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23.05.05 Foard/Curry, Bosworth 1485

23.05.05 Foard/Curry, Bosworth 1485

The archaeological study of conflict sites is rapidly establishing itself as a mainstream branch of the discipline. The dominant strand is perhaps that of Battlefield Archaeology, which offers three key moments in its development: work at the Little Bighorn site in the USA in the 1980s, which demonstrated the value of survey by metal detector as a significant method of research of such sites; [1] the 1990s work at Towton in England, which demonstrated the value of battlefield archaeology to the pre-gunpowder age; [2] and the work reported upon in this book, which demonstrates an approach that allows the identification of unknown, or at least disputed, sites. The three are all iconic sites: the Little Bighorn (1876) one of the rare Native American victories over US forces, and the details of which were disputed between official US records and Native American accounts that were vindicated by the archaeological work; Towton (1461), possibly the bloodiest battle on British soil, and founding moment of Yorkist rule in England, although not the last battle of the Wars of the Roses; and Bosworth, which as the authors of this book make clear, is “depicted by Shakespeare..., a dramatic military reversal...[with] the last English monarch to fall leading his troops in battle” dead on the field, and marking the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, “which would guide England through what is now viewed as a defining period in the nation’s history” (xiii). While there are some attempts at synthesis in the field of Battlefield Archaeology, [3] it is publications devoted to single sites that dominate the field and lead the way forward. This book is one such.

Unlike the other works cited above, which are purely archaeological in approach, this book, first published in 2013, is a collaboration between an archaeologist (Foard) and a historian (Curry) and is all about the discovery of the location of the battle of Bosworth as an event from a combination of documentary and material evidence. While the event itself is well recorded and even notorious (as mentioned, it forms part of the climax of Shakespeare’s History play Richard III), the location was not firmly established until the work recorded in this book took place. While four possible locations had been offered based upon contemporary descriptions of the site, one of which was chosen as the place to establish a visitor centre with exhibitions and marked route, and the area around it included in the English Register of Historic Battlefields which gave it a measure of protection from damage by development, none was certain. It was the chance find of a cannon-shot in a field by an amateur metal detectorist that raised questions about the selection of the site and led to the project that finally established the location.

The book serves to justify a particular approach to the object of research: in particular, the methods of battlefield archaeology using landscape reconstruction and survey, especially by metal detector. The opening chapters are introductory and concern not only the purpose of the work and prior work to try to find the battlefield, but also the historical background to the events of the battle and what we know of late medieval warfare in Britain. Landscape reconstruction--a combination of historical and archaeological knowledge derived largely from map work--follows, and then the results of survey. A chapter specifically devoted to interpretation of the finds is succeeded by one devoted to understanding the evidence for gunpowder weapons and what this adds to our understanding of warfare in the period, and then a discussion offering “a new perspective on the battle” leading to a short conclusion again justifying the approach. The work as a whole thereby offers a template and model as guidance for other work to identify and understand particular types of place and action.

The latter is the book’s great value since it acts as a model for others to follow in investigating and interpreting sites of conflict from the historic past. The authors are established experts in their respective fields: Curry as a historian of late medieval warfare in England, and Foard one of the leading exponents of Battlefield Archaeology in Europe. Two chapters cover in detail the artefactual evidence from the site: one chapter focuses on finds of badges, sword guards and chapes, spurs and other horse equipment; the other on the evidence of gunpowder weapons which were coming into greater use in the later fifteenth century. The latter is a valuable essay in its own right on gunpowder weaponry of the period, drawing upon evidence from across Europe, experimental firing to replicate travel and fall of shot, and the interpretation of finds themselves: including the identification of shot actually fired and what firing signatures--in the form of banding, scorching and impact damage on lead balls--indicate in terms of their use. This and ongoing work--as the authors put it--can “fill important gaps in our knowledge about the developments which enabled [guns] to become battle winning weapons” (174).

The book is very well illustrated throughout with images and maps. For anyone interested in knowing how to understand markings on roundshot from battlefields, the close-up colour pictures are very enlightening. The Appendices provide a valuable summary of the evidence found on site for those with an eye for detail. Otherwise, it reads easily and--unlike so many archaeological reports--can be understood by a lay reader. The book makes only passing mention of the discovery of the remains of Richard III in what was then a car park because the work reported here was conducted before that discovery was made and work to investigate the remains themselves was still to be done at the initial time of publication (x). As the authors point out, “an examination of the wounds [on the remains] will be valuable, but it is unlikely that we will ever know under what precise circumstances...Richard was killed” (57). Similarly, as the authors make clear in their Conclusion, “the present volume represents not the end of a journey but its beginning [and] battlefield archaeologists will need to return to continue the work” (197) assuming that the site does not now attract the attention of illicit collectors of material, from which it had so far been largely spared (115).

What the book has to tell us about the study of battlefields, the battle of Bosworth, and the interpretation of military hardware are significant aspects of the book and justify its place as one very worth study. If it has a weakness, it is that it represents an approach that is concerned with the specifics of individual conflicts rather than taking a broader view of its topic. Although it is an approach that draws upon comparative material from elsewhere--especially in terms of artefact distribution and interpretation--it is not in itself a contribution to wider studies of attitudes to place or action that inform us about other aspects of late medieval life or mentality. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, so long as that limitation is borne in mind: there can be more to the study of war than its practice, and more to the study of landscape than its form. Nonetheless I recommend this book as a one of the important examples of the kind of work it represents: for anyone interested in warfare of any period, it deserves a place on your shelves.



1. D. D. Scott, Uncovering History: Archaeological Investigations at the Little Bighorn (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

2. V. Fiorato, A. Boylston, and C. Knüsel (eds.), Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461, 2nd ed. (Exeter: Oxbow Books, 2007).

3. G. Foard, and R. Morris, The Archaeology of English Battlefields: Conflict in the Pre- Industrial Landscape (York: The Council for British Archaeology, 2012).