Back to the trenches: Bannockburn and battlefield archaeology on the BBC

This evening BBC Scotlandwill be airing the first part of a new series investigating the Bannockburn battlefield. The series is obviously timed to coincide with interest in the battle arising from the Scottish independence debate and coming referendum, but work to precisely locate the site has been ongoing for some time. The series promises to shine a welcome spotlight on a still emerging branch of archaeology and the challenges associated with locating (and protecting) locations that have a powerful resonance in modern political engagement with the past. If the site of Bannockburn can be identified with  security (and archaeological proof) then it will join the tiny corpus of pre-Civil War battelfields in Britain that can be identified archaeologically, alongside Bosworth (1485) and Towton (1461). The series is presented by Neil Oliver and Dr. Tony Pollard, director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University. The latter’s involvement should ensure that the series is sensible and insightful, and recalls the days when the pair presented the battlefield archaeology programme Two Men in A Trench before Neil Oliver’s ascent to the dizzy pinnacle of archaeo-presenting megastardom.

The website has lots of content, and several entertaining clips of people hitting each other with authentic looking fourteenth century hardware. Excellent.

 

Journeys in the dark

When I was a small boy – probably I was eight years old – my grand-father produced for my birthday a board game. This was no ordinary board game, however; this was Heroquest. Opening the box was like opening a portal into another world, like lifting the lid of the Box of Delights. One of the most powerful and evocative smells I know, a smell familiar to anyone who has bought an expensive boxed game over the last twenty-five years, is the unique aroma of plastic and freshly cut card that I first experienced on entering that case of wonders.

heroquest-imageFor those who are unfortunate enough to have missed this foundational monument of modern western culture, Heroquest was a game produced jointly by Milton Bradley and Games Workshop. It is what, in the ugly jargon of the console age, would now be called a dungeon-crawler. And, like many who encountered it at roughly the same age, it profoundly and permanently altered the chemistry of my brain. To be fair, I was already precociously steeped in fantasy. My first literary memories (of books without pictures) are of my mother reading The Hobbit to me at the age of 5, and the first books I read alone were the Chronicles of Narnia. Around the same time, my father revealed to me the complete radio series of The Lord of the Rings which he had kept secreted in some arcane vault since recording it when first broadcast on Radio 4 in 1981 (these tapes – which still survive – were complete with the original synopses, cut from The Radio Times and inserted into the cassette boxes).

This, of course, was fundamental and I was soon at home amongst dwarves and orcs and adventures undertaken in caverns deep beneath the mountains. It inspired a love of landscape, myth and fantasy which has endured to the present. What was different about Heroquest was that it opened doors that hitherto had been closed – it was sensory, tactile, inhabitable. It hinted at expansive worlds beyond the confines of the game, worlds populated by tangible sculptural representations of their myriad denizens. It affected me so profoundly at the time that I can still remember seeing the faces of weird creatures in the dark spaces between the trees. The night became alive with ideas that existed just beyond the limits of the real world and to me they seemed at the point of breaking through.

Sadly, modern fantasy has lost a great deal of its charm thanks to mass market commodification through online computer games, the rise of Games Worskhop as an aggressive share-holder owned business, and mega-budget Hollywood franchises. Back then, fantasy was weird and underground, unregulated and uncodified: spontaneous, creative and free. It is ironic that the success of Heroquest was partly responsible for that mass-marketisation of fantasy and the demise of the independent model shop. I often mourn those dark caves of mystery, their cabinets crammed with dusty miniatures whose obscure forms and inexplicable origins spoke to unfettered recesses of the imagination.

For many people, the love of archaeology was sparked by Indiana Jones or Time Team. For me and, I suspect, a surprising number of others, it was fantasy that first offered me my first glimpse of the inside of a hoary tomb, a ruined city, a forgotten mine shaft leading into the deep places of the world, a rusted blade, a mouldy manuscript.

Whether the mines of Moria or the Bastion of Chaos, these were the paths that led me down into the dark.

The Battle of Ashdown in Medieval Warfare

A few weeks ago, I had an article titled The Battle of Ashdown: Victory, battlefield, and the language of war published in Medieval Warfare magazine. The theme of the issue is Alfred the Great and the Great Heathen Army and thus coincides neatly with my own area of academic interest. The publication is not scholarly, but contains a good deal of interesting material and is nicely produced with some superb commissioned illustrations.

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Medieval Warfare III.5

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Alfred the Great at Egbert’s Stone by Jose Daniel Cabrera Pena; Medieval Warfare III.5, pp. 30-31

As the publisher discourages the use of footnotes and in text referencing I confined most of my secondary source material to a ‘further reading’ selection at the end of the article. That said, I would like to make it clear (if it isn’t sufficiently so already) that not all of the ideas expressed are original to this article or to me. In particular: the discussion of Latin terms in Asser’s account of the battle is based on Guy Halsall’s excellent deconstruction (Halsall 2003); the relationship of battle-sites to royal estate centres is a point made by Ryan Lavelle (see esp. Lavelle 2010); discussion of Viking battle-magic is central to Neil Price’s The Viking Way (Price 2008); translations of the translations of original sources derive primarily from Swanton’s edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Swanton 2001) and the Keynes and Lapidge edition of Asser’s Life of Alfred and other related texts (Keynes and Lapidge 1983). Full bibliographic details for all of these can be found at the end of this post.

