Archaeologists working at the historic battlefield site of Gettysburg recently made an explosive discovery: a 160-year-old live artillery shell that was to be detonated by a specially trained US Army disposal team.
The shell was found on February 8 at Small Round Bar (opens in a new tab), a hill that provided a strategic position for Union forces during the Civil War. On July 2, 1863, the second day of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, the North and the South struggled for 90 minutes for control of Little Round Top, leaving thousands of soldiers dead. The rocky hill, however, was not a suitable platform for artillery attacks, as suggested by Confederate General Robert E. Lee in his 1864 report (opens in a new tab) about the Gettysburg campaign. Lee reported that Confederate General Longstreet was delayed by Union forces firing from Little Round Top, but Longstreet decided to outflank them rather than attempt to take the hill.
Little Round Top is currently undergoing an 18-month restoration project as the National Park Service works to preserve and protect the battlefield landscape and add new signage for Gettysburg visitors. Archaeologist Steven Brann and his team from Stantec, a consulting company that also does archaeological work, were sweeping the area with metal detectors when they stumbled upon something nearly 2 feet (0.6 meters) underground. “Using metal detectors on battlefields is standard procedure,” Brann told Live Science in an email.
The unexploded round they found was about 7 inches (18 centimeters) long and weighed about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms). “There are procedures in place in case such things are found,” Brann explained. Ultimately, the Army’s 55th Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Company from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, was called in to remove the shell and dispose of it safely.
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“An unexploded ordnance still found on the battlefield is a fairly unique circumstance,” Jason Martz, spokesman for Gettysburg National Military Park, told Live Science in an email. “It is only the fifth discovery since 1980.”
“Most of the things we find are much smaller, such as percussion caps, bullets, and uniform buttons,” Brann said. “It’s modern rubbish or things discarded during the construction of monuments, such as iron straps and nails.” Still, these artifacts are not usually found unless excavation is taking place. And as the current discovery shows, digging at a battlefield can be dangerous. “Archaeological work is always completed before any earth disturbance occurs, and it is a federal offense for the general public to dig or metal detect,” Martz said.
Many commentators and history buffs on the Gettysburg National Military Park Facebook post (opens in a new tab) who cried out the ordnance – given by Capt. Matthew Booker, commander of the EOD, recognized (opens in a new tab) as Dyer or Burton 3-inch shell (opens in a new tab) during rifle gun (opens in a new tab) – had to be destroyed.
However, “this particular shell hasn’t told us its full story yet,” Martz said. The park is now conducting more detailed research on the shell and its discovery site, trying to determine, for example, whether it was fired by Union or Confederate troops, and will release that information to the public when it available.
“This shell found almost 160 years after the Battle of Gettysburg is a very powerful and tangible link to the past,” Martz added. “It also reminds us that the battlefield still has stories to tell.”
Editor’s Note: Updated at 5:27 pm EST to attribute some email quotes to archaeologist Steven Brann, not the spokesperson.