Archive | Military

On the archaeology of forts, armies, and battlefields.

William Wyeth (RCAHMS) – Stirling

Stirling ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Stirling ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

I’m William Wyeth, one of four Education & Outreach trainees based at RCAHMS in the year-long Skills for the Future programme. My year at the Commission is split between different parts of RCAHMS’ work (Scran, social media, a university module, etc), as well as an external three-month placement. My placement was itself split between Stirling Castle and the Bannockburn Heritage Centre. I’ve chosen the undiscovered site of the second day of the battle of Bannockburn. The battle itself was a pivotal moment in Scottish history, which combines elements of mythology as much as fact. The physical remains of the battle, however, are almost non-existent; thus far, a single 14th-century arrowhead has been found, which may not be linked to the battle in any case. There is no doubt that the battle of 1314 CE took place somewhere around today’s Bannock burn, but frustratingly efforts by archaeologists and metal detectors to locate any evidence in the ground have been unsuccessful.

Since the battle, the area between the Pelstream and Bannock burns (where it is considered the second day of the clash took place) has been used as a ploughed field and dump site for building waste from different periods. Today, the area is largely wild grass, sitting between 20th-century suburban housing and the railway line from Edinburgh to Stirling.

View of the Big Dig. Copyright Aisha Al-Sadie

View of the Big Dig. Copyright Aisha Al-Sadie

I’ve chosen the undiscovered battlefield because it represents the challenge to historians and archaeologists in determining the developments on the ground during this critical day in Scottish history. It has also recently been the focus of a Big Dig in June 2013, which saw fantastic community involvement aimed at establishing the site of the second day’s battle. Part of the activities on the site was filmed for an upcoming TV show produced to celebrate the 700-year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.

Filming the Big Dig, with Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver. Copyright Aisha Al-Sadie

Filming the Big Dig, with Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver. Copyright Aisha Al-Sadie



This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.


For more information on this site, or others in this area you can also go to the Historic Environment Record for Stirling Council.

Contact Details:

Murray Cook

Municipal Buildings, Corn Exchange, Stirling, FK8 2HU

01786 233663



Searchable HER:


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Castles and Crowdfunding – Part Two

After the site visit this morning, I’ve spent the afternoon at my desk at home writing up part of a chapter of my PhD and deciding what I’m going to blog about in my weekly post. I set up to be able to write about experience of PhD research, or research which I’d like to incorporate into my PhD, but for one reason or other probably won’t find a home there. So tonight (I usually do this on a Sunday but this week I won’t be able to) I’ll post up my latest thoughts.

The part of my chapter I have been working on concerns north west Shropshire, which has been included in my study area because it shares very similar topography with north east Wales, but has been under ‘different’ ownership and government for hundreds of years. Within this area are three medieval deer parks which are all within a few miles of each other, and which are all almost identical in size at about 0.3 hectares. I’m not sure why this is yet, but I spent the afternoon looking at the available maps and aerial photographs trying to identify any common characteristics and pattern in their layout. It’s the hardest part of my research, but when I get it right it’s very rewarding.

Finally, I was overjoyed to see that the research and excavation project being run by a fellow PhD student had made it onto the BBC Wales news website.

Mark Baker has been working on establishing a chronology for the medieval and post medieval house at Brynkir (Longitude 52.969888; Latitude -4.201307). As part of my own research I identified a medieval deer park just to the south east of the house, and realised it related to a motte and bailey castle at Dolbenmaen (Longitude 52.964195; Latitude -4.225157) some  1.5km (0.9 miles) west.


The Park at Brynkir. The elongated oval in the centre of the picture marked in red is the park, and the house is in the trees to the top left of the park boundary.

Subsequently Mark and I agreed that an excavation of the boundary of the deer park would be incorporated in his research excavation this coming August, and my final job of the day has been to ring the BBC journalist in order to arrange to be interviewed on site talking about this discovery.

As I said this morning – the joy of archaeology is you never know what is going to happen next. So, if you are reading about the exploits of archaeologists for the first time or have come to this website to find out more, I hope we’ve all been able to inspire you into finding out more about our discipline.


