Guest post by Helen Cox

   Posted by: Dorothea Preis   in News

Helen Cox, the author of The Battle of Wakefield Revisited and Walk Wakefield 1460, attended the recent conference “Interpreting Battlefield Finds: Making the Most of Museums”.  Here she tells us her experiences from this interesting conference.  Thank you, Helen, for sharing this with us!

Conference Review:  Interpreting Battlefield Finds: Making the Most of Museums

Royal Armouries, Leeds, Saturday 11th June 2011

Productive partnership was very much the theme of Interpreting Battlefield Finds: Making the Most of Museums, jointly run by the Leeds Royal Armouries and the Battlefields Trust.

Proceedings were opened by Dr. Jonathan Riley, Director General and Master of the Armouries, who welcomed delegates and paid tribute to the late Richard Holmes.

Alex Hildred, Curator of Ordnance for the Mary Rose Trust, then gave the first paper on ‘Interpretation of a Shipwreck Assemblage from the Battle of the Solent, 1545’. Finds from Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, included 91 guns of varying size made from cast bronze, cast iron and wrought iron, complete with gun carriages, and thousands of stone, cast iron and lead projectiles. The Royal Armouries and Mary Rose Trust created working replicas of several types of gun, and undertook test firings to demonstrate the firepower of Tudor artillery. Armouries staff also identified a cartridge former and gunner’s rule (for checking cannonball sizes) in the assemblage – and, by recognising a maker’s mark, showed that Henry VIII’s army was using matchlock muskets imported from Gardone in Venice. The assemblage also contained more than 2000 arrows and 172 longbows – almost equalling the total number of firearms – indicating that archery was still important at this date. Archers could achieve a more rapid rate of fire and greater long-distance accuracy than musketeers, and longbows were a useful fall-back if gunpowder was spoiled at sea; however, within a few decades developments in firearm technology would render this traditional English weapon obsolete.

Some of the delegates from Towton Battlefield Society: from left to right Helen Cox, husband Mick Doggett, author David Cooke, Mick Weaver, Judy Thomas and Des Thomas (photo by the present author)

Tim Sutherland, Honorary Research Fellow in Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, spoke next on ‘Conflicts and Allies: Historic Battlefields as Multi-disciplinary Hubs – a Case Study from Towton’. Battlefield assemblages need input from a range of experts, including scientists and museum curators, to be properly understood – exemplified by recent finds from Towton. Scanning electron microscopy of two gun fragments revealed gunpowder residues and confirmed that they came from different weapons; and neutron bombardment of a piece of lead shot at the ISIS laboratories in Oxford proved that it contained an iron core. The Royal Armouries has supported the Towton project since 1996, donating display boards for Towton Battlefield Society’s Visitor Information Centre, and supplying material for the interpretation boards on the new Battlefield Trail. Armouries staff also contributed to the 1996 mass grave excavation report, Blood Red Roses, and featured on last year’s BBC TV programme ‘Towton 1461’, while Dr. David Starley’s analysis of 350 arrowheads found that the blades were brazed onto the sockets – a form of mass-production which could be carried out by non-blacksmiths. (Examination of other arrowhead assemblages have since established that this assembly technique was not confined to the Towton arrows). Replication and test shooting also showed that rather than being a bent nail, a piece of iron associated with a skeleton at Towton Hall may be a bodkin arrowhead deformed by its passage through armour.

Battlefield researcher and author Charles Jones then discussed ‘The Importance of Museum Collections in the Interpretation of Fulford Battlefield’. The location of the 1066 battle between soldiers of King Harold and Harald Hardrada can be inferred by the finding of associated metal reprocessing sites. Comparison with material from the Armouries, Asmoleian Museum and Scandinavian museums showed the Fulford assemblage to be primarily metalworking debris: slag, hearth-bottoms, tool fragments, iron anvils, rough ‘billets’ for forming into weapons, and fragments of tuyeres (perforated clay rounds which prevented the bellows catching fire when the nozzle was directed into the hearth). The finds were concentrated in ‘hot spots’ either side of the water course and following the English army’s retreat route, leading to the interesting conclusion that metal objects salvaged from the battlefield were reprocessed in situ after the battle – perhaps by Hardrada’s army before their defeat five days later at Stamford Bridge.

Graeme Rimer, Academic Director of the Royal Armouries, rounded off the morning with ‘A Curator’s Eye View: How Understanding Objects Can Assist the Interpretation of Battlefields’. The Armouries’ extant examples of weapons are invaluable for identifying fragmentary or concreted finds from terrestrial and marine conflict sites worldwide, and his work with other conference participants has led to many mutually beneficial discoveries. Finds from the Mary Rose helped the Armouries to date objects in their collections, and the numerous gun-shields (metal-clad wooden shields through which a small musket was fired) from its orlop deck show that these were commonly used, rather than restricted to Henry VIII’s elite bodyguard as previously thought. Trials with Armouries weapons convincingly proved that the head wound on a skull from Towton was caused by the beak of a horseman’s hammer, and comparisons with ribbon-hilted swords from the collection suggest that a gilt-bronze fragment found at Bosworth came from a high-status weapon of similar type.

