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An object with a secret even the curators didn’t know about!

During last Saturday’s Gallery Crawl we ended up getting quite a surprise (and no, I don’t mean the visit by the gigantic bat to the buffet table in the Huntington Room. Okay so he wasn’t gigantic but he was bigger than any bat I’ve ever seen in Virginia!). Unfortunately, the surprise was given to us by one of our signal cannons.

Depot Central de l’Artillerie, 1826

Some of you may remember that the theme for this year’s event was the “secret life of objects” and boy did that cannon have a secret…and it was revealed right in the middle of the event!

For years we didn’t know anything about the two cannons other than they had a very interesting coat of arms that was identified as “French” (great cataloging huh?). The only other thing we knew was that they were named—one is “Henry” and the other is “Francois I”. The coat of arms is very ornate and half of it was most definitely House of Bourbon, but we didn’t have any clue what the other half stood for.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and one of our great curators, Marc Nucup, we identified the coat of arms as that of Marie-Caroline (Caroline of Naples and Sicily, November 5, 1798-April 17, 1870). Marie-Caroline was the daughter of Francis I of the Two Sicilies. In 1816, she married Charles Ferdinand, Duc de Berry, heir apparent to the French throne. Their marriage is what prompted the combination of the crest of the House of Bourbon with the crest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In September 1820 Marie-Caroline gave birth to Henry, Comte de Chambord, Duc de Bourdeaux, the heir to the throne of France. But in 1824, Charles X became king and in the revolution of 1830 the dynasty of the older line of the Bourbons was overthrown and with it the claims of Henry to the throne. We aren’t sure why Marie-Caroline needed signal cannons but she apparently named them after her father and son (maybe she also a problem with party crashing bats).

During the event someone looked down the barrel of Francois and said “um…you know there’s something in there right?” Unfortunately having things jammed in our cannons is a frequent occurrence (someday I’ll tell you how a bowling ball ended up in our 9” Dahlgren) so I’m sure Marc immediately thought “great, I hope it’s not a golf ball” but when he looked inside I can only imagine he thought “oh shoot, I think the cannon’s loaded.” So, he just quietly carried on like there was nothing out of the ordinary.

The moment Marc realized the gun might be loaded

Afterwards Marc and I examined the cannon and the “thing” jammed in it and it does look like an old metal cartridge of some sort—or maybe some type of canister shot. First thing Monday morning I had our conservators x-ray the piece but unfortunately, it’s a little too thick for our equipment. Thankfully, we put out a call for help to Newport News Building and they are going to bring one of their handheld x-ray units to the Museum to see if we can figure out what’s in the cannon.

Unfortunately our x-ray machine wasn’t quite powerful enough to see through the walls of the cannon.

I did manage to get a good image of the thing with my wonderful Google Pixel. Take a look and see if you know what it is!

Here’s the object in the barrel. It looks turned and appears to be slightly tapered. There is a small strap at the 1:00 position.

Here are a few images of the elevation device:

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