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Norfolk Update

My final task of the day is to start writing a report on heritage actions at or connected to former RAF Coltishall for the Project Board.  This includes our own work managing heritage assets on the site, preparing heritage statements to accompany planning applications, our work with the Airfield Research Group and the University of East Anglia (the Cold War Anglia project; see, liaison with the Spirit of Coltishall Association, liaison with English Heritage, our work with local communities (we have a formal Community Liaison Reference Group) and special interest groups and dealing with any heritage issues arising from the publication on Wednesday of our Development Vision for the site.

I hope that anyone reading my blog today has found it of some interest.

Best wishes, and have a great weekend.


David Gurney, Historic Environment Manager (County Archaeologist), Norfolk County Council



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Brian Wilkinson (RCAHMS) – North Ayrshire

North Ayrshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

North Ayrshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

I am Brian Wilkinson and I work at RCAHMS as the Activity Officer for the Britain from Above project. This is a Heritage Lottery Funded partnership project run jointly with English Heritage and RCAHMW, and I am responsible for engaging audiences with the Aerofilms collection, some of the earliest commercial aerial photographs of the British Isles. The image I have chosen is from North Ayrshire and Arran, and is an Aerofilms photograph taken in 1947. It shows Holy Island laying across the mouth of Lamlash Bay with the Isle of Arran in the background. My wife’s family has strong connections to Arran and it’s a spectacular island that I’ve visited often.

Holy Island, general view, showing Inner Lighthouse and Mullach Mor. Oblique aerial photograph taken facing north. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1268773)

Holy Island, general view, showing Inner Lighthouse and Mullach Mor. Oblique aerial photograph taken facing north. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1268773)



Holy Island affords Lamlash Bay protection from the worst of the elements. The sheltered bay is a natural harbour  and has been used as an anchorage throughout history; during the two World Wars it accommodated the Royal Navy Home Fleet and mthe Atlantic Fleet. It was also the testing area for the ‘Lily’ floating airfield towards the end of  WW2.  Its strategic qualities were recognised even further back in time. It played a role in the last Norse invasion of Scotland in 1263, which culminated in the Battle of Largs on the North Ayrshire coast. The  Norwegian king was the overlord of the Hebrides and Islands in the Clyde, these having been settled by the Norse from the 9th century onwards.

Battle of Largs Monument. View from W. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1111416)

Battle of Largs Monument. View from W. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1111416)


During the 13th century the Scottish kings started to flex their muscles and sought to extend their domain over the Isles. This led to the Norwegian King Hakon leading an invasion to forcibly protect his claim.  The Saga of King Hakon Hakonsson records the Norse fleet sheltering in Lamlash Bay while negotiations between the two sides took place. These broke down and the Norsemen went marauding along the Clyde, even sailing up Loch Long and portaging their ships across the isthmus at Arrochar to go raiding in Loch Lomond. Events came to a head when several of the Norse’ ships were blown ashore at Largs during a storm, leading to a skirmish between the two sides. This minor conflict is remembered as the  Battle of Largs, and although the Norse may have won the day they lost the war, as Hakon died on his return voyage to Norway and control of the Hebrides was ceded to the Scots just three years after the battle. A monument to this Scottish victory in the form of a tower (known locally as “The Pencil”) was erected in Largs in 1912.

St Molaise's Cave, Holy Island, Arran. View of cave and interior. Copyright RCAHMS (SC408038)

St Molaise’s Cave, Holy Island, Arran. View of cave and interior. Copyright RCAHMS (SC408038)

There is some surviving evidence of Norse visitors, and perhaps even these events, still recorded within the landscape around Lamlash Bay. St Molaise’s Cave on Holy Island is traditionally the hermitage of a sixth century saint and may have been a place of pilgrimage. The roof and sides of the cave are covered in many inscribed crosses and runic inscriptions dating from the 11th to 12th century. One of these reads “Vigleikr the marshal carved”, and the saga records a certain Vigleik Priestson as one of the captains of the Norse fleet.

