I didn’t know whether to put this in Foreign Forces, Worldwide Conflict or Military History!

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Friday, March 1, 2019
At War: Centuries-old grenades »

Revolutionary War Hand Grenades Kept Turning Up in Cardboard Boxes Inside This Virginia Museum
Grenade cores from the 1700s being readied for transport out of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Grenade cores from the 1700s being readied for transport out of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. via Virginia Department of Historic Resources
John Ismay
John Ismay
At War staff writer
Dear reader,
Last November, Kate Ridgway studied a dark spherical object that had been sitting in her museum’s storeroom for nearly 30 years and realized she had a problem: she needed to call the bomb squad. Ridgway, a conservator at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Richmond, Va., was looking at an artifact salvaged from the bottom of the York River in 1988. It came from a 75-foot, 170-ton British coal freighter called the Betsy, which British troops scuttled in 1781, along with several other ships to create a barrier just before the Battle of Yorktown.
Through a microscope, Ridgway peered through a crack in the sphere’s body and saw granular material. Subsequent analysis tested positive for sulfur. She had found a hand grenade that was at least 237 years old. Then, as now, hand grenades were essentially small spherical or oblong shells filled with explosives. This one had once had an iron body and would have been fitted with a pyrotechnic fuse that is lit before thrown. After hundreds of years underwater the metal shell had almost completely rusted away, leaving behind a two-inch, hard-packed ball of black powder.
Chelsea Blake, a fellow conservator, told The Times that it “smelled just like a shooting range.” She added, “That’s when you call the police.”
Black powder like this, one of the earliest explosive materials, is sensitive to heat, shock and friction even when newly made. But if subjected to water and then dried, it can become much more sensitive and the risk of an explosion increases. The Richmond Police Department’s bomb squad arrived, took the explosive core away and blew it up on a demolition range. “Then we found three more in other boxes,” Blake said.
After another call to the bomb squad, the two conservators began a monthlong search through their storeroom and ended up finding two dozen black powder cores from the wreck of the Betsy.
Munitions like these often far outlast the conflicts they are used in. Ridgway, Blake and police bomb-squad officers had a tricky situation to deal with. Their museum is not alone in having this kind of problem. “I’ve worked at other museums where we found muskets that were loaded, museums with loaded cannons, percussion cannonballs and other ordnance from the Civil War,” Ridgway told The Times. “I’ve probably worked with five or six different military E.O.D. teams and police bomb squads.”
In some parts of the country, where police and fire departments do not have their own bomb squads, military explosive ordnance disposal (E.O.D.) teams are called to respond. While the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force all have E.O.D. teams, only Marine E.O.D. technicians as a whole are trained and equipped to take live munitions and “inert” them by safely removing explosive material in a way that preserves the rest of the weapon.
Marines are sometimes asked to visit museums and inspect items that conservators suspect may be live munitions. Whenever possible, they inert these items and return them along with paperwork that certifies they are safe for public display. “It’s easy to spot a grenade in pristine museum condition, but in archaeological conditions, it’s rarely that easy,” Blake said. To help, she and Ridgway are working on a guidebook that they plan to distribute free.
You can read more about the discovery of the grenades in The Virginian Pilot, which first reported the story.
-John
Conservators of museums and other collections who are interested in obtaining a copy of Ridgway and Blake’s guidebook can email katherine.ridgway@dhr.virginia.gov for more information.
John Ismay is a staff writer who covers armed conflict for The New York Times Magazine. He is based in Washington. He can be reached at john.ismay@nytimes.com.