Author Archives: Rob Webley

Courses on horses: Warhorse material culture training

Earlier this month the ‘Warhorse’ team ran a training event for our project partner the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) about the medieval equestrian metal objects that could be brought to them for recording. It was a session of its Covid-19 time, delivered successfully by Zoom to over thirty participants, PAS staff and volunteers alike.

Every year, staff at the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) are brought hundreds of small metal artefacts found by members of the public that formed parts of medieval horse equipment and decoration. The Warhorse team had lined up a training session for our project partner to consider this equipment, put it into context and discuss how best to record it, but it soon became apparent that we could not deliver it in person. With the welcome assistance of PAS staff, however, Rob Webley (Warhorse) and Laura Jones (University of Exeter) were able to offer this material culture training virtually in early November. It ended up being very popular, with over thirty attendees — more than if it had been run in person!

Screenshot of participants attending the material culture training session run by the Warhorse project in November 2020

The session was in fact run across two days — 10th and 11th November — to make it as accessible and digestible as possible. Content was split, with the first morning more introductory and contextual and the second tailored to the identification of material and its recording on the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s database. In part one different sources were examined to gain a sense of the types of medieval material that might be encountered and to also think through what might not have survived. There was also a special section on heraldry, which is particularly pertinent as many non-ferrous items of equestrian equipment have ‘heraldic’ decoration and also because it can be an obscure subject for the novice due to the technical language involved. It seems that such contextualisation was appreciated, with one participant commenting how good it was to see:

“PAS material put into the wider context of excavated material and documentary sources”

Detail from the Trinity College Apocalypse, Cambridge MS R.16.2, f. 23 © Masters and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial 4.0 license

On the second morning, our training session turned to the tailored PAS work of recognising, classifying and recording horse-related artefacts. Extended sections covered horseshoes, stirrups, bridle bits and spurs. If you are interested, further information about how the PAS records these items is provided in their online Finds Recording Guides, some of which were written by the Warhorse team. It was encouraging to see from the feedback that attendees could see that enriching the PAS data helped facilitate novel research into the material.

Screenshot of training slide detailing horseshoe terminology

With so much of 2020 about having to make the most of tricky and ever-changing circumstances, we were grateful that our training reached so many PAS staff members and volunteers, and we would like to thank the PAS for organising it. The format actually allowed for a different sort of engagement, including through the chat function and other, verbal question-and-answer sessions. Whether a re-run will be in person or online remains to be seen but we look forward to engaging more attendees with both the artefacts and the Warhorse project. As one of the participants commented:

“I had a look at the [Warhorse] website and found it extremely interesting. I’m looking forward to keeping up with some of the blogs. It sounds like a great collaboration for PAS.”

Screenshot of tweet by FLO Cornwall following the training

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.