Materiality and the King of Battle

I’m working on pulling together a talk for an upcoming NPS conference on battlefield archaeology. I’m focusing on artillery ammunition, because I’m that kind of geek (seriously, my master’s thesis was all about artillery ammunition).

One of the angles I’m looking at (and I don’t know if I’m even going to throw this into the final talk at this point), is the way in which we can use artillery ammunition as a referent (an index, if you want to whip out the semiotics) for the artillery piece itself. When we talk about deposited ammunition (small arms or artillery), we often use it as a direct connection to the weapon that fired it, which itself is a connection to the soldier(s) operating said weapon.

I’m pulling together anecdotal evidence on how gunners curated and maintained their pieces, and how big a deal it was when someone lost (gasp) or captured/saved artillery pieces in battle. There were 11 Medals of Honor earned during the Civil War for capturing or saving an artillery piece in combat.

I need to find more information on the relationships soldiers developed with their weaponry during combat and military service, particularly in the 19th century. It’s a profoundly different relationship than that which they had with most of the other things we find on a battlefield, which are almost all ammunition and therefore meant to be expended.

For those who feel like this last bit is a little too touchy-feely, I’ll leave you with a section of the Rifleman’s Creed, and you can file your complaints with the U.S. Marines.

My rifle is human, even as I am human, because it is my life.  Thus, I will learn it as a brother.  I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, its accessories, its sights and its barrel.  I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready.  We will become part of each other.

Eggshells from Block Six, 2012

I spent part of this morning picking eggshells out of a screen. I know, riveting stuff. These weren’t just any eggshells, though. These were 150-or-so year old eggshells recovered from last year’s Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program dig at Block Six, in Historic Washington State Park.

Eggshell is not the most common find on an archaeological site. The fragility of the shell itself, the sale of chicken eggs off-site for side money (Peres 2008:99), and the likelihood that most of it will fall through the 1/4″ screen we use to sieve excavation fill means most of it, if present, will end up going unnoticed. We were lucky that the excavators last June noticed it and bagged the associated fill, allowing me to pick it out in the lab.

Now, obviously finding eggshell suggests egg consumption, but the explanatory possibilities inevitably blow past this meager insight. I wanted to get a little bit of a handle on what other historical archaeologists have done with eggshell finds, so I got on the SHA’s Publications Explorer and did a search for articles from Historical Archaeology that talk about eggshells. It returned a fair number of hits, and since this isn’t a formal paper, I’m only going to touch on a few of them.

As every credible archaeologist should agree, context is everything…

Returns included a number of articles that simply mention the recovery of eggshell as evidence of dietary preference. These contexts ranged from a 19th-century bordello in St. Paul, Minnesota (Ketz et al 2005) to an early integrated community at New Philadelphia, Illinois (Martin and Martin 2010) to privies in North Carolina (Carnes-McNaughton and Harper 2000), and finally (to return to a red light district) the Five Points area of New York City (Milne and Crabtree 2001).

But let’s go farther.

Markell, Hall, and Schrire (1995:28), working on a mill at Vergelegen, on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, found quantities of ostrich eggshells in their excavation units. In addition to being an indication of the consumption of ostrich eggs by the site’s residents, historical data suggest that such eggs were collected by hunters as roamed the surrounding veld, and were subsequently traded to Vergelegen residents. These eggshell fragments, are not just food, they are evidence of local exchange networks that tied together hunter and miller.

Brown and Cooper (1990:15) worked at the Levi Jordan Plantation in Brazoria County, Texas. They found eggshell throughout the site’s deposit, suggesting eggs were consumed at a fairly steady clip throughout the site’s history by African-American slaves and later tenant farmers. This gets more interesting when compared with other food remains. While eggshell remained a constant part of the fill, fish bones and scales, along with turtle remains, decreased over time, suggesting that domesticated species such as chicken were a staple of local diet, whereas wild species became less important over time. The fishing and collecting (“turtle hunting” doesn’t seem to be particularly challenging) that wild species’s bones suggest were less and less-frequently pursued over time.

Eggshells also relate to economic status. Rather, eggshells in comparison with chicken bones. What, isn’t that relationship immediately obvious? No? Basically, the way it works is if you have some disposable income, you can afford to buy chicken to eat, and an archaeologist, rooting around in your refuse decades later should find a goodly amount of chicken bone in addition to eggshell. However, if you don’t have the money to buy chicken (and we’re talking back before fast food made “chicken” cheaper than salad), you’re not going to eat chicken often. You might have some chickens scratching around in your yard, but you’re not going to eat them until they quit laying eggs. You do get to eat the eggs, though. As a result, your household refuse will have a lot of eggshell fragments, but only a few chicken bones by comparison, testimony of the meals made from aged hens (Peres 2008:99; West 1995:29).

So, what does this all mean for our eggshells from Block Six? Well, we’ve got an interesting interpretive opportunity here. Since Block Six was a commercial district, and most of the studies cited here relate to residential sites, we’ve got a bit of a task teasing out what these shells mean. They could have been someone’s lunch, could have been for sale in one of the stores, or some other as-yet un-researched possibility. I don’t have anything more concrete at this point, largely because my doctoral defense is coming up, and I’m up to my elbows in Dooley’s Ferry for the next few weeks. We’ll get back to this one soon, though.


Brown, Kenneth L. and Doreen C. Cooper
1990     Structural Continuity in an African-American Slave and Tenant Community. Historical Archaeology 24(4):7-19.

Carnes-McNaughton, Linda F. and Terry M. Harper
2000     The Parity of Privies: Summary Research on Privies in North Carolina. Historical Archaeology 34(1):97-110.

