Horse Island: Place Names and Early Equine Landscapes

Look at a large-scale Ordnance Survey map and it is perhaps surprising to see how many places that exist today owe their name to the presence of horses: Horsham, Horsely, Horsebridge, Studleigh and so on (Fig. 1).  One of the aims of Warhorse is to shed more light on what we might call ‘equine landscapes’ of the Middle Ages, and place-names represent an important category of evidence for investigation. Significantly for the project, many of our modern ‘horse’ names have Old English origins and so provide a valuable dataset for analysis.

Fig. 1 Horse place-names – East and West Horsley in Hampshire

Terms that refer to horses appear in both ‘major’ place-names given to settlements and also as more ‘minor’ names often given to fields or farms. Nationally there are literally hundreds of them. Clearly at some point in the past horses were such a feature of these places that they warranted naming as such and so our horse place-names potentially provide us with evidence for the location of specific breeding sites or concentrations of hooves on the ground. So far, so good.

But the interpretation of place-names is complicated by a number of factors. Firstly, there is the difficulty of whether names attest to the commonplace – a name relating to horses might indicate an abundance that made for a distinguishing feature – or the opposite – a scarcity of horses in any given area might mean those places where they did exist were distinctive. Secondly, names are not always straightforward: Maresfield in Sussex derives from Old English mere ‘pool’ rather than denoting the presence of equines.  Thirdly, names are often very difficult to date precisely. Clearly a proportion of the horse names found today are relatively recent (think of how many Black Horse pubs there are out there) and the exact date of many minor names, which are probably medieval, but where we would like more precision for the purposes of analysis, are frustratingly elusive. Fortunately, for major place-names, documentary evidence often confirms an early date (Domesday Book is very helpful here) and these cases must reflect in some way horse management in the pre-Conquest period.

Fig. 2Modern Landscape of Horsey, Norfolk

One such place is Horsey in north east Norfolk on the edge of the Broads (Fig. 2). In 1086 Domesday Book records the name Horseia meaning ‘horse island’ – from the Old English hors ‘horse’ and ēg ‘island’. Go there today and while you will struggle to find it (this is Norfolk remember), there are traces of a gentle hill where the church now stands and from which the ‘island’ part of the name was presumably taken. In the late eleventh century this island would have stood at the mouth of what is now the river Thurne and today’s semi-drained farmland would have been a wide expanse of estuarine salt marsh and grazing, something readily appreciable today even if the ‘island’ is not (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 What is now drained farmland would have been wetland grazing in the eleventh century.

 

 

So why ‘horse’ island? As the project is discovering, there is some evidence that the place name hors, denoted feral or semi-feral herds, and here it is interesting that Domesday Book also records large numbers of what it calls ‘wild mares’ in neighbouring manors. Such feral herds were presumably exploited much in the way that they are today, perhaps with young animals being drawn off on a cyclical basis for breaking in and use elsewhere.

So – should we be imagining a feral horse population around Horsey in the Anglo-Saxon period grazing on the extensive wetlands, perhaps analogous to Camargue horses in modern France? Perhaps the Norfolk Horsey was not unique as ‘horse islands’ are also found in the Somerset and Pevensey Levels, the Peterborough Fens, on the Essex coast and what is now Portsmouth harbour – once all very similar environments. And would the horse living in these landscapes had different characteristics to those grazing in different surroundings, such as upland Exmoor and Dartmoor, which Domesday Book shows was clearing taking place? Warhorse is currently exploring these and many other issues and it will be fascinating to see if the zooarchaeology and material culture strands of the project can help us to further refine our understanding of these early horse landscapes. It’s all in the name (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 A dim echo of a horse landscape of the Anglo-Saxon period? The clue is in the name…

Visiting a Destrier of the Royal Collection

At the end of February, Prof. Alan Outram and Helene Benkert had the honour of meeting one of the formidable Destriers of the Royal Collection. Copper, a lovely chestnut mare, used to serve as a jousting horse at the Royal Armouries in Leeds and starred in many cinematic productions during her time. She is now enjoying her well-earned retirement near York, under the loving care of Matt Cooper.

