the book will be a pioneer work of one sort.

 

Inside a radio car, which was captured from Russians. I have no idea what I'm looking at. Some sort of radio equipment?

Inside a radio car, which was captured from Russians. I have no idea what I’m looking at. Some sort of radio equipment, of course, but what exactly? Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

 

To further make the task more difficult, I am writing the book during time, when most of the war veterans have passed away or are usually too old and fragile to give any info by interviewing them. I have to rely mostly on archive material, war diaries and correspondence. This is as much a opportunity as a challenge. Because I have to write mostly using material that was created during the war I get a pretty good picture of the intentions of the members of the battalion. If I use material which is made after the war I get a lot of hindsight and of course even fabricated memories.

An archaeologist writing about a history of military unit? Does that even work? I believe that as an archaeologist I don´t write about war history in a better or worse way than war historians. Archaeologists write differently. Archaeologists pay attention to different things than war historians. Usually the war historians make maps that show blue, red, black and white arrows that go zigzag in the map against different set of lines in certain time frame. Individuals brought to readers are often those, who showed bravery and valor in combat and their deeds are explained in detail. That is of course important and interesting, but I’m more interested in how the soldiers lived. As an archaeologist I pay great detail into how the men tried to improve their living conditions, what sort of tasks were they interested in doing and what sort of labor was hated or even neglected. How did the soldiers react to changes? How did they respond to propaganda? How did the feelings towards war change during the long Continuation war?

 

Lotta.

A Finnish volunteer member of Lotta Svärd, a lotta, is working with a switchboard. Nearly 20 to 25% of Finnish signal corps were women, Viestilottas (Communication Lotta’s). They were irreplaceaple and received credit as hard working, motivated and professional members of battalion. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

As a unit, I’m interested in how the Field Communications Battalion 33 acted as an organization. Did it work? How were the men lead? Were there differences between the three companies and HQ in battalion? How was the battalion made better – or worse – during the war as an organization? Did the unit do something else besides building and maintaining communications? Was there sand in the machine?

For example the 2nd Companys (a phone company, which build phone lines) war diary shows, that during fighting in summer of 1941 the whole Company was suddenly put to alert because the Russians might succeed in their attack in front lines and the men might have to be put to counterattack. During the wait for new orders Commanding Officer wrote into the official diary of the unit “Company commander started smoking after half a year break.” One humorous line in otherwise serious and official material told everything about the stress the unit was under.

Another example about differences in the battalion was that First and Third Companies get their men from countryside. Second Company got its men from Turku, a city. This made big divides in the unit since the farmers got holidays more frequently and they were usually prolonged because the men were needed during times the fields had to be ploughed and the grain sowed, and finally in the end of summer they got holidays for harvesting. This meant that the town residents got holidays less frequently and they were for shorter times. This had great impact on morale.

Most important things that I study in detail which other than archaeologists might ignore are the material conditions under which the men lived. I have especially studied trench art and I have a pretty good picture, what was manufactured and when and why during the war in this battalion. There were interesting changes during the war and of course there are the pieces of trench art that were made of forbidden materials like aluminium, which was direly needed in war industry. This kind of trench art was done in secret.

 

A wooden casket, made in 1942 or 1943 as trench art. The casket is rather big and on top of it there are two cancing bear figures.

A wooden casket, made in 1942 or 1943 as trench art. The casket is rather large. The caskets figures might contain a visual joke: the lid of the casket is round like a hill and on top of it two bears are posing or dancing. The object was made in the conquered city of Karhumäki, which literally means “bear hill” which explains the looks of this beautifully carved object. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

I’m also interested in the ways men fulfilled basic needs of a human being: food, light, warmth, cover. In almost primitive conditions, especially during winter it was no easy task to get these things and they definitively weren’t taken for granted. Some times over 80% of the men were used for months to chop firewood. Out of four platoons in a company maybe only one platoon could be used for working with building and maintaining phone lines.

 

The most important building in every Finnish unit: a sauna. Men showed ingenuity and effort to make proper saunas. Thanks to these facilities, Finnish army didn't suffer from typhus because the heat in sauna killed the lice. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

The most important building in every Finnish unit: a sauna. Men showed ingenuity and effort to make proper saunas. Thanks to these facilities, Finnish army didn’t suffer from typhus because the heat in sauna killed the lice. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

 

Woodchopping.

