Monday, April 18, 2016

How they spent their spring break: Students help excavate Pea Ridge artifacts

NPS' Alex Swift with piece of case shot or a .69-caliber musket ball. (NPS)

Archaeologists are cleaning and analyzing hundreds of artifacts – the largest a 6-pound solid artillery shot – recovered from a cornfield that saw a desperate Confederate infantry assault during the 1862 Battle of Pea Ridge.

As the Picket reported in February, scientists, volunteers and historians found what they expected following high-tech surveys: Artillery fragments and solid pieces from case shot.

“We did find some bullets,” Troy Banzhaf, chief of interpretation at Pea Ridge National Military Park in northwest Arkansas, said Monday. “Most of them appeared to be dropped.”

Park volunteers, high school students on spring break from the Arkansas Arts Academy in nearby Rogers and National Park Service staffers on March 21-24 excavated 530 objects related to the battle. Another 500 artifacts are postwar.

While they used metal detectors to home in on individual items, they were guided by the findings from remote sensing sweeps conducted by the Arkansas Archeological Survey.

The “super precise” technology, combined with GPS maps, is allowing archaeologists to do a complete study of the largely pristine battle area. The tally of recovered artifacts, while impressive, is not the main aim of the research.

“More so is the location of where we are finding stuff,” said Banzhaf. “Once we have it plotted on the map, that really tells a story.”

Federal guns pounded 3,000 members of the Missouri State Guard as they made their attack at the field on March 7, 1862.

One aim of the project is to ascertain, by analyzing artillery fragment locations, just where the guns were located, the distance from targets and perhaps even the trajectory of the shots. “We can turn the four guns out there (on display) to be in a more appropriate location," Banzhaf said.

Metal detectors and shovels were constant companions (NPS)

Jamie Brandon, a regional archaeologist with the Survey, said the team is interested in such “patterns.”

“It will probably be well into the summer before we are looking at patterns in our database and what they might tell us that we did not already know about the battle.”

Pea Ridge Superintendent Kevin Eads said he is “looking forward” to seeing the analysis.

The attack on Benjamin Ruddick’s cornfield was a short affair. Union canister and shells and infantry fire ripped through the Rebel lines. It was over in 15 minutes, the survivors limping back toward Elkhorn Tavern.

(A Union artillery barraged during an artillery duel the next day sent Rebels scrambling for any cover they could find).

Thousands of “magnetic anomalies” were detected within two feet of the surface at the cornfield site. Archaeologists are excavating a limited number for further study and possible display at the visitor center – all part of an ongoing effort to more fully interpret what happened here.

Researchers have employed five remote-sensing technologies for this project: Gradiometers, electrical resistance, electromagnetic conductivity, magnetic susceptibility and ground-penetrating radar. The effort was supplemented last month by the traditional metal detector during the small, pinpoint excavations.

“Each senses a different physical property in the soil,” said Jami Lockhart, the technology guru of the Survey team. “We are trying to determine, because we can sense big concentrations of metal … where troops were shooting from and to.” 

Banzhaf said the spring break work involved digs in “lanes” of artifacts noted by the Survey. Crews worked in grids from north to south, covering about half the field.

As predicted, most of the metal turned out to be artillery fragments. A bucket and button were found, but no musket pieces, scabbard tips or uniform buttons. “It is strange we didn’t find any of that.”

Historical accounts don’t indicate exactly how long the attacking Confederate line was. 

Shell fragments have been found beyond vehicles in background (NPS)

Artillery rounds farther east than expected indicate it may have longer than anticipated.

“We are fairly close to where everything was historically but this will help us get a more pinpoint accuracy where these guns were at,” said Banzhaf.

The March 6-9, 1862, Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern) has been called by some historians “the Gettysburg of the West.”

Forces under Union Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis defeated the men of Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, whose leadership has been faulted by historians. On March 7, the Rebels controlled Elkhorn Tavern, but the failed attack at Ruddick’s Field presaged the next day, in which consolidated Federal troops made a counterattack, sweeping Van Dorn’s brigades from the field.

The Union won control of Missouri and weakened the Confederate hold in Arkansas.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the Pea Ridge campaign permanently altered the balance of power in the Trans-Mississippi. Few Civil War operations had such an impact on the course of events,” according to the National Park Service.

The Missouri State Guard was made up of pretty good troops, according to Banzhaf. They were veterans of Wilson’s Creek.

But they were in little shape to fight at Elkhorn Tavern, having marched 60 miles over three days. Most had little or nothing to eat for a couple days.

If they had succeeded in their attack, the Missourians might have changed the outcome of the battle – and filled their bellies. The main Union supply line was just below the cornfield.

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