Copper, Destrier of the Royal Collection

We went north to visit them to use Copper as a guinea-pig for our studies of horse morphology. She graciously endured her role and kindly accepted mints as payment.

First, Matt discussed the various aspects of conformation that a horse should sport in order to be suitable for jousting. We then armed ourselves with tape measures and began putting numbers to the features Matt had pointed out. Though Copper was a little sceptical of our tools at first, she allowed us to continue so long as she had hay to munch in the meantime.

Copper has her own full set of armour which she very patiently donned once again for us to inspect and admire. She certainly looked dashing, though perhaps a bit unhappy.

Copper in her full armour

Putting on all the different bits of armour followed a meticulous protocol and took quite a bit of time, but it helped to understand how all the parts work together and in relationship with the horse. Seeing her move with her metal shell, the impact full armour had on the horses’ movements became clear. Though she was not hindered in her mobility, she walked differently to counterbalance the weight. When working in the armour, she would have had to balance the rider’s weight and movements as well, highlighting the achievement of an excellent warhorse.

Putting on the armour

Our particular interest was on her shaffron and how its measurements would translate to her head. It turned out that it is rather complicated to find the corresponding measurements on both shaffron and head in a way that is reproduceable.

Her measurements will be used to understand the relationship between armour, horse, and skeleton. In the absence of actual horses in the archaeological record, we rely on such modern references to draw conclusions from the materials that we do have available: the bones and the armour. Copper will help us to better understand and interpret this data.

We are very grateful to Matt and Copper for their patience and willingness to help and, of course, their valuable insight into the working side of a medieval jousting horse.

Back in the Laboratories after Lockdown

The project team were delighted to be back in the laboratories this week and thought that followers of our blog might be interested to see some images of us in action.

Following the nationwide lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the University of Exeter is now able to facilitate access to laboratories and other technical facilities for some prioritised work, and it is excellent that we have been able to make some good early progress with the zooarchaeological (animal bone) work package of our project.

In the ‘new normal’, health and safety requirements are of primary importance course, and we have been finding new ways of working in our COVID-secure spaces.

This week we have been concentrating on taking small samples from horse bones and teeth that we will be sending to the laboratory of our project partners in Toulouse, France (see https://orlandoludovic.wixsite.com/pegasus-erc). In this world-leading specialist laboratory, our French collaborators will look to extract the ancient horse DNA that can hopefully shed light on where our medieval specimens fit into the ‘family tree’ of equine evolution.

The process of extracting samples, which is captured in the photographs below, is delicate and complex. Cleanliness is paramount, so the person taking the samples wears protective gear and a double set of gloves, while the cutting takes place on tin foil, so that all residue can be easily removed between samples. Tools need to be cleaned with ‘DNA-Away’, a decontaminant that prevents cross-contamination between samples.

To minimise damage to the bone, only a small sliver is removed, by cutting two small parallel slots with a dremel (a rotary cutting tool) or a small electric saw. The sample is then prised out with a screwdriver and bagged for dispatch to the lab in Toulouse. The project team are looking forward to hearing back on the preliminary results and thinking through their implications…

Members of the project team working on bone sampling in COVID-19-compliant working conditions.

Cutting a horse tooth from Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, in order to extract a sample.

Sampling medieval a horse bone from Windsor castle. The small electric cutter allows precision work in order to minimise destructive damage to the bone.

One of the sliver-like samples of bone. This one (from the medieval settlement site of West Cotton, Northamptonshire) appears to be very well preserved, which bodes well for the prospects of being able to extract ancient DNA from it.

Our set of bagged and labelled samples, ready for dispatch to the laboratory in Toulouse.