The most original contribution made by me in this article concerns the location of the battle of Ashdown and the symbolic significance of the naming of the battle site and Asser’s description of the topography. At some stage I hope to write this up in more detail for academic publication. In the meantime, however, here is a short extract:

“Asser provided the etymology of Ashdown as ‘hill of the ash’ – a suggestion that has not been widely challenged by modern scholars. A brief consideration of the significance of the ash-tree from an Anglo-Saxon perspective is instantly rewarding: not only does the word æsc act as a general synonym for ‘spear’ (ash is a hard wood with straight and slender branches and hence eminently suited to this purpose), but in compound with other words has a range of other associations with the language of warfare which must have been unmistakeable. Thus: æscfaru (military expedition); æschere (warband, naval force); æscþracu (battle, spear-strength); æscstede (place of battle; literally the ‘ash (spear)-place’) and so on. ‘Ashdown’ (Æscesdune) could, in this context, just as easily have carried the additional sense of ‘battle-hill’. When applied to the wider region, this meaning could reflect the fact that the Berkshire Downs had been a contested frontier between Wessex and Mercia for centuries – they were, in a general sense, ‘the battle downs’…”. (Medieval Warfare V.III, p.20)

In my article I would like to have given more consideration to the suggestion – recently revived in Michael Wood’s BBC documentary series about Alfred and his successors – that the unknown meeting place of ‘Naked-thorn hundred’ [Nachededorn(e)] is a probable correlate for the single thorn tree described by Asser:

“A rather small and solitary thorn-tree [unica spinosa arbor] (which I have seen myself with my own eyes) grew there, around which the opposing armies clashed violently”. [Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 38]

The first reference to a Naked-thorn hundred is in Domesday book (1086), two hundred years later than the battle of Ashdown. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the name isn’t much older than the eleventh century, but it is certainly plausible that it developed as a result of Asser’s narrative rather than providing locational evidence for the place described. It seems to me likely that the name reflects local folkloric traditions that sought to associate the glamour of a royal military triumph with a provincial meeting place. If this is the case, it would share a great deal in common with other landmarks along the ridgeway around which Alfredian mythology has accrued over the centuries following the events of the 870s.

Rather than being a useful piece of topographic detail, I would argue that Asser’s reference to the thorn tree is a fairly blatant use of religious symbolism intended to emphasise the spiritual dimensions of the struggle with the heathen.

S. Keynes and M. Lapidge, ed. and trans., Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, Harmondsworth (1983).

G. Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450–900 (London, 2003).

R. Lavelle, ‘Geographies of Power in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: the Royal Estates of Wessex’, in Reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Language, Literature, History, ed. A .D. Jorgensen (Turnhout, 2010).

N. Price, The Viking Way (Oxford 2002).

M. Swanton (ed. and trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (London, 1996; rev. edn,, 2001).

Book Reviews: Alfred’s Wars and Viking Warfare

Two reviews (by me) of titles published in the last couple of years on the subject of early medieval warfare can now be read online.

The first is a review of Ryan Lavelle’s Verbruggen-prize-winning Alfred’s Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age (Boydell 2010) which, apart from its slightly misleading title (it happily ranges far more widely than the mention of Alfred implies), thoroughly deserves all the praise it has received. It is also, as of last year, out now in paperback for a very reasonable price.

The second is my review of I. P. Stephenson’s Viking Warfare. This has the distinction of being my most read article on academia.edu, although I suspect that this is testament to the popularity of ‘Viking Warfare’ as a search term, rather than any great desire on the public at large to discover my opinions of Mr Stephenson’s book. In hindsight, I would soften my criticism of Stephenson’s approach, and in particular his comments regarding the shift in military fashions over the tenth and into the eleventh centuries. However, I still take issue with some of the assumptions made by the author given the paucity of the material evidence. Nevertheless, this is still one of the better efforts addressing this subject currently in print.

Ringmere

Yesterday I visited the site that has long been associated with the Battle of Ringmere (as named by John of Worcester and called Hringmaraheiðr in various Norse saga accounts which include some fascinating contemporary skaldic verse relating to the battle). The connection of the battle to a remarkable geological feature – Ringmere – on Wretham Heath is a long-standing one, which has only recently been seriously challenged in a well reasoned article by Keith Briggs that appeared in ‘Notes and Queries’ [read it here]. Nevertheless, the site at Wretham remains a compelling one, not least due to the preservation of an open and atmospheric landscape thanks to the designation of Wretham Heath as a nature reserve (run by the Norfolk Naturalists Trust).

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Ringmere, Wretham Heath, Norfolk

A feature of this landscape that – to the best of my knowledge – has not previously been remarked upon in discussions of the battle is the presence of a small circular ditched enclosure of indeterminate date that lies very close to the pool now labelled on maps as Ringmere. Briggs’ comments on the possible origins of the ring/hring element notwithstanding, the possibility must exist that the mere was named in relation to the earthwork enclosure nearby. Given the location of this place at the juncture of seven parishes, it is conceivable that this structure may have served as a moot-site of some kind.

Ringmere enclosure

Circular enclosure on Wretham Heath

There is a demonstrable pattern of association between early medieval battlefields and circular prehistoric structures (most strikingly at the Kennet battlefield and at one of the contenders for the Hengestes dune battlefield: both situated at henge monuments) which may derive from the use of established meeting points and landmarks as muster-points and battlefields (Halsall 1989). If East Wretham Heath was the site of the battle, it is possible that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s reference to ‘the place Ulfcytel was with his army’ refers to a mustering point for the East Anglian and Cambridgeshire levies focussed on this ring-shaped man-made structure and the extraordinary lake nearby.

As I wandered about the site, a great cloud of Rooks billowed up into an ominous sky to swirl madly in the gathering dusk. Their hoarse cries were a timeless echo in that bleak landscape – it was hard not to imagine the wild expanse of heathland strewn with the corpses of Saxons and Danes as the birds of battle wheeled in anticipation of their coming feast.

Ringmere ravens 3

[Originally posted 21st September 2012]