Following an introduction by the Battlefield Trust’s Chairman Frank Baldwin, the first afternoon session returned to the theme of Bosworth. Glenn Foard, Reader in Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Huddersfield, and Steven Walton, Assistant Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Pennsylvania State University, delivered a joint paper on ‘The Origins of Firepower: Combining Evidence from Battlefield and Museum’. Foard and Walton are examining early guns from museum collections across Europe to try and understand the distribution of shot found on Bosworth battlefield, determine the number/type of guns present, where they were situated on the field, and whether the smallest shot came from hand-cannons, hook guns or small mounted artillery pieces. The Bosworth projectiles are lead composites, with stone or iron added to make them of comparable weight to cast iron (no pure stone, wrought or cast iron roundshot has yet been found at Bosworth or Towton). Test firings with replica weapons demonstrate that some were shot from composite wrought iron breech-loaded guns – the gaps between the staves produce a characteristic facetted signature, and  Foard believes the weight of shot used related to the construction and breech strength of the gun. Walton added that 15th century firearms development was not a smooth, continuous process, but that older guns would have remained in use alongside ‘cutting edge’ weapons.

Natasha Ferguson, Research Assistant at the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, University of Glasgow, spoke next on ‘They Beate Them from Hedge to Hedge: Artefacts from the English Civil War in Cornwall’. Her theme was the relationship between archaeology and metal-detecting, and the interpretation of metal-detector assemblages. Metal-detecting is widely carried out on battlefields of all periods; artefact recovery is highly selective, depending on the detectorist’s priorities; and much material is unrecorded and difficult to access. However, an example of good practice is one detectorist’s accidental discovery of a Civil War battlefield at Tywardreath near Lostwithiel, and his distribution map of 3000 lead projectiles, mostly small bore, concentrated along the road and field hedge lines (consistent with historical accounts of the battle). The poorly cast musket balls were probably made over camp-fires by the Parliamentarians, who were under pressure and short of supplies; some are rare examples with a sprue for tying on a paper cartridge (perhaps for easier use by mounted musketeers). His assemblage also contains associated material including buckles, powder flask nozzles, bandolier caps, buttons and coins, and heavier artillery shot from nearby Castle Dore.

Mensun Bound, Triton Fellow in Maritime Archaeology at St Peter’s College, Oxford, followed with ‘Guns and Muskets from the Alderney Elizabethan Wreck – Recent Recoveries’. Although British maritime archaeology is sometimes derided as ‘a very expensive way of telling us what we already know’, the Alderney wreck is historically significant: it was carrying ordnance for use in the Spanish wars of 1588 – 95, and its loss was mentioned by Elizabeth I’s minister William Cecil, Lord Burleigh. Sunk in 1592, only 47 years after the Mary Rose, it contained no bows or arrows, reflecting the technological advance forced on England by European gunpowder weapon developments and the threat of invasion from Spain. As well as cannon, the wreck has yielded wooden stocks from 55 matchlock muskets of a rare type, identified by comparison with Royal Armouries examples.

Richard Morris, Research Professor from the University of Huddersfield, brought the day to a fitting conclusion with his rousing paper ‘Cover Him Gently: Archaeology and the Sifting of War’s Embers’. Beginning with the 2001 discovery of a mass grave of WW1 ‘Grimsby Pals’ at Arras, he discussed how the focus of conflict archaeology has evolved from ancient to modern or ‘special’ to ‘ordinary’; and how excavations of recent periods are evocative rather than telling us things we don’t know. The justification for investigating 20th century military installations can be spurious – as in the Defence of Britain Database project, for which extensive documentation already existed. Other structures, like the concrete acoustic detection ‘ears’ in Kent, soon made obsolete by radar technology, deserve attention because they reflect a unique moment in time. Lack of direct archaeological proof that Zyklon B was administered at Auschwitz has been used to argue that, contrary to masses of archival evidence and eye-witness testimony, it never happened. Conversely, pagans and ‘eco-Druids’ argued vociferously against the excavation, scientific analysis and preservation of timbers from ‘Sea-henge’ because it interferes with their concepts of the site. Morris concluded that from Holocaust deniers and eco-Druids to the Government with its artificial concept of ‘British Society’, people are ‘making history up’ to suit themselves; so to counter this trend, in writing history we have a duty to be faithful to primary sources – and to subject those sources to vigorous criticism. And who could argue with that?

Altogether, this conference with its excellent programme of high-calibre speakers showed how much knowledge and understanding can be advanced when battlefield archaeologists, museum curators and other specialists pool their expertise. Interpreting Battlefield Finds made an auspicious start to the series of joint ventures planned between the Armouries and the Battlefields Trust (the next conference will focus on the English Civil War) – and at £35 including beverages and lunch, it was also great value for money!

Helen Cox, June 2011

Please also visit Helen’s own website Herstory Writing an Interpretation.

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