Equipping the warhorse: Horseshoes, harness pendants and stirrup fittings

This month Rob Webley joins the ‘Warhorse’ team – here he introduces himself and the project’s examination of equine material culture

It is a pleasure to have started working on the ‘Warhorse’ project, where my focus will be on the objects used to ride horses and to decorate them – their material culture. One of our aims, by studying images and artefacts, is to see which objects were associated with the warhorse, or essential to using horses in combat, and which were used in other contexts. My background in archaeological artefacts comes from over a decade’s work for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) for whom I made nearly 10,000 records of objects found by members of the public. Many of these objects related to the early-medieval, medieval and post-medieval horse, and much of this equestrian equipment has, in turn, featured heavily in my PhD thesis undertaken at the University of York. My thesis considers developments in portable material culture focused on the 11th and 12th centuries, part of which has been to assess and contextualise the impact of the Norman Conquest.

Medieval horseshoe with possible orthopaedic plate (PAS: SUSS-973667) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Medieval horseshoe with possible orthopaedic plate (PAS: SUSS-973667) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

The database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme will feature heavily in my ‘Warhorse’ work, as it holds over 16,000 records of equestrian equipment from our period of study. Most objects recorded by the PAS are non-ferrous (not made of iron), because the majority of those reporting to it are metal-detector users. This is both a challenge and a blessing. Taking horseshoes as an example, being iron, PAS records number only in the hundreds (a particularly interesting example is featured above), while we know that during the Hundred Years War horseshoes were being forged in their thousands every year in Nottinghamshire alone. To assess changes in shape and size in horseshoes, information will have to be extracted primarily from excavation reports and museum examples: this can then be compared to zooarchaeological data to establish whether such changes are useful approximations of changes in horse size and stature.

Examples of medieval horse harness pendants

The most exciting challenges posed by PAS data come when it throws up large numbers of objects that are otherwise neglected in the documentary record. A case in point is the harness pendant: a copper-alloy item which came to real prominence in the 12th century as a means primarily of decorating a horse’s breast strap (examples to right). Nearly 6,000 of these pendants have been recorded on the PAS database. This quantity inevitably raises questions about what type of horse was decorated with these objects: Who used such horses? Did this change through time? Hopefully the evidence of representations of harness pendants in art, along with the objects themselves, will – if approached with due caution – yield some answers.

A final example may be provided by stirrup fittings. A fashion in the 11th century (running on into the 12th century) saw stirrups – generally iron objects – embellished with highly decorative copper-alloy terminals at the ends of their tread-plates (see the example below). Also made of copper alloy are contemporary mounts which protected and decorated the stirrup leather where it passed through the apex loop of a stirrup. Both are often decorated with zoomorphic (animal) designs. Many hundreds of such ‘stirrup-strap mounts’ are now known, and, alongside the stirrup terminals, provide evidence for large numbers of horse riders in late Anglo-Saxon England. They therefore serve as a counterpoint to perceptions of the innate ‘horse-mindedness’ of the Normans. As with harness pendants, their sheer numbers challenge our sense of where to situate them socially, suggesting more people were riding or engaging with horses than previously thought.

Late early-medieval stirrup terminal with a beast's head (c. 11th century) (PAS: SOM-C2BC82) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Late early-medieval stirrup terminal with a beast’s head (c. 11th century) (PAS: SOM-C2BC82) (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Because so much equestrian equipment was lost in transit, and so little has, proportionally, been recovered archaeologically, it has not always been studied in depth and there is plenty of work to be done on bringing new data together and starting to associate it with different horse roles. For unequivocal equipment of the warhorse – its armour – you may want to explore some of our other posts.

What can equine armour tell us about the warhorse that wore it?

As you will have seen from previous posts, our project team are busy trying to find out as much as we can about the size and shape of medieval horse types from their skeletons. However, warhorses also had exoskeletons (external skeletons). While we might think of animals with exoskeletons as being creatures such as insects and crabs, warhorses had artificial exoskeletons in the form of armour. What can horse armour tell us about stature and shape of the horse that it fitted?

