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Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 79

November 2004



Iron Age children's graves found in Orkney

First Anglo-Saxon era papal seal found (and second)

Coastal war defences mean more book borrowing

Casanova's lover knew statue

Roman kiln found - great tiles, poor speller

In Brief


Glenn Foard and Tim Sutherland fight for history

Stone tools: the mines
Paul Craddock and Mike Cowell solve an old problem

Stone tools: the men
Paul Sillitoe learns from stone tool users in New Guinea

Viking cemetery
The inside report on a unique excavation


Identity, teaching, pagans, chalk giants and asterisms


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Field offensive

From classroom to television, battles dominate popular versions of British history. Yet they have been curiously neglected by archaeologists. Glenn Foard takes the stand

Military studies have always been central to British archaeology. Battles, as John Carman has pointed out (BA February 1997), are material phenomena: the meeting of landscape, technology and people. There is a dramatic imbalance, however, between the archaeologies of defence and of attack. Over 100 Medieval castles and Early Modern defence works are in English Heritage guardianship—and one battlefield. There are 43 Registered Battlefields in England, but hundreds of scheduled castles and other defensive sites. Not one siege site has been selected for conservation. Scotland and Wales do not even have a register, which, for all its shortcomings, does encourage protection through the planning process.

Over the last decade English Heritage has commissioned only one major work on battlefields, the reports which underpinned the establishment of the Battlefields Register. The £100,000 which that cost, with the minimal sum devoted to the investigation and conservation of eight centuries of battlefields, is a drop in the ocean compared to resources devoted to defensive sites, from Iron Age hillforts to Cold War bunkers. Even within battlefield management itself archaeology is the poor relation. Well over £200,000 was spent recently interpreting the battlefield of Shrewsbury (Shropshire, 1403), with nothing on archaeological investigation to ensure accurate interpretation.

This dichotomy is between the obvious and the ephemeral. Defence reveals itself in massive structures, which functioned for centuries and are often still visually striking. Battles, in contrast, were brief affairs, typically of just two or three hours, and their physical remains are faint.

Yet visibility is rarely a guide to historical importance. Though rare, major battles were often turning points in our history. The threat of battle was the key factor driving the evolution of defence. In the 1970s there was a similar problem in settlement studies, with Roman sites known in vast numbers whilst Anglo-Saxon ones could hardly be located. That was resolved by first recognising the potential and then implementing effective surveys. Now a new battlefield methodology exists to study the archaeology of attack.

English Heritage pioneered a Register of Historic Battlefields in 1995. This offers no statutory protection, treating battlefields as historic sites, not archaeological monuments. Thanks to registration, archaeological evaluation has occasionally been required on battlefields, but has rarely produced significant evidence. This is partly because studies need to be conducted on the large scale of a battlefield. It is also because the new methodology has not been widely disseminated.

This has been developed by a handful of unfunded practitioners, helped enormously by consultation with colleagues in the USA. Fieldwork had largely been left to a few amateur metal detector users. Despite lack of archaeological training they began, at sites like Naseby and Towton, to reveal the enormous potential of the distribution of unstratified artefacts. Yet not one British battlefield has been surveyed and recorded to the standards regularly applied in the USA. On most battlefields artefacts are removed without even minimal recording.

The need for action was highlighted in 2003, in what may prove to have been the turning point, at a metal detecting rally on Marston Moor (North Yorkshire, 1644: see box overleaf). This sad episode revealed lack of awareness at every level. Thankfully, a parliamentary question elicited a sympathetic response from the government. The Review of Heritage Protection (Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2004) requires that nationally important battlefields be brought within the same conservation regime as scheduled monuments and listed buildings.

English Heritage must now ensure that this important opportunity is taken to extend effective conservation measures to our historic battlefields. Unfortunately, the one battlefield in the designation pilot project is quite atypical. No plans have been revealed to explore its wholly unknown archaeology. How can this provide the model for future battlefield management?

There is a further problem. Whilst the register has been instrumental in helping to defend a few sites against development, like Tewkesbury (Gloucestershire, 1471), it has done little to advance the understanding or conservation of battlefield archaeology. Recognition of its failings has inhibited other nations from following suit with their own conservation measures.

New research by the Battlefields Trust has revealed instances where fundamental revisions to registered areas are needed to ensure key elements of battle archaeology and historic terrain are preserved. To its credit, English Heritage has acknowledged the inadequacy of the current regime and, with organisations from Scotland and Wales, is working with the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds University, the Battlefields Trust and the Royal Armouries to address the issues. A research framework is needed, with a conservation strategy and a commitment to refine and disseminate methodology. As a first step, in November the Battlefields Trust will start work with Historic Scotland on a gazetteer of Scottish battlefields.

What next? Some archaeologists are troubled by the thought of archaeology as the ‘handmaiden of history’, and would have a quasi-independent battlefield archaeology. This would be a mistake, for the real opportunity is in uniting military history with historical geography and landscape archaeology. Nor should we be put off by the ‘post processual’ historians and archaeologists who believe that past soldiers viewed the landscape differently from us, and that battles were more ritual than rational ‘modern’ interaction with the landscape.

