Pocket Pistol Revealed by CAT Scanner at Flagler Imaging Center
Thu, Nov 18 2010

(St. Augustine, FL) - Excitement filled the room at the FlaglerHospital Imaging Center when the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program visited after hours for a sneak peak at items they excavated from a recently discovered 18th century shipwreck. The celebration was palpable when the center’s CAT  scanner revealed a flintlock pistol.

Twenty-five items were scanned with the hospitals GE Lightspeed 16-slice CAT scanner, including the stony concretion that revealed the pistol.

Chuck Meide, Lighthouse Archaeological Director explains, “under the sea, a concretion is most often a concrete-like mass that forms around metal artifacts as they begin to rust.” By peering inside the concretion and virtually extracting an artifact from its accumulated exoskeleton, conservators can determine the best approach to avoid damaging the piece and the information it holds.

According to Meide, imaging the artifacts is a necessary part of the process. “Flagler Hospital’s help is vital,” Meide explained; “we know they can’t do this very often or for everyone but we are very thankful. It is incredibly important that we are able to formulate a plan before removing these pieces from their stony concretions.” Kathy Fleming, the First Light Maritime Society’s Executive Director echoed that appreciation, “the Board of Trustees and the senior staff at the museum and archaeology program are eternally grateful to Flagler Hospital for their spirit of community. These small, hidden artifacts tell our area’s story and history.” 

Meide had hypothesized that the item inside the rock-hard concretion could be a pistol, but even he admits that it may have been wishful thinking. Archaeological Conservator Starr Cox went as far as to write playfully on the concretion’s paperwork, “Chuck thinks it’s a gun.” So when the CAT scanner revealed the Lighthouse Maritime Program’s Director to be correct, his arms rose in victory and cheers of “wow” could be heard throughout the room. However, the “wows” were not for Meide’s prognostication, but for the discovery of an artifact that could help archaeologists determine the ship’s origin and perhaps its date.

“Gentleman’s Pocket Pistol”
The ancient flintlock pistol uncovered by the Imaging Center’s CAT scan went by several names during the 18th century, a Queen Anne’s pistol, a turnoff pistol, or a gentleman’s pocket pistol. During the 1690s this style of pistol came into vogue and was manufactured throughout Europe and in the United States until the beginning of the 19th century. “These small guns were primarily intended for defensive purposes. Their size and caliber made the weapon easily concealable and light. A gun like this was manufactured for gentlemen and people of means and would not have been part of a ship’s primary defensive system. It was a close-in weapon,” Lighthouse Archaeologist Brendan Burke said.

Of further interest is discerning who would have owned this artifact. According to Burke, a ship’s sailing master, mate, officer, captain, or wealthy passenger might be among the 18th century characters that carried this aboard the wreck. Ships at sea during much of the 18th century sailed in waters or under flags of conflict and captains took precautionary measures to prevent capture. This diminutive firearm may have been someone’s last line of defense.

While they aren’t sure of the story behind the flintlock pistol, what is clear, since visiting Flagler Hospital, are the methods they will use to extract the artifact. First, Archaeological Conservator Starr Cox will have to remove the concretion using several tools, including a dental pick for the more fragile areas. Then the pistol’s barrel and mechanisms will have to be separated from its stock since the treatment for wood or ivory is harmful to iron, and vice versa. In total, the process could take years before the artifact will be stable and suitable for display in the museum, which is not at all unusual. “With this item being a compound artifact encased in concretion, at minimum, it will take a year-and-a-half to conserve,” Cox said. The item will then go on display under permit from the State of Florida in the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum.

Fleming hopes discoveries like this will help excite the community. “Want to learn more? Then get involved at the Lighthouse,” said Fleming. “Everyone is welcome. By visiting the Lighthouse, by volunteering, or by becoming a member of our museum family you can help us not only uncover real, local, maritime history but you can also help introduce students to sciences and gain real hands on experience. You never know what we’ll find together. It’s fun and exciting stuff.” 

To find out more about the First Light Maritime Society visit www.firstlightmaritime.org or call the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum at (904) 829-0745. The First Light Maritime Society is the support organization for the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, and the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, our research arm. Together they are the premier maritime museum along Florida’s historic coast.


According to James Levy
The flintlock pistol is a coat or pocket pistol of the boxlock type. The cock or hammer is hung in the middle of the frame and the gun is for close range work. There are no sights at all (just point and shoot). The pistol isn’t loaded from the muzzle. Instead the barrel is unscrewed with a barrel key or wrench, the threaded stub is filled with powder, and a ball is placed on top of the powder that is slightly oversized for the bore. When the gun goes off, the oversized ball is swaged down to bore size, giving the small pistol a considerable punch. From the crispness of the x-ray, I would say that the frame and barrel of the pistol are made of brass. The trigger, internals, screws, cock, and frizzen were made of wrought iron or steel. I am guessing that it is probably from the second half of the 18th century. You may well find a makers name engraved on the side of the brass frame and some good proof marks on the barrel.

James Levy
Historic Conservator
Research & Conservation Laboratory (State of Florida)

The Industry and the Technology
This is not the first time that Flagler Hospital has lent a helping hand to history. Ten years ago, the Lighthouse’s archaeological program brought artifacts from what they later determined to be the 1764, British sloop Industry. Today, those artifacts that tell of a time just before the American Revolution are on display at the Lighthouse & Museum, under permit of the State of Florida. “I remember how excited everyone was,” said Darrell Evans, who formerly served as radiology director, remembers a similar feeling ten years ago while scanning the Industry artifacts, “[archaeologists] were jumping up and down and so happy that they could finally see.”

Ray Hamel, former Board of Trustees Chairperson took notice of the advancements in technology. “Wow,” remarked Hamel, “it’s amazing how much better the image is this time around.” Hamel was specifically referring to a three-dimensional imaging program that reconstructs the information gathered by the CAT scan and creates a model of the items that lay beneath the layers that obstruct it from being seen.

Typically, the hospital uses this technology exclusively for patients and often in vascular procedures. “It allows us a three-dimensional look at the vessels. We can see if there are blockages or areas of constriction. With the new scanners that we installed this summer, we are now able to look at vessels that are 1/50th of an inch in size,” Dr. Arif S. Kidwai, Department of Radiology/Nuclear Medicine Chief, said.

The Shipwreck
The First Light Maritime Society’s lighthouse archeologists discovered a shipwreck believed to be from the colonial era just off St. Augustine’s shoreline on the last day of the field season in 2009. They returned in June equipped with a crew made up of students from across the country who attend the Lighthouse’s annual field school, and much of the 2010 field season was spent carefully excavating the site. Their work resulted in the raising of several artifacts for study and analysis, including a cauldron too large to be scanned. The lighthouse’s experts believe the style of the handles on that cauldron indicate it was made between 1740 and 1780. They believe the shipwreck is likely from the same time period.

Four cauldrons were among the first discoveries from the shipwreck excavated by a team of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum’s archaeologists that included supervised student divers during this summer’s field season. 

This determination means the current unknown shipwreck may be the oldest found in the waters off the nation’s oldest port. “Contrary to what you see in the movies, naming and dating a shipwreck is a very difficult and time consuming task, said Fleming, “The discovery of the flintlock pistol is both lucky and informative. Our lighthouse archaeologists will gain a great deal of information from it.” 

Returning to the Shipwreck
The Lighthouse will continue to investigate the shipwreck that yielded these exciting finds. “Absolutely,” Meide said, “we’ll be returning with another class of students to dive on the wreck, analyze data in the laboratory, and scour the archives, and we will all learn something new.”

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