Chopping wood in Karhumäki. Demand for wood as source of fuel for warming tents and houses and to keep power plants running was constant. Members of Field Battalion 33 are chopping wood in Karhumäki (in Russia) during 1942. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

 

Food also showed another interesting divide in the battalion: the farmers got often packages which included food. According to one letter  such a package was lost in train and arrived after 2½ months. The food stuff was mostly spoiled, but pretty good frying grease was made out of a ham – after several layers of mold were cut off from top of it. The cities were of course at the mercy of rationing, but they could send one good that was actually unofficial currency: tobacco. With it the town residents could trade food, play cards etc.

I’m also interested in innovations, new ideas and inventions that were made in the unit. I try to write down meticulously about the new communication equipment the battalion received. Unit gave constant feedback about the equipment they were using: some was judged as unnecessary, some was badly designed. There were several mentions of inventions, but unfortunately they weren’t described in detail. For example there are few notes about new ways to bring phone lines into switchboards and alarming systems installed into switchboards, but sadly no instructions of how they were actually made were written down. Bummer!

New and old technology. Farrier, the blacksmith in charge of horses, is using a wheelstone powered by diesel engine. Al equipment had to be very mobile, because the men had to move freguently. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

New and old technology. Farrier of the battalion, the blacksmith in charge of making and putting shoes for horses, is using a forge which also uses a diesel engine. All equipment had to be very mobile, because the men had to move frequently. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

Of course when it comes to basic needs you might ask “WHAT ABOUT SEX?” Well, sexuality and sex weren’t of course written down in detail during 1940’s but a human being is a human being, so of course the question of sexual needs existed. When interviewing one veteran I asked him, what were the usual topics in everyday discussion. “Pussy and it’s endurance” the man replied. This is of course the unofficial documentation of the subject. One of the army’s field magazine wanted feedback from the army and the Battalion Commander and officer in charge of moral replied in official feedback “In every single magazine there should be pictures of pretty girls!!!” So there you have it. I haven’t found anything interesting for queer archaeologists, in case readers are wondering.

Material culture, living conditions, consumption, innovations, inventions… all these are basic archaeological questions when trying to understand past cultures. As an archaeologist I find myself asking myself time after time: what sort of material remains could I find, if I dug in places mentioned in war diaries, personal diaries and letters and so on? How would I interpret it? What sort of remains could a power plant made out of ancient locomobile leave behind after it’s evacuation? How would I interpet the effects of intensive recycling of all sorts of material? I managed to find the locations of the garbage yards near the unit, when they stayed in the conquered city of Karhumäki, but digging them (they are in Russia) is out of question. What sort of tale would those garbage yards tell about Field Communications Battalion 33?

Riku Kauhanen

Conflict archaeologist

Master of Arts (Archaeology, University of Turku, Finland 2012 and folkloristics, University of Turku, Finland 2014)

Photos are from the collections of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

Finding the American Revolution in New York State

New York State was the location of many violent battles and skirmishes during the American Revolution.  Campaigns, such as the British invasion of New York City and Long Island (1776), the Burgoyne Campaign (1777), and the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign (1779) scorched New York’s landscape.  Raids and skirmishes also divided communities pitting Loyalists against American friends and families.  The British and American’s call for Native American groups, such as the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), to choose a side led to a civil war within the Iroquois Confederacy.  The impact of the conflict was felt immediately in the loss of homes and lives; these impacts lasted well beyond the end of the war.

The Public Archaeology Facility has conducted studies of Revolutionary War battles associated with both the Burgoyne and Sullivan-Clinton Campaigns.  These studies have helped to remap these battlefields by determining the boundaries’ of battlefields and identify landscape features associated with the battles.  The ultimate goal of this research is to better comprehend the experience of those involved in the American Revolution in New York State.  We hope that our research can be used to preserve these battlefields and provide the public with an understanding of the conflict.

Our studies begin with extensive research of historic documents.  To identify the location of the battlefield and its landscape features we review the writings or oral histories of a battle’s combatants.  Journals, official reports, letters, and veteran pension applications can all provide valuable information for us.  Although sometimes mentioned incidentally in these documents, references to landscape features, such as roads, villages, mountains, and rivers, provide us with valuable information on where battle related actions took place.  In a way, combatants tell us where they were during the battle and how they used the battlefield’s landscape.