On the face of it, this sounds easy. The size of armour surely tells us a lot about size of horses selected for warfare and jousting. When one starts to examine the prospect more closely, however, some difficulties emerge. Leg lengths tell us most about withers heights, but horses didn’t wear greaves. Peytrals and cruppers certainly tell us a bit about the width of a horse’s chest or rump, respectively, but they don’t tell us much about height as they differ greatly in design in that respect. The crinet on the neck is designed to expand and contract with head movement, so there are not appropriate fixed points to measure. The other big problem with horse armour is its rarity: pieces survive in fairly small numbers, mainly in important museum collections. We are going to take measurements where we can, but those elements are unlikely to yield the datasets we need.

Shaffrons, on the other hand, survive it quite large numbers and were fitted quite closely to the horse’s face, with just a little paddling in between. They might give us lots of data on the size and shape of horse’s heads.

Shaffron being measured

A 16th Century shaffron being measured in the collections of the Royal Armouries (Photo: O. Creighton).

Diagram showing shaffron measurements

We are taking many measurements, both in straight lines and in contour between key landmarks on the shaffrons.

Deciding what to measure on shaffrons is not easy as they also vary in design quite considerably. Some extend fully from the back of the head to the nose, but then have a wide range of designs around the nasal area. Some ‘half shaffrons’ don’t extend as far as the nose. Shaffrons also vary in the way they extend down the cheek, with some having separate cheek pieces. Eyes holes can be plain or have additional guards of different types. Our best course of action is to be thorough in our metrical recording, so that we don’t regret the choices we made at a later point.

While some measurements will mainly tell us about shaffron design, there are others that relate directly to the size and shape of the horse’s head. These include overall width measurements and measurements between eye and ear holes in various combinations. Overall length is quite difficult because of the difficult designs at the nose. We have started to collect our shaffron data, but there is much yet to do. We have also been carrying out equivalent measurements on live horses of different type, breed and withers height so that we can understand what our shaffron data mean.

measuring equipment

Our measuring equipment and recording form ready for use (Photo: O. Creighton).

half shaffron being measured

A half shaffron being measured in the Royal Armouries stores (Photo: O. Creighton).

horse being measured

Our honorary fellow Karina Rapp, measuring one of our sample of live horses.

 

We’ve still got to measure many more shaffrons and horses, but what do we know so far? As you might imagine, horse head size doesn’t have a simple relationship to withers heights, but there is nonetheless some relationship, and we will be able say something about varying stature and head shape. We can already see that shaffrons can be of radically different sizes and some were clearly fitted to pony-sized animals. However, there are some impressively large examples out there too! As our project develops, it will be fascinating to see how our data from shaffrons relate to the zooarchaeaological material, especially in terms of trying to answer the big question about the size and appearance of medieval ‘great’ horses…

The Price of Riding

The horse’s body was not meant to carry a saddle, let alone a rider encased in clanking metal.

Riding is unnatural, and although there are ways to keep the damage to a minimum, it will take a visible toll on the horse’s skeleton.

These pathologies — deviations from the normal structure of bones and teeth caused by disease, age, or stress — are a valuable tool for the zooarchaeologist as they can illuminate aspects of the animal’s life and sometimes death.

For the Warhorse Project, pathology is a true treasure trove. Injuries, possibly sustained in battle or on the tournament field, or evidence for regular riding, all hold the potential to tell us something about the lives of horses in the Middle Ages.

Bony changes in the horse’s spine are a relatively common result of riding. Fusion of several vertebrae or even entire backs can frequently be seen in the zooarchaeological record.

Abnormal bone growth caused by ‘Kissing Spine’ in a medieval horse from Latvia (Photo: H. Benkert)

The abnormal weight of a rider (or any heavy load) on their back forces the spine to bend downwards, which brings the spinous processes of the vertebrae (long bony projections protruding from the top of the vertebrae) much closer together than they should be. When they touch and grind against each other repeatedly this causes new bone growth around the affected area — a painful condition called ‘Kissing Spine’.

