Author Archives: Oliver Creighton

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.

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 …

Warhorse at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

Our project’s PhD student Helene Benkert has been on another mission to infiltrate the world of medieval re-enactment. This time it took her to Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, one of the largest gatherings of its kind in Europe.

Thousands of enthusiasts gather each year on the fields near Tewkesbury Abbey, the very same fields where on 4 May 1471 the Lancastrian army was defeated by the Yorkist contingent, to relive this critical battle. Stalls and tents of re-enactors from all over Europe are scattered across the area and swarmed by excited visitors.

Just like the big Easter Jousting Event at Leeds, Tewkesbury’s Medieval Festival draws a huge crowd. It seems, hitting each other with sticks – whether lances or swords, on horse or on foot – is as popular as ever. At least, they have cut back on the blood that gave The Bloody Meadow its name.

While this event is mostly horse-free – there is a single mounted knight with a stunning Percheron-type grey, aptly named ‘King’ – there would have been plenty of equids in the original battle, whether for combat or transport.

In lieu of the actual horses, the ‘Warhorse’ project acts as their ambassador at Tewkesbury. Armed with posters, flyers and real horse bones from Exeter’s reference collection I go about my mission to draw people into the world of medieval warhorses. And people are most willing to follow the lure.

After a fabulous day of chatting with many wonderfully engaged and interested people about our project and horses in general it is time for the Big Event, the re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury. Narrated like a modern football game, we watch the drama unfold as several hundred re-enactors in full armour and armed with lances and swords charge at each other in a rain of arrows and the smoke of large guns. It truly is a spectacle and the audience dutifully holds their breath and cheers at the appropriate moments.

For the final skirmish, re-enactors and visitors alike make their way through Tewkesbury town and to the abbey. The conclusive beheadings are accompanied by much cheering and laughter (perhaps not too much unlike the real ones some 600 years ago) and followed by friend and (revived) foe joining each other for a pint or many.

It’s wonderful to see so many people interested in history and a town so invested in its own past. As much as importance is placed on authenticity, the feeling of community and integrity within the accurate historical settings is just as valuable.

Next year, we will be back to represent medieval warhorses. We will happily share our newest research and chat about horses. There will also be fun activities for old and young alike, so do pop by and say hello.

Website Launch

Welcome to the webpage for a new research project on the archaeology of medieval warhorses that has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. While the website is still at an early stage of development — do watch out for new content as it builds — we hope that our page provides you with an initial snapshot of the work we have planned and that it gives some flavour of why we are so excited by it.

Over the next three years, our team of archaeologists and historians will be conducting the first ever integrated and systematic study of that most characteristic beast of the Middle Ages — the warhorse.  As well as being a famed weapon of war, the medieval horse was an unmistakable symbol of elite social status closely bound up with the development of knighthood, chivalry and aristocratic culture. Crucially, in developing a new archaeological approach to the subject, our project hopes to add something different and distinctive to our understanding of horses but also, by extension, to speak to some of these other intriguing and much-debated topics.

Our work will be wide-ranging: team members will be re-examining the physical remains of horses in the form of bones as well as the material culture associated with them, including horse apparel and armour, and mapping the landscapes in which horses were bred and trained. As such, we hope that our work will be engaging and interesting for a really wide range of people: not just medieval and military historians, zooarchaeologists (specialists in animal bones) and those interested in the historic landscape, but also people with a passion for all things horsey! We will be working closely with our collaborating institutions, the Royal Armouries and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, to develop events and activities that seize on the depth of public interest in equine culture and showcase our work more broadly.

One of the fascinating things about starting on an ambitious research journey of this sort is knowing that as well as making new discoveries on these various different fronts, other new possibilities and will reveal themselves as the work progresses. A project of this scope is also bound to have unanticipated spin-offs that we look forward to seizing upon and sharing. We hope that you look forward to following our journey on this website, via our Twitter feed (@AHRC_Warhorse), or — a little further down the line — through the events, publications and displays that our project will create.

The Project Team

February 2019