Loyalist John Butler

Letter by Loyalist John Butler

We map this historic data using a Geographic Information System or GIS allowing us to perform various analyses and comparisons of data.  We overlay historic maps and accounts of the battle onto present day maps to determine where the battle occurred and what remains of the battlefield.  We refine the locations of battlefield features using viewshed and range of fire analyses.  This information is used to conduct a military terrain analysis of the battlefield.  We can identify how combatants used a portion of the battlefield- a path to advance or retreat, a place to seek cover or concealment, an observation post, an obstacle that restricted advance, or a post to defend or take.  Taken together, these pieces of the landscape provide us with the battlefield’s boundaries and multi-scale view of how the battle unfolded.

Range of Fire

Range of Fire Analysis

With a GIS map to guide us, we perform a systematic inventory or survey of battlefield features.  The identification of musket and rifle balls and personal belongings of soldiers tells us that the battlefield’s landscape and the material remains of the battle are still intact.  We can also use the locations of these material remains to better determine troop positions and movements.

 

Survey

Archaeologist Conducting Systematic Survey

Rifle balls

Fired and Unfired Rifle Balls and Buckshot

The historical background and the results of archaeological investigation provide a basis for preserving the battlefield.  Working with local groups and descendent communities, we can present the history of the battle to the public with presentations, signage, or digital media.  This information can also help to advise agencies and developers on how best to avoid impacts to the battlefield so that the history of the American Revolution can be seen by future generations.

Just Another Day, Sort Of

Well this is my first year of joining in with Day of Archaeology, (and first time of writing a blog); being an independent archaeological consultant (posh name for a small company), I thought I would actually give an idea of how the day panned out, the good the bad and the ugly, rather than a more bland “we do this, we do that” report.

The Morning Session

This morning I was on a watching brief, which can be highly exciting or highly frustrating, and sometimes darn-right odd.  At least on this brief, I was only going to be needed for about three hours as long as nothing was found as the site was in a small backyard.  Now though it is commendable that a watching brief was added as a building condition, the desktop and local knowledge indicated that there would be nothing to find.

However, it was also somewhat complicated by the building contractor, who is obsessive when it comes to health and safety, full and complete personal protective equipment will be worn at all times whilst on site, and that applies to everyone, with no exceptions…….and that included the dog!

Now very much as expected on this site the trench went in, and all that was exposed was previous disturbed ground, dating from the days the estate was built (1960’s), so measurements taken, photos taken, quick drawing made, and then homeward bound.  I’ll write this on up this evening, as it will be very much a ‘template’ job.

Don’t get me wrong, I like those with absolutely nothing in, but I love those that yield finds, or give indications to our past, that is when I come into my own and have no compunction into taking as long as I can, which can miff a builder off.

The Afternoon Bit

Well this afternoon was going to be a bit unusual anyway, as I have picked up a commission to produce eleven consolidated information sets for Iron Age sites in the county I live in.  The sites are small, some have been excavated in the past, some have not, some have been written about, other have not, but what all having common is that they are never accessible by the public, as they all lie within a restricted military training area.

OK I hear you saying this is just a standard desktop assessment, but in this case it is more much more, it is a consolidation of all known archaeological, environmental and historical information on the site, from the time it was first recorded through to modern times, which unfortunately due to the location of the sites, means the damage to them.  I am lead to understand that if I get these right then I will get a lot more, it is not about condition reporting it is about producing a ‘log book’ for each site, a sort of living document

On the plus side there is no invasive or non-invasive investigation required, it is purely based on previously recorded information. However, no matter how laudable that may sound, I still visit the sites, I still look at the landscape, and more importantly I still try to feel and understand why the site is located where it is.  I do this so that when I correlate the facts, I can give them some degree of life by emphasizing the more important aspects.

So this afternoon I toddle off to visit one of the sites, I have been there before and it is one where information dates back to 1810, thanks to William Cunnington, but I just need to absorb an aspect of the landscape and to check the current condition, as the latest report has indicated some damage to the site since I was last there.

Sure enough I arrive at the site and yes there is some minor damage, thankfully nothing that rings major alarm bells, but is is man made, caused by one of the tracked vehicles that train in the area.  This will need emphasising in the report, as despite begin protected, damage is still being permitted, and somehow I feel that the damage could have been avoided by the simple expediency of moving one protections post.  Even though not rewired in the report on the site I decide that I will add this as a non published addendum to that particular report.

Now due to the environmental issues of the area that theses sites are located in a degree of sense is applied to those that train there to prevent further damage, and in areas where training is undertaken mobile loo’s are to be found, but sometimes I do smile at the instructions…….