Vegetius’ late Roman military manual was the most heavily used of all classical texts in Western Europe from the 5th to the 15th century, read by military commanders from Charlemagne and Alfred to Richard III. A good general, he says, should ‘get help first from the place’, for ‘a large part of a victory depends on the actual place in which the battle is fought … If we are strong in cavalry, we should opt for plains; if in infantry, we should choose confined places, obstructed by ditches, marshes or trees’. Such discussion of tactics reveals that battles, from Classical times through to the Early Modern period, were fought with a practical, materialistic awareness of the real world, whatever ritualistic justifications might have been placed upon results afterwards or have been used to try to influence action beforehand. The events themselves are perfectly open to scientific investigation.

So how to pursue that study?
Reconstructing the terrain at the time of the action is the first priority. Using physical and documentary evidence we must establish the pattern of fields and roads, of marsh and moor and the many other landscape elements that provided tactical opportunities and challenges for the commanders. Recovering a single day in the life of a landscape was beyond the pioneers of modern battlefield study such as Alfred H Burne, writing in the 1950s. Now, thanks to techniques developed in the half century since WG Hoskins published his Making of the English Landscape, we have most of the tools needed for this difficult task.

Then one must place historical events into that reconstructed terrain. This is done using topographical clues in accounts of the action, and information on troop numbers interpreted according to the evidence of military practice of the period. For some battles such analysis seems to produce a highly accurate picture, at least of the initial deployments, the critical starting point for any study.

Finally comes the all-important recovery and analysis of physical evidence, primarily artefact scatters, the independent data sets with which we can validate interpretations provided by the first two stages of analysis. This was pioneered in the 1970s at Marston Moor by the late Peter Newman. Unfortunately, outside the USA, this has since been left almost solely to amateur metal detectorists.

On undeveloped sites, unless removed by detectorists, the vast majority of lead bullets fired in Early Modern battles still lie where they fell. In just a few seconds, the first infantry volley at Naseby (Northamptonshire 1645) probably deposited around 5,000 bullets. The infantry alone will have carried well over 100,000 bullets onto the field. From the calibre of those we recover we can tell whether they were fired by musketeers, cavalry, dragoons or possibly, from the surface damage on them, as ‘case-shot’ from artillery pieces. On Medieval battlefields, unless the soil pH, long term cultivation and recent application of chemicals have destroyed them, iron arrowheads may still remain, for the great arrow storms which opened many Medieval battles deposited thousands of projectiles. At Towton (North Yorkshire, 1461) more than 200 have already been recovered, though it is not yet known how exceptional this is. Even if arrowheads do not survive, battlefields should yield large numbers of non-ferrous items from arms, armour and personal equipment lost in action, in subsequent pillaging or during burial of the dead.

Battle archaeology has been transformed. Our work at Naseby in the early 1990s merely drew upon data already collected by unsystematic metal detectorists who had roughly mapped their finds. Since the late 1990s Tim Sutherland has joined Simon Richardson for a more systematic survey within a wider archaeological study of the battle at Towton. We now need projects designed from the outset to apply best practice, where necessary refining techniques, to provide exemplars for future investigations.

The Battlefields Trust, on a shoestring budget, has just begun a two year study of the Civil War field at Edgehill (Warwickshire, 1642). On behalf of Leicestershire County Council we have designed a research programme for Bosworth (Leicestershire, 1485) to underpin a major revamp of England’s only battlefield visitor centre. However, it seems easier to fund an interpretive project than to find the far smaller sums needed to ensure the validity of that interpretation.

Primary research is also necessary in its own right. We do not yet know whether different stages of a battle, such as the initial salvos, a fighting retreat and a rout, have different archaeological signatures. Far rarer and even more difficult to locate than unstratified artefacts are the burials of the slain. Yet they can contribute unique detail on the character of the action and of the combatants themselves, as so graphically demonstrated by the excavation at Towton in the 1990s.

Research is needed not simply to enable better public interpretation of events in the landscape. More importantly, we can now see our battlefields through commanders’ eyes, and understand the tactical opportunities and the decisions taken, for good or ill, in exploiting the terrain. Fieldwork may answer fundamental questions about where and how early battles were fought and even, through reconstructing frontages represented by the initial projectile exchange, how many troops were really involved, with all the implications this has for understanding the evolution of warfare and its influence on society.

No other events of just a few hours have left such tangible physical remains that can tell us so much of how people interacted with the landscape. However, to yield the answers, the methodology of battlefield investigation needs substantial refinement. This will not be achieved by television, almost the only current source of funding for UK battlefield archaeology! Neither can it be developed during work required by planning law, for that is too closely constrained. A targeted research programme is needed on a sample of battlefields from the 11th to the 17th centuries to determine what survives and how it can best be studied.

