5.2.2 Recognising the material culture of conflict

Battlefields, and other sites of conflict, are further put at risk when battle-related artefacts are not recognised as significant objects, particularly if the artefacts have the potential to mark the presence of previously unknown sites of conflict. The perception of musket balls as 'common finds' may be true to some extent as the odd musket ball may often form part of the average metal detecting assemblage, but when does 'common' become 'significant'? As Foard notes within a guidance document produced on behalf of the Battlefields Trust for recording lead projectiles:

'metal detecting finds of more than a handful of bullets may represent the first information to identify and accurately locate such sites. It is therefore suggested that where approximately 50 or more bullets are reported from any one site, and with any collection which is accompanied by one or more powder box caps, the Battlefields Trust be asked to advise on the discovery' (Foard 2009b, 3).

Although this guidance is valuable in highlighting archaeological interest in scatters of battle-related objects, especially to metal detectorists - the author has noted it being posted and discussed on a number of occasions within metal detector forums - the figure of 'approximately 50' is misleading, as in the author's experience far fewer battle-related objects are required to indicate the presence of a site. The point of discovery rests on the ability of the finder to recognise the significance of an artefact scatter, and not simply an arbitrary volume of specific artefacts. For instance, the author directed a small metal detector survey on an area due to be excavated as part of an archaeological investigation at Forteviot, Perth and Kinross. As this was a scheduled area, Historic Scotland requested that a metal detector survey take place prior to excavation to recover any potential artefacts in the topsoil. This demonstrates the progressive attitude, not only towards the use of metal detectors within archaeological survey, but also towards the importance of archaeology contained within the ploughsoil. Within an area of 40m x 10m the survey recovered 10 musket balls and 5 modern Enfield bullets; a high volume considering the size of the area surveyed. However, the significance of the scatter was dismissed by one volunteer metal detectorist simply because they were in his opinion 'commonly found'.

In the context of the battlefield, artefacts such as musket balls, pistol balls and cannonballs may be readily recognised as conflict-related artefacts and as we have seen may be highly valued as such. However, what archaeologists consider as 'signature artefacts' expands beyond the lead projectile and may include a range of objects including fragments of weaponry, broken accoutrements and clothing. Such objects are often small and look insignificant, and can easily be cast aside as meaningless if not identified as battle related. An example of this occurred during a rally that took place on site of the Battle of Prestonpans, East Lothian, in October 2009. The rally was jointly organised by two prominent metal detecting clubs in the central belt of Scotland and attracted approximately 37 people. The battlefield features within the Historic Scotland Inventory of Battlefields and the area where the rally was to take place had previously been identified as having high archaeological potential for battle-related finds. However, against the recommendations of the Local Authority archaeologist, the Treasure Trove Unit, Historic Scotland and the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology (CBA), who were at the time conducting an archaeological investigation of the battlefield, the organisers decided to go ahead with the event. In discussions between the organisers, the CBA and Treasure Trove it was agreed that each artefact should be individually bagged and given an approximate National Grid Reference. Lead projectiles, chiefly musket balls, would be recorded more accurately using a hand held GPS unit. A report written by the organisers concluded that:

'with the exception of the high proportion of musket balls and the few military buttons, the vast majority of the finds from this outing were pieces of metallic detritus which were no different from what would be expected from any average fields… There were no "hot spots" identifiable that might justify a more detailed survey or archaeological excavation, and it is considered unlikely that further metal detecting surveys of this area will produce a significantly different pattern of results unless a very intensive large-scale survey is undertaken' (Hackett 2009, 2).

It is important to note in the first instance that the author attended the rally as an observer and was generally impressed by the level of effort the organisers had put into recording artefacts, albeit reluctantly in the initial phase of negotiations. However, their interpretation of the assemblage and its distribution contains fundamental errors regarding the nature of battlefield archaeology. Firstly, when the assemblage was analysed by the author and Stuart Campbell of Treasure Trove (see also this issue), a number of significant battle-related objects were identified, including the brass top of a ram-rod; ram-rod holder; copper-alloy flint holder; the fragment of a trigger guard from a pistol; a possible Grenadier match case; a piece of canister shot, and a piece of grapeshot (Plate 5); all of which were recorded with a 6-figure grid reference that places an object anywhere within 500sqm². In contrast, all objects recovered within archaeological surveys directed by the author are recorded to sub-centimetre accuracy. Furthermore, the significance of the artefact distribution, including potential lines of engagement that pushed the location of the battlefield 500m further to the east (Fig. 4), had been misinterpreted as meaningless scatters of material by the organisers (Pollard and Ferguson 2009, 54). The saving grace was that all the artefacts had been individually bagged and recorded, as without this precaution much of this information could very easily have been lost completely (Plate 6). Metal detecting activity still occurs on the battlefield, including a recently found cannon ball. All objects have been claimed as Treasure Trove and will be allocated to the East Lothian Museum Service. This case represents an important example in supporting the argument for discouraging metal detecting on sites of conflict, as although the lead projectiles may be collected there is still a risk that important signature artefacts will be disregarded or misidentified.

Figure 4  Plate 5  Plate 6

Figure 4: Distribution map showing results of the archaeological survey and artefacts recorded during the rally
Plate 5: Battle-related objects identified by the author and Treasure Trove
Plate 6: Discovering a musket ball during an organised metal detecting rally on the Battle of Prestonpans, East Lothian


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