Handmade Garnet Musket Ball from New Archangel

Garnet musket ball from excavations at Sitka, Alaska. Source: Alaska OHA.

It is a common trick in archaeology classes to puzzle students with gunflints – part of the sparking mechanism of older muskets – which were made until recent times by the remnants of a European flaked stone industry until modern cartridges replaced them.  However, I had never heard of the use of stone musket balls before — but the picture above shows one made out of garnet, which is a heavy and dense mineral. This specimen is from a historic Tlingit-Russian site in Alaska.  As the caption notes:

“Large garnets can be found in schist… Because of the shortage of lead, the Kolosh [Tlingit]  use them instead of shot to kill sea animals.” [Khlebnikov’s 1817-1832 report, 1976:39]

It is typically ingenious for the Tlingit to have adapted traditional stone working technologies to the new, introduced technologies.

Over much of coastal Alaska the first contact aboriginal people had with Europeans was with Russians, rather than Americans, British, French or Spanish.  One of the most important Russian settlements was Novoarkhangelsk, or New Archangel, founded in 1799 at the present day town of Sitka (map).  The tumultous history of the founding of this outpost near a Tlingit village called Gajaa Héen, its subsequent capture by Tlingit warriors and ransom of Russian captives for 10,000 rubles, and its recapture 1804 by a Russian naval fleet during the “Battle of Sitka” is a subject for another day.

Suffice it to say that, as with all history, archaeology can fill in the stories of the everyday life of people and of events that go unrecorded by pen and paper.  In this respect, it is good to see the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology has a very full, very detailed report available online about archaeological work at “Castle Hill”, the ancient Tlingit fort known as Noow Tlein which subsequently became the cornerstone of the Russian defensive facilities at New Archangel.  You can browse the report chapters here, and the photos here and here.  No doubt I will post more in due course, as there are some extraordinary artifacts found at this site, not least among which is this hand-made toy musket.

The Russians may have won the battle of Sitka, but they eventually left, leaving behind the Sitka Tlingit tribes to continue their journey to the present, where their vibrant culture continues to thrive as this interactive place names map for the modern Town of Sitka makes clear.

Fort at New Arkhangel -- "View of the Establishment at Norfolk Sound," 1805-06 (from a watercolor by G.H. von Langsdorff). Source: Alaska OHA.

PS:  if you are skeptical about that Wikipedia link to the Battle of Sitka, then you can hear about the events in Tlingit here).

Plan of New Archangel, 1804. Fort site is to centre right. Source Alaska OHA.

3 responses to “Handmade Garnet Musket Ball from New Archangel

  1. I love that garnet shot. It tweaked memories of stone shot being used in Europe and other places early in the development of cannons leading me to these pictures:

    http://www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk/collections/objects/category/2/1977/

    When I went looking for stone shot via google I came up with the following. These are way too old to be shot, but I really like the way they are displayed on-line with a little movie that comes up when you click on each stone ball. You can then rotate (on one axis only) the image and see all sides of it.
    http://www.hunterian.gla.ac.uk/collections/museum/online_exhibitions/stones/objects/objects.shtml

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  2. I remember being fascinated by the Mary Rose’s stone cannonballs when I visited Portsmouth 25 years ago. I also seemed to recall stone arrowheads still being used – I think my brain was melding the huge number of arrows (but with iron heads) and the flint flake ‘cannister shot’ that was used as an anti-personnel weapon http://www.maryrose.org/ship/armament1.htm .

    I wonder about that ‘toy’ musket. George MacDonald wrote about the miniature clubs from Prince Rupert possibly being representations of the real thing used in shamanistic battles. We found a miniature whalebone club at Esquimalt Lagoon and I considered a shamanistic use more likely than a toy. First Nations were careful to keep anything with spiritual power away from children, and I just couldn’t see a whalebone club (the full sized ones of which often had their own names and were considered spiritual entities in their own right) their with a gaping mouth human or spirit faced handle being a plaything. Certainly, young boys were given small versions of real weapons to practice with, but I don’t think these would be the tiny (10 cm long) versions like this musket or the clubs.

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  3. It seems like stone shot would be a lot of work, but if you think of them as “projectile points” some of which would have hours of labour investment, then it becomes more reasonable.

    Morley, that’s a good point about the guardianship of power. I’m wondering if the musket was even Tlingit though, now that I check it comes from the Russian workshop area of hte fort and there were also two miniature cannons found, said to be from toy ships:

    http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/oha/castlehill/figures/pres0057.html

    Also see the overall armaments chapter:

    http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/oha/castlehill/chpttwelve.htm

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