Biting the Bullet: The Archaeology of ‘Musketballs’

The ‘musketball’ was for many decades one of the most neglected of archaeological finds. They often went virtually unanalysed, tucked away at the back of a finds report and warranting only a fleeting mention. However, the growth of battlefield and conflict archaeology has led to a wave of new research that is rapidly changing our view of these little objects, and what they can tell us about momentous events in the past.

A Hoard of 2,701 lead bullets from Ballymore, Co. Westmeath. Concealed by Jacobites prior to their surrender here in 1691. Now on display in the National Museum of Ireland 'Soldiers & Chiefs' Exhibition

A hoard of 2,701 lead bullets illegally metal detected at Ballymore, Co. Westmeath. Probably concealed by Jacobites prior to their surrender to Williamite forces here in 1691. Now on display in the National Museum of Ireland 'Soldiers & Chiefs' Exhibition

Many ‘musketballs’ are not actually from muskets at all. The musket was in fact just one of a range of guns that fired a lead bullet. Different firearms used bullets of different sizes and weight, and often different types of gun were carried by different troop types. For example, in the late 17th century infantry usually carried heavy muskets, while mounted infantry called dragoons wielded carbines, which fired a slightly smaller ball. Cavalry and officers often employed the much smaller pistol as their firearm. It is often the case that analysis of bullet types can tell us about the range of different soldiers present at a particular site.

One of the most important aspects of lead bullet analysis is knowing where the ball has come from. If the exact findspot of each bullet is not carefully recorded archaeologically, a valuable piece of information is destroyed. The location of bullets on a battlefield provides us with a unique plan of how a fight progressed; it can reveal who fought where, what type of soldiers they were, and where the fighting was hardest. Often this information can completely re-write previous interpretations which were based solely on historical accounts. If the lead bullets are removed from their context without proper recording all this information is lost.

Lead Shot recovered from the Battlefield of Aughrim, Co. Galway

Lead shot recovered from the Battlefield of Aughrim, Co. Galway, and representing an attack on fleeing Jacobite soldiers

Above are some lead bullets we analysed for the National Roads Authority on behalf of Galway County Council. They were fired during the Battle of Aughrim, Co. Galway, in 1691, the bloodiest battle in Irish history. The size and weight of the bullets suggest that a mix of infantry and dragoons/cavalry fought here. Because we knew the exact findspot of each bullet we could see a pattern emerge, suggesting that this was evidence for a rout that we knew took place. When the Jacobite army broke, they attempted to flee to a nearby bog to escape rampaging Williamite cavalry. This small assemblage is surviving evidence of this desperate attempt to escape the slaughter.

The Siege and Battle of Kinsale, 1601. The Lord Deputy's Camp is in the centre left of the image.

The Siege and Battle of Kinsale, 1601. The Lord Deputy's Camp is in the centre left of the image (Pacata Hibernia, 1633)

We are also now getting better at recognising when lead bullets have been fired, and sometimes what they have hit. As well as this bullets can provide us with information about how and when they were made. The Kinsale Battlefield Project carried out a series of surveys on the site of the English camps in Kinsale, Co. Cork, where the siege and battle of Kinsale was fought in 1601 between the English and the Spanish/Gaelic Irish. The photo below is of lead shot we found at the Lord Deputy’s main Siege Camp. The terrible conditions during the siege that winter made the camps a sea of mud, an environment in which soldiers succumbed to cold and disease at a frightening rate ‘dying by dozens on a heap’ as one contemporary chronicler related. Analysis indicated that these bullets were made on site by these men. The bullets had not been fired, and some of them showed defects in the manufacturing process, possibly a result of the weather. This suggested to us that the soldiers were making bullets themselves around their campfires, and that these bullets were dropped in the mud and never recovered. Their presence indicates that a significant archaeological siege landscape survives in this part of Kinsale.

Lead Shot from the 1601 English Siege Camp at Kinsale, Co. Cork. The bullets have not formed properly in the mould, possibly a result of adverse weather conditions

Lead shot from the 1601 English Lord Deputy's Siege Camp at Kinsale, Co. Cork. The bullets have not formed properly in the mould, possibly a result of adverse weather conditions during manufacture

Another site Rubicon excavated was at Castledonovan Castle, in West Cork. This work was carried out on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Heritage & Local Government. In 1650 this castle was attacked by Parliamentarian troops. The historical details of the assault are sketchy, but an assemblage of 28 lead shot from a destruction layer excavated within the castle provides us with some clues as to events. It is clear that a small number of the bullets were fired, indicating that there may have been some minor skirmishing. Many of the unfired bullets were from the same type of gun, in this case a musket. It is probable that some of the bullets were made in the same mould. The location of these bullets in a burnt layer together with the sparse evidence for fired shot suggests the castle capitulated quickly before it’s destruction. The defenders ammunition was left in place after the garrison had either fled or surrendered.

Castledonovan, Co. Cork

Castledonovan Castle, Co. Cork, attacked by Parliamentarian forces in 1650

Sites such as these illustrate the value of lead bullet analysis. These little objects reveal information about moments in time that were extremely violent and traumatic for those involved. They were often deposited over just a few minutes or hours, in many cases as part of a famous historic event that we remain aware of today. There remains something distinctly personal about these objects. Each was designed to kill or maim, and many that we recover did just that. Many were last held by an individual who was in all probability experiencing extreme stress as they participated in deadly conflict. These bullets are objects that deserve our respect; their analysis can unlock details of our violent past that bring us closer to understanding the experience of our ancestors, and allows us to reveal events which were often the defining moment of their lives.

Lead Shot assemblage from the 1650 attack on Castledonovan Castle, Co. Cork

Lead shot assemblage from the 1650 attack on Castledonovan Castle, Co. Cork

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6 Responses to Biting the Bullet: The Archaeology of ‘Musketballs’

  1. sean December 16, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    Really interesting post. I actually found what I think maybe some lead shot at the Green Fort in Sligo town. From what a gather there was a skirmish at the site during the Williamite war. Somebody also said that the shot i believed i found were in fact 18-19th Century rounded bottle plugs. Any idea how I could verify this?

    • Damian Shiels December 22, 2011 at 9:06 am #

      Hi Sean,

      Many of the round bottle plugs are clay or ceramic as opposed to lead- so weight should be a factor, also mould mark and sprue. If you have photos of them that you can send on I would be happy to take a look.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. Tony Wilkinson December 16, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    remember viewing a number of musketballs (round shot) found on top of Tulsk mound when digging with Discovery Program. Some fired, some unfired and some with obvious teeth marks in them which I was told at the time was designed to produce a dum-dum effect when hitting a target.

    • Damian Shiels December 22, 2011 at 9:05 am #

      Hi Tony,

      I have seen some of the Tulsk assemblage as well, it is a very important one as it is probably late 16th century, and we dont have too many from that period!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

      • Adrian Morgan August 29, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

        Hi Damian.

        Very interesting blog thanks. I have recently found what I think to be a musketball just outside Lyme Regis on what I believe to be the route taken by the Duke of Monmouth ending in the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685. I am no expert so I was wondering if I could send you a photo to confirm it is a musketball?

        Many thanks in advance.

        Adrian Morgan

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