Fusion of vertebral bodies in a horse spine from early Anglo-Saxon Britain (Photo: H. Benkert)

To counter this, the horse will become stiff in the back in an attempt to minimise movement between the vertebrae. Similarly, the bones themselves will react to the repeated strain by growing bony bridges between vertebrae, locking them into place. Such fusion in the spine can be a normal consequence of old age and it is not uncommon to find it in two or three lumbar vertebrae. However, exceptional strain on a horse’s back may eventually lead to the complete fusion of the spine, known as a ‘bamboo spine’.

 

 

For any pathological condition to grow as severe as an immobile spine, the animal must have survived it for a considerable amount of time. That means its owners or caretakers cared for the animal, indicating a bond between humans and horses that reached beyond mere exploitation. It paints the horse as a companion and partner that did not lose its value even when it outlived its usefulness.

The morphology of movement

In our search for Medieval warhorses, we naturally will encounter a large quantity of horses not used in combat. The zooarchaeological record in Britain is full of horses, from the impressive Iron Age human/horse chariot burials, to the Post-Medieval remains of work horses. The task for those of us working on the bones of these animals is identifying signs that could indicate what the horses were being used for while alive. Because of the biased nature of preservation of biological remains, we frequently encounter bones and teeth, but rarely find evidence of more delicate materials, such as skin, fur, hair and muscle. Thus, it is our job to find proxies for these things with the faunal data we do have.

Muscles are a hugely important factor in how a horse moves, and those used for work (draught horses) would have utilised their muscles in very different ways from those used primarily for riding, or combat. Though we cannot study the muscles themselves, bones leave evidence of the nature of musculoskeletal loadings at the point where the muscle is attached to the bone. By looking at these areas of muscle attachment, we can investigate changes in robusticity, and changes in size, shape and surface complexity of horse bones.

As an analogy, imagine a draught horse as a front wheel drive car, deriving its power from the forelimbs, pulling with the aid of a harness. In contrast, in combat a horse is a rear wheel drive car, and would need to be able to perform short bursts of speed, and turn in tight, quick movements. It is likely this power would be derived from the hindlimbs. These vastly different movements repeated over the life of the animal would induce stress to the muscles, and the attached bones. 

But, what can we expect to see on these bones? There are a few different ways that we are investigating these morphological changes, and a previous blog post discussed the 3D methods we are using. However, in-life movement and stress not only affect the surface of the bone, but also the internal structures. Studies of living horses have successfully used CT scanning and x-ray to investigate the internal structures of the lower limb bones (metapodia) providing a measurement of cortical thickness which has been shown to change depending on in-life usage of the horse. A few weeks ago, we used the x-ray in the archaeological science labs at the University of Exeter, to investigate the ability of x-ray to show the cortical thickness in archaeological bones.

We investigated how the cortical thickness changed at different locations on the bone (i.e. near the ends and towards the centre of the shaft). This was preliminary investigative work to determine a sampling strategy for all the bones in our assemblage. We wanted to see how the cortical thickness changed along the bone, and decide on a standardised place to measure its thickness from. From the x-ray images of the horse bones, we will be able to measure the thickness of the cortical wall and compare this with the thickness of modern horses with known in-life activities.

 

End of year blog

It has been a busy year for the Warhorse project, with work progressing on multiple fronts. We thought that a quick end of year blog would be a useful way of summarising some of the key activities and achievements so far and for alerting everybody to our packed programme for 2020.

In terms of our team of post-doctoral researchers, we have welcomed on board Dr Gary Baker, who, working alongside Prof Rob Liddiard, has been making great strides in capturing documentary references to the royal network of studs. Preliminary results are really exciting, and we can report that the project has already generated an initial map of how the royal studs were distributed across the English landscape, which we think is the first time this has been done.

