Author Archives: Oliver Creighton

Summary blog of work over the last year

A year is a long time in research, and the interval between the last project summary blog in January 2020 and this update twelve months later has seen some seismic shifts in ways of working for a project such as ours due to the ongoing Covid pandemic.  As well as confronting some obvious challenges, our project has put in place mitigations and work plans to drive the work forward and make exciting progress and new discoveries on several fronts.

A meeting of Warhorse project staff 2021 style

The Zooarchaeological Work Package has developed in particularly innovative ways during the crisis in order to mitigate some of the difficulties around many museums and archive collections being closed for long periods of time, which has prevented ready access horse bones for analysis.  Carly Ameen, our Project Officer, has led the way in building a large digital dataset of existing measurements of horse bones. Containing in excess of 6,000 records sourced from a wide network of zooarchaeological collaborators, this dataset is proving a rich and remarkable platform for deep analysis of horse metrics. Preparing this resource has been time consuming and involved, including extensive cleaning of records and streamlining for consistency, but we are quietly confident that it will enable us to model changes in horse size through the centuries in a way not previously possible. Preliminary analyses are both promising and intriguing, and the database has the potential to bring out contrasts between horse remains from different types of sites (such as castles, religious communities and settlements) and between the rural and urban worlds, as well as through time. We are already preparing a manuscript for a paper to present some headline results. Despite the issues of accessing museums, the team has still managed to locate specimens of horse bones from some choice sites that have been transported to our facilities in Exeter for sampling and analysis (see this earlier blog post). The materials have ranged widely — from early medieval horse bones derived from Whitby Abbey on the coast of Yorkshire through to early modern examples from Bradgate Park, Leicestershire — and our work has involved X-Ray recording and the extraction of samples for genetic analysis that have been mailed off to our partner’s laboratory in Toulouse. We await seeing the preliminary results…

Progressing our Material Culture Work Package during the Covid-19 pandemic has been a little less challenging than some other areas of the project given that it has as its core the analysis and enhancement of a digital resource that is fully online — the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database. Aided by Laura Jones, a University of Exeter Undergraduate Archaeology student on a year-long work placement with our project, Rob Webley has been driving forward work on cleaning and enhancing digital records relating to equestrian finds and on the spatial analysis of findspots. The project has already contributed to the development of the online Finds Recording Guides created by the Portable Antiquities Scheme — this link gives a good flavour of the work and of the types of horse gear that metal detectorists around the country are finding every day. Sometimes copper-alloy components can help us analyse equipment otherwise dominated by iron — an article published recently by Rob Webley suggests that a previously mysterious type of mount was in fact used on (iron) bridle bits. Harness pendants have been a particular focus of work, and the team have broken new ground in exploring representations of heraldry on these tiny but illuminating artefacts (see this earlier blog post) and studying their patterning in the landscape. One particularly tantalising possibility that we are exploring is that some documented medieval tournament sites preserve diagnostic artefact scatters including horse harness pendants. In the last year we have also made great initial strides with measuring armour, starting with the stored collections of the Royal Armouries in Leeds (see this blog post), but this is an element of the project that will have to stay in abeyance until museums and collections open up.

The History and Landscapes Work Package, led by our team at the University of East Anglia (Rob Liddiard and Gary Baker), has been making remarkable progress despite the challenges presented by the non-accessibility of some key historical archives during the Covid pandemic. The preliminary work on photographing records of royal horse accounts held by the National Archives in Kew that was carried out pre-pandemic has meant that some initial analyses have been possible — for example see this blog post on what these documents reveal about the maintenance, care and feeding of horses in the fourteenth century. One of the aspects of the project that excites us most is the potential for interplay between different categories of evidence, and a particularly novel aspect of this work package is the question of how we can relate documentary records of horse management to the physical evidence of the landscape. Excellent progress has been made on mapping for the first time the nationwide distribution of horse studs as it evolved through the centuries, and on reconstructing the hinterlands on which individual studs drew upon for resources. Hard details on the appearance of stud infrastructure is proving frustratingly elusive in the documents but we are hopeful that future combing of select archives will produce results, while the evidence of place-names provides another clear area of potential: see this blog for some early thoughts on what place-names can tell us about medieval equine landscapes. Over the course of the next year we will be selecting sites for fieldwork, including geophysical surveys, in our hunt for stud sites, and following up other leads in the documentary record.

With a series of journal articles in different stages of development and some already out: see for example: https://royalarmouries.org/stories/all-the-kings-horses/) and the outline of our project monograph developing fast, the team is keeping a keen eye on outputs and even follow-on funding opportunities to help build a legacy of our project. Project team members are also active on the international conference circuit, with highlights among planned presentations over the coming months being a paper at the EAA (European Association of Archaeologists) conference and the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies.

Do look out for future posts as the project develops in these directions and others.

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