Author Archives: Carly Ameen

About Carly Ameen

I am an archaeological scientist specialising in zooarchaeology. My research focuses on the use of Geometric Morphometrics (GMM) to distinguish between the faunal remains of closely related animal species and identify domesticates in archaeological contexts. I am primarily interested in how changes in animal morphology are related to changing husbandry practices and the unique cultural roles of animals in the past.

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…

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.


Jousting at the Royal Armouries

Helene Benkert, a doctoral student studying at the University of Exeter as part of the Warhorse project, went on a fact-finding mission to the Royal Armouries to experience their world-famous Easter jousting event. In future years the project hopes to develop display materials that can help engage with members of the public at these events.

Helene writes:
The International Jousting Competition at the Royal Armouries in Leeds is a huge event. Even in our modern times, jousting can still draw a big crowd. It wasn’t any different back in the medieval period.

Perhaps a little like football matches today, nobility would come together to ride, fight and cheer. Those knights successful enough would be celebrated like stars. Often enough, however, a career was ended prematurely through serious injuries or even death of the combatant, and attrition rates for horses were notoriously high.
Tournaments emerged in eleventh and twelfth centuries as a way to train for war and pass time between battles and campaigns. Soon they developed into the biggest sports events for nobles and a stage to show off skill as much as wealth and status.

The joust, where two knights on their valuable warhorses would charge at each other with lances, is the most widely known part of these competitions. Horses, of course, were an integral part of these tournaments.

The horses competing with their “knights” at the Royal Armouries in 2019 are sporting their owner’s colours and shiny metal chaffrons are protecting their heads. They pick up on the excitement of the audience and reenactors around them, ears pricked and prancing about the arena.

These are stunt horses – professionals – from Atkinson Action Horses, and they are used to all sorts of noise and racket. They are highly trained, just like medieval war and tournament horses had to be excellently trained to ensure their riders’ safety and, of course, victory. The horses were and are the real stars, directed by the knight in the saddle.

Back in the Middle Ages, a destrier or charger would have been the best bred and trained horse on the market and sold for exorbitant prices only the very rich could afford. Bigger than normal working horses, these were swift, fierce and strong stallions, clad in silver armour.

They certainly are impressive to watch in the tilt yard of the Royal Armouries as they gallop towards each other in the bright colours of their owner’s house. It is easy to imagine people enjoying this kind of entertainment so many centuries ago as the modern crowd cheers for their favourites.

Next year we will be back, with lots of facts and fun on and around medieval horses. So come and join us for talks, activities, crafts or a chat.

Written in bone: Zooarchaeology and the Warhorse project

A large component of the Warhorse project is the analysis of horse bones from medieval archaeological sites across Britain. Zooarchaeology, the study of ancient animal remains, provides insight into the unique roles that animals held in the past, both as food but also more significantly as important companions critically linked to social and cultural practices. The bones of these animals can tell us about their physical appearance, health, age at death and lifestyle, all of which combine to help us better understand the use of horses in the medieval period, and particularly to highlight the impact of their use in warfare.

   Fig.1 Assorted animal bones, including horse from Ipplepen, Devon

Animal bones are frequently recovered in large numbers from archaeological sites in Britain, often in refuse pits where the bones are the remains of food waste (Fig. 1). However, animal bones are also found as part of special deposits that could include animals which were given their own burials, animals included in human burials, or animals which were ritually deposited in other contexts. Understanding the context that remains are found in is an important first step for interpreting the roles of horse in the medieval period. While some burials of complete horse skeletons do exist, more often horse remains will be isolated elements as part of larger bone assemblages of many different species.

Fig.2 Disarticulated horse skeleton

For the Warhorse project, we will be using a combination of approaches to analyse these horse remains to integrate as many strands of evidence as possible for understanding the variation of medieval horses. We will begin by using traditional zooarchaeological techniques, which include taking a series of standardised measurements from the animal bones. These metrics will be used to provide evidence of size changes related to stature, including a detailed and systematic study of size, robusticity and shape, which could help us identify changes related to the increased use of horses in military activities. We will also record pathologies associated with working horses, such as spavin in the lower legs, back pathologies and bitting damage, to provide evidence for activities associated with military use/training.

Fig.3 Anatomical drawing of horse skeleton, showing location of elements used for GMM

Alongside these traditional metric analyses, we will apply advanced 3D geometric morphometrics (GMM) to study variations in astragalus and calcaneus bones. These particular elements have been selected as they are easily identified within archaeological assemblages and tend to preserve very well in one piece, an essential criterion for 3D GMM. Because these elements are located in the limbs (Fig. 3), their morphological variation is likely to indicate during life changes related to locomotor requirement. These requirements would likely differ between horses used for military and domestic purposes. Digital 3D models will be created through a well-used method of structure-from-motion photogrammetry (Fig. 4), which is quick, inexpensive, and does not damage specimens. By combining both the traditional metrics with these more advanced GMM techniques, we will be able to generate a new, independent chronology of changing horse size, morphology and appearance which will increase our ability to detect husbandry practices and management strategies during the medieval period, and hopefully identify a unique horse morphology specific to horses used for military purposes.

Fig.4 (top) Horse astragalus being photographed using photogrammetry, and (bottom), horse calcaneus during the modelling process.