 

But enough of the flippancy I hear you say, but to me that is part and parcel of what keeps us sane, keeps us focused and drives to to produce excellence all the time, irrespective of if you are in a trench studiously working on a section, you will be chatting laughing and joking, or if you are writing a report for Day of Archaeology, you will think back to find what warms your heart and makes you smile.

Right I will concede for now, and get back to the seriousness of the day……..

On the way home I drop into the local museum, as I am honoured to live so close to Devizes Museum, and spend a short time in the library, extracting yet another report from the archives of the Wiltshire Archaeological and natural History Society magazine, this time form 1917, which will be used in one of the reports I am writing.

From there homeward I head, knowing that this evening will be spent writing reports.

On to the evening

The Watching Brief doesn’t take long, well there is only so much you can write about nothing, then I get on with the commission work, finally I start to reflect on the day, the past week, what has worked and what has held me up, and one fo the things that holds me up time and time again, is that old issues of local archaeological groups reports are not available on line, such as in ADS, and today was a good example, the excavation report dated from 1917, is it not about time that was available on line, as I know that work is being and has been duplicated because there is no virtual repository.

Yes I know it our responsibility to seek the information, but times are changing, and I do get annoyed when I phone a society to obtain an extract only to be told that if I want it I must travel 200 miles to view it in their library.  We are in a time when information should be easily available, OK I am NOT saying digitise the latest information, but after 25 years then digitise it, that way if a society owns it they can still charge a few pounds for the digital copy,where as if they dont it will eventually get copied on to the t’interweb in a way they loose out and for heavens sake why cant they at least maintain a digital on-line index, that alone would save hours and hours of work…….. Sorry Rant over.

And finally the night

So to finish the day off, I write this, from the heart without to much planning, the good the bad and the darn right ugly.

Next year I promise to try and have an interesting day, but that will depending on who I am contracted by, and more importantly what I am doing work on.  Now had this been a week ago I could have discussed the Saxon remains I was dealing with and the issues with builder when they were found!

So until the Day of Archaeology 2013

Tim Darch
AKOT Heritage
Wiltshire

[All images are owned by myself, if you wish to use them please feel free to do so]

Nature Reserves & World War Two Archaeology

My job involves visiting and advising on management of archaeological sites for the UKs largest wildlife charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). We manage land across Britain from Shetland to Cornwall, Suffolk to Ceredigion and also throughout Northern Ireland. I get to see an amazing variety of sites from shell middens to hillforts to 19th century timber storage ponds – thousands of sites including 200 which are Scheduled (legally protected). Many of the best preserved archaeological sites can be found in wild places because this land has not been subject to intensive agriculture or commercial development. In particular we have hundreds of World War Two sites and I’d stick my neck out and say we must have one of the largest and best preserved collections of any land owner (with exception of the Ministry of Defence!).

The military used many wild places for training, storage,  firing/bombing ranges or  fortified them against invasion.  Heathland and coastal wetland were particularly heavily used because they were out of the way spotst where they could conduct live firing. The military flooded areas as a form of  invasion defence, leading wildlife to recolonise in the 1940s – so conservationists have alot to thank the military for in Suffolk, see:

http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/m/minsmere/archaeology.aspx

Today I visited two wetland sites in Suffolk which have well preserved buildings – RSPB Boyton Marsh and Hollesley Marsh in Suffolk. I was hosted by wardens Dudley, Reg and Aaron – a happier crew you will not meet, and once you get to see where they work you can understand why. Nice sunny day in the countryside, quiet landscapes with grass bending in the wind and some beautiful concrete block houses and pillboxes! Boyton was an Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) firing range where tanks trained in the run up to D-Day and a group of block houses survive which would have operated pulley systems to move targets for the tanks to fire at. It is hard to imagine the noise, and the tanks trundling past today. At Hollesely we have a beautiful pillbox, which was part of the coastal crust of defences that carpeted the east coast of England – and a nice place to stop on a walk, eat your sandwiches and look at the view. We discussed how we good interpret these sites for visitors and keep them in good order – luckily,  by and large they were built to last! Returned home to see the kids for a Romans vs medieval knights battle……historical accuracy is everything to us archaeologists.

