Monthly Archives: May 2020

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…