Archeology: Pigs Eat History | Culture


On April 23, 1811, British and French troops clashed in the municipality of Gallegos de Argañán (Salamanca) In a combat in which both armies fired thousands of bullets that remained, along with buttons and remnants of weapons, on the battlefield, next to the Marialba bridge, on the banks of the Azaba River. Now the magazine Gladius, from the CSIC, publishes a report where it is reconstructed how the fight was, the abundant war materials recovered by the project Battlefields in Gallegos de Argañán, and where it is recorded that the cattle that currently graze in the place – hundreds of Iberian pigs, cows, wild boars or roe deer – are ingesting projectiles and various elements of the uniforms and weapons of the contestants.

Specialists estimate that the animals have already destroyed more than 20% of the site. However, the cooperation with the one hundred and a half owners of the cattle and the surveyed land (4.5 square kilometers) “is excellent,” explains archaeologist Clemente González García. “Everyone collaborates altruistically. The owners never give us problems and that our activity is invasive. That’s why we do it in August, when we bother the least. If the cattle eat the bullets, what are we going to do, they will already expel them there. We are able to distinguish which ones they have ingested ”, he consoles himself.

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The report French against British on the Marialba bridge. History and archeology of an episode of the War of Independence in Gallegos de Argañana, from Clemente González García, reconstructs a confrontation that left “several thousand metal objects and, specifically, a large concentration of spherical projectiles around the Marialba bridge.” The concentrations of shots of different calibers – both armies used different weapons – have made it easier to identify troop locations. However, the passage of animals makes the work of specialists difficult. “Pigs detect the smell of sulfur in gunpowder, even after 200 years of battle, and they dig until they find the projectile, in the style of what they do with truffles. For them it is irresistible, ”says González. When they extract the bullet from the ground, they bite it hard, looking for the supposed liquid it contains. “As nothing comes out, logically, they spit it out or swallow it and expel it much later one or two kilometers from the place, which modifies the results,” admits the expert. For this reason, archaeologists do not take into account in their reports the projectiles with supposed dental marks: two out of 10.

González’s report recalls that “war activity during the War of Independence in the province of Salamanca reached levels of enormous intensity. The two sieges of Rodrigo City or the battles of Tamames, Fuentes de Oñoro or Arapiles constitute some of the most outstanding episodes of that long and cruel fight ”. At stake was that the French could dominate Portugal, where the British soldiers who were trying to take Spain were concentrated.

French rifle fittings, in the battle of Marialba (Salamanca).
French rifle hardware, in the battle of Marialba (Salamanca).

And it is that, in addition to large battles, there were also brief combats, lasting a few hours, which “did not cause such high numbers of casualties, but a continuous drip of dead and wounded”, as in the case of the Marialba bridge where they fought the English General’s Light Division Robert Craufurd and French units.

The results of the second phase of the project, which began in 2018, have made it possible to document 3,780 spherical projectiles, 382 coins, 117 buttons and numerous pieces of Roman origin in the surroundings of the Marialba settlement, a small population that in the 19th century had little more than a score of neighbors.

Concentration of the shots in the battle of Marialba from each side.  In red British shells, in French blue.
Concentration of the shots in the battle of Marialba from each side. In red British shells, in French blue.

On April 5, 1811, the vanguard of the French 2nd Corps arrived in Gallegos – 10 kilometers from Ciudad Rodrigo – to guard the roads to the Portuguese Almeida, at that time besieged by the English. Napoleon’s military were taking the various towns and highlands of the region: the Marshal Massena he camped in Carpio and Marialba and General Loison covered the heights of Ciudad Rodrigo. Massena’s main concern was to obtain food for his army, since the lack of fodder caused, for example, that more than 700 horses died every 15 days. Almeida, at the same time, was still blocked and waiting for help.

On the 23rd, General Marchand left Ciudad Rodrigo with 2,000 infantry and a squad of cavalry, but when he tried to cross the Azaba his men ran into the British, who controlled the Marialaba bridge. It was defended by the company of Captain Robert Campbell. In total, about 200 men. In addition, there was another reserve company located a mile away.

At seven in the morning on the 23rd, the French crossed the bridge, but Captain Joseph Dobbs came with his soldiers to the rescue and repulsed Marchand’s men by killing the drummer who encouraged them. Dobbs wrote that he had received four hits: one on his cap, one on his jacket, one on the lapel of his suspenders and the other on the blade of his saber. “For all of which it can be assumed that there was a real hail of bullets,” says the study.

Buttons recovered in the second phase of the investigation of Marialba (Salamanca).
Buttons recovered in the second phase of the investigation of Marialba (Salamanca).

As the French and British used different calibers, experts have now been able to determine where the soldiers were located. Thus they have found shells of English rifles Brown Bess, with a diameter of around 17.5 millimeters, and French Charleville, of 16.3. “It should be noted that most of the projectiles that have been recovered are not fired and are the result of involuntary losses. These are usually bullets that fell from the holster when the soldiers deployed in their positions, sat or lay down to rest, or even when they stumbled while running ”.

Bag holders, rifle butts, trigger holders and neck strap attachments, found at the Marialba site.
Bag holders, rifle butts, trigger holders and neck strap attachments, found at the Marialba site.

Experts highlight the importance of these findings to better understand the history of the War of Independence and the movement of the armies involved. And they point out that they also serve to facilitate the “decontamination process by removing a large amount of lead from the field, whose toxic particles, carried by the rain, end up reaching the aquifers.” “In the second phase alone, more than 22 kilograms of lead have been recovered from the numerous objects that lay in the fields and that are frequently bitten, chewed and ingested by the cattle that graze on them.”

And they conclude: “All this is, without a doubt, one more argument to promote the investigation of the battlefields. In addition, it provides a large amount of material remains that increase the historical heritage and museum collections ”, which in this case, if the pigs and cows allow it, will end up in the Salamanca Museum.


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