Second World War Memorialisation on my Day Off

My day job is in the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum, but today is a day off for me. Not to worry, I’ve found plenty of archaeology, or at least, Cultural Heritage, to keep me occupied! [Since the Institute of Archaeology runs a master’s programme in Cultural Heritage Studies, I thought this would be allowed]

Yesterday, the Queen unveiled London’s newest monument, a memorial to the men and women of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command who gave their lives in service during the Second World War. The event was well attended by veterans and their families, and, coming 67 years after the conclusion of the war, could be regarded as overdue. Today I paid the monument a visit, and attempted to put it in context – amongst other monuments from the war, and also amongst the themes it addresses.

The new Bomber Command Memorial, viewed from the approach to the gyratory

The Bomber Command Memorial is a marble open-topped temple surrounding a bronze sculpture of seven crew members posed as if returning from a mission

Statues of crewmen in the Bomber Memorial

Doric columns, like the choice of building material, evoke classical values of the virtue of defense that are echoed in a quote from Pericles on the base of the statue. The monument is sited on the Green Park side of a large gyratory at Hyde Park Corner, inside of which are several other large war memorials and the massive Wellington Arch. So, whilst it dominates its corner of the roundabout, the new memorial is not out of place, and I thought if anything it mirrored rather nicely the neo-Classical (though Ionically columned!) entryway into Hyde Park.

  The monument also commemorates all of those people from any country who have suffered at the hands of aerial bombing, and in doing so makes a deliberate gesture to those who would criticize any commendation of the efforts of men who wrought such destruction on German cities like Hamburg and Dresden.  This is nice to see, and shows an awareness of the delicateness of the topic, which an earlier memorial did not.  I am referring to the statue of Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command during the closing stages of the Second World War, which stands in front of the church of Saint Clement Danes on the Strand.  The statue obviously commemorates the man, but a little plaque on the side also explains that it is erected ‘in memory…of the brave crews of Bomber Command, more than 55,000 of whom lost their lives in the cause of freedom.  The nation owes them all an immense debt.’  According to my little book London’s Monuments by Andrew Kershman (Metro Publications, 2007), when the statue of ‘Bomber’ Harris was unveiled in 1992, the attending crowd booed and threw eggs in disgust.  However much one may make allowances for Harris’ strategy of using his air fleet to attack centres of population (rather than strictly military or industrial targets) by saying that it ultimately helped win the war or was justified in the face of German attacks on British civilians, erecting an oversized statue in his honour was bound to be controversial.

What I found fascinating is the evolution of the capital’s commemoration of the RAF’s part in the Second World War over the last half century – and that you can see this evolution on a short walk or bike tour. Starting on the Strand, the church of Saint Clement Danes serves as the official RAF church and a memorial to everyone who has given their life for the force. Gutted in the war, it was reconstructed in the 1950s, and it’s interior is bedecked with plaques, flags and books recalling all of the individuals, units, and battle honours of the RAF. However from the outside the church is rather inconspicuous as a memorial and if anything is only noticeable for its ecclesiastical nature amidst the large buildings of Aldwych. For many years after the war, the more obvious monuments to the RAF would have been those to individuals.

Harris’s statue outside the church stands across the forecourt of Saint Clement Danes from another one erected in 1988, of his contemporary Hugh Dowding, who led Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Statue of Lord Portal

Down on Embankment, the figures of Lord Portal and Viscount Trenchard, giant figures in the development and leadership of the RAF, have stood watch since the 1960s and 70s.
It was only in 2005 that the memorial to the Battle of Britain was constructed on the Embankment opposite Trenchard and Portal. This piece honours the rank and file of the RAF and goes to the effort of listing every person who died during that conflict in 1940. Like the new Bomber Command Memorial, it shows an awareness of the importance of collective effort (and sacrifice) in the achievement of a nation’s prosperity. This isn’t a new phenomenon – witness the many memorials that sprang up after the First World War which gravely paid tribute to ‘the noble dead’. However it is curious to consider that it is only 60 years after the event that London is in a position to feel that the statues of individuals do not pay due respect to the others who served and died for them.
I personally thought the new monument was fitting and a poignant reminder of the service of these individuals. Because of the negative associations of carpet bombing German cities, the airmen of Bomber Command have received (to my mind) rather less acknowledgement than they deserve. Certainly they have not been immortalized like their colleagues in Fighter Command, ‘the few’ whom Churchill said we owed so much to.

It is interesting to ponder what some future students of material culture will make of the dates and styles of these various monuments to the RAF. I wonder if, when they question why the British felt it proper and necessary to construct a memorial to the 55,000 people from Bomber Command killed in the Second World War, they will reflect on contemporary outrage over British involvement in the Iraq War and the continual disappointment of the campaign in Afghanistan.

