Battle Archaeology

Battlefield Archaeology is the third major element of battlefield study, which recovers and analyses the physical evidence left in the ground by the action itself. Survey of unstratified artefact scatters, which are the primary evidence from battles, was pioneered in the 1970s at Marston Moor by the late Peter Newman. Unfortunately the collection of such data has ever since, except in the USA, been left almost solely to amateur metal detectorists. Yet these artefact scatters represent an independent data set with which we can validate the interpretations based upon the study of the documented action and the historic terrain.

On undeveloped battlefields, unless removed by metal detectorists, the vast majority of the tens of thousands of lead bullets deposited in battles of the early modern period still lie where they fell. The first volley from the infantry at Naseby probably deposited around 5000 bullets on the battlefield in just a few seconds. The infantry alone will have carried well over 100,000 bullets onto the field. From the calibre of those we recover we can tell whether they were fired by musketeers, cavalry, dragoons or possibly, from the surface damage on them, as ‘case-shot’ from artillery pieces.

On medieval battlefields, unless the soil pH combined with long term cultivation and recent application of chemicals have destroyed them, iron arrowheads may still remain, from the great arrowstorms which opened many medieval battles, for the archers deposited thousands of projectiles in the ground. At Towton more than 200 have already been recovered, though it is not yet known how exceptional a survival this is. Even if the arrowheads do not survive on many medieval battlefields, these sites can be expected to yield large numbers of non ferrous items from arms, armour and personal equipment lost or discarded in the action, in the subsequent pillaging or during the burial of the dead.

Over the last decade the approach to battle archaeology has been transformed. Work at Naseby in the early 1990s (Foard, 1995) drew upon the data already collected by metal detectorists who had roughly mapped the distribution of their finds from unsystematic detecting. Since the late 1990s Tim Sutherland has collaborated in the later stages of the metal detecting survey at Towton, working with Simon Richardson to jointly implement a more systematic survey programme within a wider archaeological study of the battle.

We now need projects designed from the outset to apply current best practice in battlefield studies, and where necessary, refine existing techniques of survey, recording and analysis. In 2004 the Battlefields Trust began just such a study on the Civil War battlefield of Edgehill (2004-2006). We conducted another major project at Bosworth (2005-2008) and work is ongoing at Stow-on-the Wold (2015-2019). Other projects are needed, especially on early battlefields.

To view the systematic survey and recording method being applied at Edgehill CLICK HERE

The Trust's policy for metal detecting survey on battlefields can be obtained from the download area on the left hand side of this page.

For further reading on battlefield archaeology see:

  • Foard, Glenn and Morris, Richard, 'The Archaeology of English Battlefields', Council for British Archaeology, York, 2012


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