Sometime during the Battle of North Point in 1814, a wounded soldier was given a lead musket ball to bite down upon while doctors applied the surgical tools of the day to his injuries.
That bullet, grooved and pitted by the soldier's teeth, has turned up in connection with a search for traces of a church believed to have been a field hospital during the two-day battle in eastern Baltimore County. The fight became a turning point in the War of 1812.
Digging on one of the last undeveloped lots on the battlefield, archaeologists discovered what may be the church's foundation and a forgotten 19th-century Methodist cemetery.
"You can imagine what kind of pain you would have to be in" while undergoing surgery in the days before anesthesia, said Kathy Erlandson, an archaeologist and the principal investigator.
The lead ball was found prior to the dig by a relic hunter who searched the field for years with a metal detector. He turned it over to the archaeologists.
"It is really the only evidence we have so far that the site was being used as a hospital. I have no doubt that it was. . . . You only find these on sites where amputations were going on," she said.
The practice was the origin of the expression "to bite the bullet," meaning to endure something unpleasant.
Richard B. Hughes, Maryland's chief archaeologist, said, "It's hard to conceive of something like that except being related to a military hospital."
The site, on a former farm field on Old North Point Road, is slated for development by the current owners, Nolen J. Graves and his family.
The excavation, which began Oct. 17, brought two surprises.
First, while removing topsoil, the researchers found a stone foundation just south of the site of a clapboard-covered, log meeting house torn down in 1928 and long assumed to be the battle church.
They found a half-dozen musket balls beside a corner of the foundation. "That means it's more than likely this building was standing [at the time of the battle]. There is no other reason for people to be out here with bullets," Ms. Erlandson said.
"I'm really leaning toward this being the battle church," she said. The structure torn down in 1928, and pictured on a nearby historic marker, was probably built years after the battle but confused in local memory with the original.
The second surprise was that the dig uncovered a forgotten mid-19th century Methodist cemetery containing more than 35 graves.
Two graves that appeared to be threatened by vandals were exhumed Sunday for study by Dr. Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution. The remains will be reinterred later.
Most of the graves were left undisturbed. The landowner has agreed to set aside that part of the property permanently as a cemetery.
Originally called the Patapsco Meeting House, the church was a focus of the Methodist conversions that swept the region in the late 18th century. The congregation eventually split over the slavery issue, but the anti-slavery group met there until the 1880s.
Its successor is the Patapsco United Methodist Church, at Wise and Church avenues in Dundalk.
The two-day Battle of North Point was a pivotal fight in the War of 1812. Fresh from burning the capital in Washington, 4,000 British troops landed near what is now Fort Howard, and marched up Old North Point Road -- then called Long Log Lane -- bent on destroying Baltimore.
Three thousand Maryland militiamen met them in delaying skirmishes while the city's defenders prepared fortifications at Hampstead Hill, now Patterson Park in East Baltimore.
On Sept. 11, 1814, Americans camped near the Methodist meeting house. The next night the British camped there, having driven the Americans westward across Bread and Cheese Creek.
Both used the meeting house as a field hospital, according to legend. Twenty-four Americans were killed in the fighting, with 129 wounded. The British suffered 46 dead and 295 wounded.
"If it had not been for that battle, we could be singing 'God Save the Queen,' " said Ms. Erlandson. Britain's casualties at North Point, and Fort McHenry's refusal to surrender under naval bombardment on Sept. 13, saved Baltimore and helped persuade England to sign a peace treaty at Ghent in 1815.
Ms. Erlandson had hoped her dig might turn up the graves of a few British casualties of the 1814 fighting, or a "surgeon's pit" with the remains of amputated limbs. It didn't.
She now says the British dead probably were buried by Quakers on a nearby farm that was obliterated in the 1970s by the county's Norris Farm Landfill.
The 7-week-old dig has been supported by $11,000 in grants from the Maryland Historical Trust and the Baltimore County Historical Trust, with contributions by the landowner and others.
Despite the battle's importance, North Point has enjoyed none of protection and resistance to development often marshaled on behalf of Civil War battlefields. Only a handful of markers and a tiny park remain.