We need collaboration between battlefield archaeologists, metal detectorists, military historians, finds liaison officers and heritage managers. From Culloden to Hastings, the archaeology of battles and battlefields has an important contribution to make to the military history of Britain. Immediate action is needed to protect these sites from what appear to be rapidly increasing losses to unrecorded treasure hunting. In England the proposed integration of the various heritage designations provides a unique opportunity to resolve discrepancies between the conservation of battlefields and that of other archaeological monuments. Parallel action is needed in Scotland and Wales. The Fields of Conflict conference, the international forum for battlefield archaeology, to be held in 2006 in Leeds, would be an ideal venue for us to demonstrate our future plans.

Opportunities are even wider for, as in so much else, Britain shared a warfare tradition with Western Europe. Threats are Europe-wide too, as the recent proposal to construct massive wind turbines next to the traditional site of the battle of Agincourt shows. Indeed of all archaeological projects perhaps none more than the study of battlefields is suited to an EU-wide research and conservation programme. Battles drew and redrew the political map of the continent over the last two millennia. We must not let this unique resource disappear before our eyes just as we learn how to read the story.

From Naseby to Edgehill

Over many years Peter Burton and Mike Westaway conducted intensive metal detecting across Naseby battlefield (Northamptonshire, 1645). Though unsystematic and not recorded to current standards, their work demonstrated that key elements of the action extended more than a mile beyond what is still the Registered Battlefield boundary. Their evidence was integrated with a study of the historic landscape and primary sources in G Foard’s ‘Naseby: the Decisive Campaign’ (Pryor 1995).

Now Burton is collaborating with other experienced detectorists led by Bob Kings, as part of a new survey of Edgehill by the Battlefields Trust. Involving mainly local volunteers, the project is supported by the County Council, the Ministry of Defence (the main landowner) and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and with limited grant aid from the Local Heritage Initiative. Every artefact is being separately recorded using GPS to map a sample of bullets and other finds across several square kilometres.

The Battlefields Trust, a registered charity founded in 1993 in response to the construction of the A14 across Naseby battlefield, promotes the conservation and interpretation of battlefields throughout the UK. The only organisation working in the field, though it has a very active membership, it has yet to achieve recognition as an Amenity Society and is dependent on grant aid for much of its work. For more on UK battlefields, the Edgehill Project and the Battlefields Trust see


Topsoil: key battlefield layer

Tim Sutherland reports from the field of Marston Moor, 2003

Marston Moor (North Yorkshire, 1644) is the site of probably the largest battle ever fought on English soil. In April 2003 a monograph (‘Marston Moor 1644’, by PR Newman & PR Roberts, Blackthorn Press) revealed archaeological evidence extending half a mile beyond the Registered Battlefield boundary – obtained, ironically, from a metal-detecting survey. A few months later a metal detecting rally was held at the site.

Despite months of warnings, over 300 detectorists had free access to the site. Members of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) were present, but find locations were only recorded by field, loosing vital distribution information. Some of these fields are half a kilometre long.

Journalists and I visited the site. David Keys (Independent 22 September 2003) wrote that only ‘about 140 items [were] officially reported … [of which] fewer than 10 were understood to be relevant to the battle’. So did the information recorded by the PAS reflect the artefact assemblage removed over the weekend?

Keys talked to those present. ‘Towards the end of the rally’, he told me, ‘each detectorist said that most people had found between one and ten lead shot each’—a total of 300-3,000 battle artefacts.

‘When asked if they had taken the [lead] shot in to be recorded’, continued Keys, ‘most people said that they had not been asked to, and therefore did not think that it was important enough to bother with’.

The issue was subsequently raised in the House of Lords (Hansard, 17 September 2003). Would the government introduce licensing for those using metal detectors on battlefield sites?

Lord McIntosh replied that ‘at present, the government have no powers to protect historic battlefields … metal detecting, unless done in accordance with proper standards and a proper code of practice, can be very damaging … It is why we have a review that includes historic battlefield sites as part of the general subject of listing and scheduling. At present, it is entirely unsatisfactory that we can do nothing about battlefields, metal detectorists or anybody else, if they operate with the permission of the landowner and avoid scheduled sites’.

The events at Marston Moor can be compared to results from the Towton Battlefield Archaeological Survey. I am working with a metal detectorist (Simon Richardson) who has been recording the location of artefacts from the Battle of Towton for 20 years. We have now recovered some 1,500 battle related artefacts—half of those potentially found during the Marston Moor rally. The Towton Survey, however, has revealed the location of the original line of engagement and discrete areas of conflict across the battlefield.

The most important archaeological layer on a field of battle is the topsoil. Destroying this resource is comparable to the unrecorded emptying of every feature on a stratified archaeological site. Educating people to this concept is vital.

Until historic battlefields receive greater legal protection, more people will take the route to ‘instant archaeology’, using metal detectors without recording the evidence. Such practice is simply plundering our nation’s heritage.

Tim Sutherland is coordinator of CAIRN (Conflict Archaeology International Research Network) and director of the Towton Battlefield Archaeological Survey Project

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