Warhorse: The Archaeology of a Military Revolution?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Archaeology


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 Fourth, we conduct a survey of published and unpublished historical materials to feed into the analysis of studs and to establish a historical baseline against which to cross-compare the archaeology.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.

Planned Impact

The impact of the project on wider non-academic audiences and stakeholders was identified from the developmental stage as of central importance to this bid. Working in partnership with the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, West Yorkshire, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, based at the British Museum in London, the project will generate a wide and deep impact through knowledge exchange between academia, third sector institutions and the general public.

The partnership with the Royal Armouries will elevate the project's impact on the general public to a different level by tying the work to the Armouries' hugely successful and high-profile jousting programme (events on the Armouries' on-site jousting lists in Leeds regularly attract 16-17,000 people); extending and improving their engagement and outreach activities; and creating a portfolio of accessible and sustainable educational materials. The partnership with the Portable Antiquities Scheme will have an impact through a series of training and outreach events, which will be of wider benefit to the heritage community, including local societies and metal detectorists.

We will rigorously document our outreach and engagement events to ensure that impact can be verified and demonstrated, and so that our activities are captured (including through questionnaires, testimonies and photographic recording). Both collaborating organisations have been engaged in the development of the bid and in identifying impact pathways (including input from the Director of Collections at the Royal Armouries and the Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme), and relevant members of staff have agreed to serve on the Project Steering Committee. Impact will feature on the agenda of the Project Steering Committee, which will monitor the achievements of the project in this area, obtaining feedback and reflecting on lessons, and examine the potential for additional impact pathways.

The project will develop a wide range of impact pathways to ensure an array of lasting benefits for four main types of audience:

THE MUSEUM SECTOR: The project will contribute to the Royal Armouries' aims as laid out in their corporate strategy plan, in particular research and dissemination, display and interpretation, and provision of educational services, and beyond that, reach, educate, and entertain their audiences (the size of which reaches nearly 2 million a year across their three sites). The Armouries will also benefit from the experience of working with an academic partner. The project will have a positive impact on visitor numbers, and both highlight and add academic value to the Armouries' holdings.

PORTABLE ANTIQUITIES SCHEME: The organisation will benefit from the added value that the project will give to their existing digital records. Core staff and the volunteer network will benefit from the tailor-made training events that the project will organise and host. The PAS and the large community of metal-detectorists (and local archaeology societies nationwide) will benefit from the improvements to Finds Records Guides that the project will enable.

VISITORS: Members of the public engaged with the project's portfolio of outreach activities will benefit educationally from deepened understanding of the methods of archaeology and history, and of Britain's medieval past, and through enhanced knowledge of historic human-animal relationships.

WIDER PUBLIC AUDIENCES: The project will reach wider audiences through the website, social media and press. This will deepen public appreciation of medieval archaeology, history and warfare, and open their minds to how academic study can confront and perhaps overturn long-held beliefs.

Beyond these impacts, the high level of public interest in all manner of equine pursuits, such as show jumping and horse racing, is likely to open up opportunities for further aspects of public engagement, which the project will exploit.


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