Ketz, K. Anne, Elizabeth J. Abel, and Andrew J. Schmidt
2005     Public Image and Private Reality: An Analysis of Differentiation in a Nineteenth-Century St. Paul Bordello. Historical Archaeology 39(1):74-88.

Markell, Ann, Martin Hall, and Carmel Schrire
1995     The Historical Archaeology of Vergelegen, an Early Farmstead at the Cape of Good Hope. Historical Archaeology 29(1):10-34.

Martin Terrance J. and Claire F. Martin
2010     Courtly, Careful, Thrifty: Subsistence and Regional Origin at New Philadelphia. Historical Archaeology 44(1):85-101.

Milne, C. and Pamela J. Crabtree
2001     Prostitutes, a Rabbi, and a Carpenter: Dinner at the Five Points in the 1830s. Historical Archaeology 35(3):31-48.

Peres, Tanya M.
2008     Foodways, Economic Status, and the Antebellum Upland South in Central Kentucky. Historical Archaeology 42(4):88-104.

West, Barbara
1995     The Case of the Missing Victuals. Historical Archaeology 29(2):20-42.

MORE About Worm Medicines

One of the members of the Kadohadacho Chapter of the Arkansas Archeological Society came by the Survey this morning, with some follow-up information from last night’s talk. I showed the picture of Wilder’s “Mother’s Worm Syrup” bottle recovered from Locus 9 (see the last post). The advertisement for Wilder’s syrup, published in the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin in 1870, lists among its attractive qualities that it is free of the “poisonous effects of all worm candy.”

Our Chapter member had done some internet research on worm candy to find out a bit more about what it was. He pointed Jamie and I to a few web pages which gave us a lot more information on 19th and 20th century worm medicines, specifically candies.

As with syrups and tonics, patent candy pill ingredients were proprietary information, so we don’t know what was in the worm candies that Wilder’s ad refers to. The Smithsonian Institution, though, has a picture of a box of DeWitt’s Worm Candy, dating to around 1930. The National Museum of American History has another image of it, too. The DeWitt’s box bears the words “For eradicating round worms a reliable preparation/The active ingredient of which is santonin.”

Santonin, as the great and powerful Wikipedia tells us, is an anthelminthic, a vermifuge (worm expeller). It is compounded from the flowers of Artemisia maritima, or Sea Wormwood, native to Turkestan and the Southern Ural region (Merck 1989 cited in NCBI 2013). In small doses, santonin could be effective at killing off the worms, though it could turn your vision yellow or green, and urine purple or red (Encyclopedia Britannica 1911).

Wow. It actually gets scarier.

In larger doses, however, it could produce aphasia (the inability to form or comprehend language), muscle tremors, epileptic convulsions, blindness, and death (Encyclopedia Britannica 1911).

We can’t be sure that the active ingredient in the worm candies Wilder’s ad referenced was santonin, as they were patent medicines and, as they predate the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, didn’t have to publish their contents on the label. However, if it was santonin or another medicine with similar properties, certainly the above-mentioned side effects would be consistent with the “poisonous effects of all worm candies” that Wilder’s medicine claimed to be free of.

So, now you know a little bit more of our history with battling intestinal worms…


Encyclopedia Britannica
1911     Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information, Volume 24: Saint-Claire Deville to Shuttle. New York: Encyclopedia Britannica.

1989    The Merck Index: An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs, and Biologicals. 11th edition. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck.

National Center for Biotechnology Information [NCBI]
2013    Santonin. Electronic resource (, accessed 13 February 2013.

George Bent and Pea Ridge

In working on a chapter on Pea Ridge, I came across some interesting history on one of the battle’s participants. I’ve been looking closely at Landis’s Missouri Battery, a unit of the Missouri State Guard that may or may not have participated in the battle. The unit commander, Captain John M. Landis, wrote a memoir after the war that said the unit arrived after the battle (Landis 1895), while other documents and artifacts suggest that they were (that’s a tease, but consider it a tease to order the edited volume when it comes out).

One of the people a mentor and colleague suggested I look at was George Bent. When I was a kid in Colorado, I remember distinctly visiting Bent’s Old Fort, a trading post established by brothers William and Charles Bent, so the family name was familiar, and very western.

George Bent was William’s son, and also the son of Owl Woman, a Cheyenne. Growing up of mixed race was a tough life, and it fed into his Civil War experience. Bent joined the Missouri State Guard following the Camp Jackson Massacre in 1861, becoming a cavalryman. There have been two biographies of Landis, both of which put Bent in Martin Greene’s First Missouri Cavalry. According to the more recent, that by Halaas and Masich (2004), Bent served with Landis’s battery at the battle.

After the battle of Corinth, Mississippi, Bent left Confederate service. He was captured by the Union army and paroled at his father’s post out in Colorado. He soon found himself in Black Kettle’s camp along Sand Creek, and was caught in the middle of the Sand Creek Massacre. Embittered by the attack, he becomes a Dog Soldier and fights against the U.S. Army in various places around Colorado.

After the war, Bent becomes an adviser and interpreter to Black Kettle, helping iron out the Medicine Lodge Treaty. He married Magpie Woman, daughter of Black Kettle. Bent’s background, part white, part Native American, continued to govern his life.

George Bent’s life is chronicled in Hyde’s Life of George Bent: Written from his Letters and David Halaas and Andrew Masich’s Halfbreed: The Remarkable True Story of George Bent. Halaas and Masich gave a podcast on their work to Colorado Public Radio, which you can find here.


Halaas, David F. and Andrew Masich
2004     Halfbreed: The Remarkable True Story of George Bent. Da Capo Press, Boston.

Hyde, George E.
1968     Life of George Bent: Written from His Letters. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Landis, John C.
1895     The Landis Battery. St. Louis Republic, May 12.