Poppies and a message left at the Bomber Command Memorial


Musketballs, Mortars and Matchlocks

What do you think of when you think of archaeology? For the majority of people the answer is simple- ‘musketballs’. If that wasn’t the first thing in your head, there’s no need to fret; ‘fragmented portion of a 17th century grenade’ is also a perfectly acceptable answer. Ok, none of the above is true. But for me it is objects such as these that make up my Day of Archaeology.

I work as Operations Manager for a commercial company, Headland Archaeology (Ireland) Ltd. The majority of my work involves overseeing all the projects we undertake and making sure they run smoothly, are carried out to a high standard and progress as efficiently as possible.  However, I also specialise in ‘Conflict Archaeology’, a field of study which explores evidence for the forms and effects of conflict on past populations. Today is a ‘Conflict Archaeology’ day.

The material I work with the most relates to conflict in 16th and 17th century Ireland. This was an exceptionally bloody period in Irish history. The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland took place in the second half of the 16th century, while the 1640s witnessed eleven years of war, culminating in the Cromwellian intervention on the island. Later still the War of the Two Kings was fought between William III and James II’s forces. The conflict artefacts and conflict architecture left behind on sites from this period can tell us much about the personal experience of individuals during these troubled times. What was it like to be a soldier in one of these armies? How did they operate? What affect did the wars have on the civilian populace?

Today I am working on an assemblage of military artefacts from a Castle site which was besieged in 1653, when Parliamentarian forces bombarded the site and forced the Irish defenders’ surrender. Although there are some historical accounts of the siege, many details of the engagement remain unknown. This is where the artefacts come in. It becomes quickly apparent to me as I trawl through nearly 200 iron ball fragments that the castle was extremely heavily bombarded. The sheer number of fragments is unusual in Irish archaeology- it is the highest concentration of artillery projectiles from a conflict site I have yet come across in the country.

What can they tell us? They are all heavily damaged, with only one complete spherical ball surviving. This suggests that the projectiles shattered as they struck masonry, or split into deadly shrapnel as they exploded. Their form tells us that the Parliamentarians used at least two main types of projectile; solid iron balls and mortars. The solid shot was intended to break down the walls of the castle, while the mortars (hollow iron spheres filled with powder) would explode and fragment as they rained down on the defenders.

I am currently analysing the size of the fragments to try and tell what type of artillery piece fired them. Although most iron balls are today usually called ‘cannonballs’, in the 17th century a ‘Cannon’ was a specific type of gun which fired a particular size of ball. Many other types existed, with names like ‘Culverins’ ‘Sakers’ and ‘Falcons’. These fired different sizes of ball over varying distances. Identifying the type of gun can help us identify how far away the besiegers may have been from the castle, and also tell us how difficult it was to get them into position. For example, some of these guns required dozens of oxen to haul them around the countryside.

'17th century grenade and lead shot'

And what of the defenders? The majority survived this siege and were able to surrender, but the castle was destroyed in the bombardment. Among the military artefacts that relate to them are lead musketballs (also called lead shot) and weapon fragments recovered from the rubble. The size, shape and weight of the musketballs can tell us what types of gun they were used in, provide information about how they were manufactured and also suggest if they have been fired or not. The examples from this site appear unfired, so they may have been dropped or lost by the defenders. This site is unusual in that it has also produced part of the firing mechanisms from some of the defender’s weapons, most likely destroyed during the bombardment. These fragments are from matchlock muskets, a type of gun that used a lit piece of cord to fire the musketball.

When I have finished the technical analysis of the material (a process which will take a few days) it will be possible to build a picture of the siege. I will be addressing what types of artillery the Parliamentarians brought with them, how this was used and transported and where it might have been fired from. From the defenders viewpoint it should be possible to suggest how the bombardment was experienced by the men within the castle, as well as talk about how they were prepared to meet the onslaught. This is all in the future, however, and for now I am immersed in the technical analysis of each of the artefacts.

So, this is how I am spending my Day of Archaeology, 29th July 2011! Every object I am handling was deposited over a handful of days 358 years ago, in what must have been an extremely dramatic and traumatic event in the lives of all those who were present. For some these objects represent their final moments.  It is an honour and privilege to deal with these artefacts, as by doing so you are literally ‘touching history’; the results of the analysis itself helps bring this history to life. It is certainly one of the most fascinating ways to spend a day that I can think of!