We are also delighted to welcome to the team Rob Webley, who from spring 2020 will be working on the material culture work package of our project, examining all things metal and equine from harness pendants to horseshoes. Rob has a fantastic pedigree of working with medieval objects through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and we look forward to developing this side of the project with him on board. We have already made good progress in collecting together some excellent examples of medieval representations of horses on wall paintings and sculpture (see images below, taken by Prof Oliver Creighton).

Sculpture of St George on a tympanum, Damerham, Hampshire

Norman warhorses on a capital at Wakerley, Northamptonshire

On the zooarchaeological front we have set up our Geometric Morphometrics Lab with new digital photogrammetry and X-ray facilities, and 2020 will see an energetic programme of data collection in the UK and Europe led by our Project Officer Dr Carly Ameen and our dedicated PhD student Helene Benkert, working with Prof Alan Outram.

Our programme of impact and outreach activities also continues to gain momentum, with project members present at the Royal Armouries’ Easter Joust, at the Tewkesbury re-enactment and at the Being Human Festival in Exeter Cathedral. Team members have already contributed to the Leeds International Medieval Congress, the Society for Medieval Archaeology Student Colloquium, the International Council for Archaeozoology GMM Conference, Paris, and the Postgraduate Zooarchaeology Forum in Yerevan, Armenia.
If there is one thing that excites our project team most is the potential for integration between our different strands of evidence. We have our first Steering Group in March 2020, and while it is still early days for our work, with over two years still to run, we will be turning our minds to the ways our different work packages need to interact and add value to produce new insights.

2020 will also see team members analysing and measuring horse armour, and trying to draw our first connections between surviving material culture in modern-day museum collections and the dry bones of long-dead medieval horses. The challenge is to understand what the ‘live’ horses of the medieval period looked like when all we have are their bony endoskeletons and their humanly created steel exoskeletons. So bring on the next stage of our project …

Horsepower

The standards demanded of a medieval warhorse were enormous.

A destrier needed to be strong enough not only to carry a rider in full armour but also armour of their own. They needed to be large and sturdy enough to be able to withstand the chaos of battle and to potentially charge through the ranks of the enemy without breaking stride. Yet they also needed to be fast and agile enough to be able to manoeuvre quickly. And, perhaps most crucially, they needed to have nerves of steel.

As a flight animal, i.e. one that would run away in the face of danger, most of these demands are unnatural to the horse. Charging at another being goes against all a horse’s natural instincts, with the noise of battle alone enough to trigger flight. Add to that lethal arrows dropping from the sky, sharp weapons cutting and stabbing all around them and bodies crashing into each other and you get a potent mix that would send any animal into a frenzied flight.

 

In light of these challenges, it seems an extraordinary feat to train efficient and deadly cavalry.

In spite of all the brutal looking bits and spurs and other riding implements of the medieval period, both horse and rider must have been exceptionally well-trained. A horse was a knight’s life-insurance (and worth huge sums of money), so they had to be reliable.

Modern jousters know this as well as any medieval knight did. Some horses are just not the right “person” for the job, some might only cope with it for a season before they refuse to ever charge again. The horse must be mentally and physically able to comply with the high demands of war and tournament.

Cold-blooded horses, for example a Percheron or Suffolk Punch, tend to be not only sturdy, strong animals but also have a much calmer disposition than a temperamental thoroughbred. That is not to say that the latter are unsuitable for war, and there is plenty of evidence of the contrary. However, they are more suited to a very different style of fighting on horseback as employed by various Near Eastern and Eastern European peoples for example.

For the classic medieval Western European style on the other hand, relying heavily on strength and force, a horse more reminiscent of a modern cob or light cold blood was needed.

The Warhorse Project’s aim is to trace these very horses across medieval Europe, from their physical development to their training and usage. Understanding where, when and how medieval warhorses emerged and evolved will shed more light on military transitions and associated social changes such as the development of chivalry.