The Archaeology of a Medieval Revolution?

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This project will conduct the first ever systematic archaeological study of warhorses in the Middle Ages, including their physical remains, material culture and the landscapes used for their breeding and training. Comprehensively examining the full range of evidence from the late Anglo-Saxon to the early Tudor period (c. AD 800-1550), we will produce new understandings about a beast that was an unmistakable symbol of social status closely bound up with aristocratic, knightly and chivalric culture as well as a decisive weapon on the battlefield. The medieval horse was the most characteristic animal of the Middle Ages. But while the history of warhorses has been intensively studied by historians, the archaeological evidence is dispersed and usually overlooked, despite having potential to generate new information and to transform knowledge. Our work will collect, collate, analyse and integrate four sources of data. First, using cutting-edge methodologies, we will re-analyse the bones of horses and warhorses from archaeological excavations, across a sample of assemblages held by museums and archives. Second, we will produce a comprehensive survey of surviving horse apparel (for instance harness pendants and bridle bits) and armour. Third, we will conduct the first coherent archaeological study of horse breeding landscapes (especially studs). Fourth, we conduct a survey of published and unpublished historical materials to feed into the analysis of studs and to establish a historical baseline against which to cross-compare the archaeology. An integrated analysis of these datasets will produce a new body of information about warhorses, their development, training, appearance, and by extension their military and social roles. Combined analysis will assess how the chronological trends in the archaeological evidence sit alongside our established understanding of warhorses and the dramatic attested changes in their use in the Norman, later medieval and early Tudor periods. This will allow us a platform from which to explore how and why the development of warhorses related to changes in warfare and in elite society.

Among the key questions that the project will engage with are: Did the Norman Conquest see the widespread introduction of new breeds of horse, or was the development of the warhorse a more incremental process rooted in the late Anglo-Saxon period? How was the development of knighthood in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries reflected in horse apparel? Does the archaeological record provide evidence for the celebrated ‘great horse’ of the 14th century? How do these trends relate to the changing nature and decoration of horse apparel and to the geography of horse studs? Do we see physical evidence of attested decline in warhorses, followed by Tudor initiatives to increase their size?

We will work with two collaborating organisations: the Royal Armouries (Leeds) to magnify the impact of our work on large public audiences and to engage people in the research, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (British Museum) to provide dedicated training sessions that will train staff and volunteers in dealing with equine material culture. Both these organisations will help ensure a legacy for the project work. Our project publications, including a research monograph and a suite of papers in high-profile peer-reviewed journals targeted to engage with different sectors of the academic community, will have a decisive and enduring impact across a variety of subject areas, not just archaeology. The results will contribute to debate in the fields of medieval archaeology and medieval history generally, and in the specific fields of zooarchaeology, landscape studies, conflict studies and material culture studies. Digital outputs, including new and enhanced datasets, maps and fieldwork data, all deposited and curated online for sustainable future use, will form a platform for future study.

Main coordinator : O H Creighton, Univ. Exeter, UK.