Scanned image of drawing showing detail of runic inscription VIII in St Molaise's Cave, Holy Island, Arran Page 64, figure A of 'Gazetteer of Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Higlands and Islands'. Copyright RCAHMS (SC580820)

Scanned image of drawing showing detail of runic inscription VIII in St Molaise’s Cave, Holy Island, Arran Page 64, figure A of ‘Gazetteer of Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands’. Copyright RCAHMS (SC580820)

 These were not the first of the Norse to have visited these parts either. At Kingscross Point, jutting out at the left of the photograph, are the remains of a viking burial, which contained a coin dating from the ninth century as well as burnt human bone and boat rivets, perhaps indicating a Viking Period cremation. So it’s a very interesting region where both the start of the Viking Period in Scotland and the end of Norse overlordship of the Isles can be evidenced, both through archaeology and the historic record.  This Norse heritage is still celebrated by communities on the Clyde, from the Arran Viking Longship Society, the Largs Viking Festival, and the Hidden Heritage Project.


This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.


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Writing on archaeological findings of battlefields in Montana


Images of Nez Perce National Historical Park- Big Hole National Battlefield (left) and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (right) during the summer of 2012.

 Today is like any other day for me these past few weeks:  trying to stay cool during the extremely hot summer days while writing follow-up reports and future articles.  Although I recently completed my doctoral research on four archaeological sites in Montana, I have a lifetime of exciting explorations on the varied ways people of the past, and present, interpret and commemorate history.

Archaeology is not just about surveying, excavating, cataloging, and preserving artifacts and features, but also exploring profound questions about humanity.  To quote Carl Sagan, “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.”

We humans like narratives.  Archaeology is a type of story that uses tangible objects and landscapes to tell a tale.  Archaeology is a discipline rooted in the sciences and humanities.  Archaeologists must balance both fields of inquiry to interpret their discoveries with reliability and validity.

My discoveries concern the varied ways contemporary visitors and personnel of Bear Paw, Big Hole, Little Bighorn, and Rosebud battlefields use these landscapes for their own place-based cultural heritages and historical understandings.  Overall, these places are still socially relevant and significant after nearly fourteen decades since the battles.  And, whether these battlefields are of cultural, geographical, historical, personal, military, national, spiritual, and/or other heritage value for visitors and personnel, archaeological data, historical research, and oral traditions continue to contribute to these individuals’ values and understandings of the battles.  These contributions lead to not only more answers, but also more questions as to how and why humans have used cultural landscapes to maintain or change their heritages.  The relationship between a space and people’s beliefs and interactions within that environment is intriguingly complicated.

Well, back to writing while enduring the hot temperatures!



Images of Rosebud Battlefield State Park (left) and Nez Perce National Historical Park- Bear Paw Battlefield (right) during the summer of 2012.

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Castles and Crowdfunding – Part One

The joy of archaeology is that you never know what’s going to happen next, and so far the ’Day of Archaeology’ has more than lived up to this.

My name is Spencer Gavin Smith, and I live in two archaeological worlds which occasionally cross over. My day job is as a Contract Archaeologist for the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust and my other work is writing my PhD – part time – on the topic of ‘Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes of Medieval North Wales and North West Shropshire’.

Yesterday I received a phone call from a journalist with the ‘Daily Post’, which is the daily newspaper for North Wales.  His editor had seen my tweets about my crowd funding page for my PhD and could he send a photographer to meet me today to take a picture to go with the article he had been asked to write.

So, this morning I met the photographer at Holt Castle (Longitude 53.077958; Latitude -2.880319) to get a picture taken and also to see the excavation work being carried out there by Wrexham County Borough Council and local volunteers from the community.

The castle at Holt is a bit of a hidden gem of North East Wales. You can’t see it from the road through the village of Holt, and for many years it certainly didn’t really look like a castle either. But now, thanks to several heritage organisations working together, this once beautiful building is beginning to reveal its former glory.


Excavation at Holt Castle – with Cadw, Northern Marches Cymru, Wrexham County Borough Council and Holt Local History Society all working in partnership.

As part of my PhD research I’m looking at the relationship of castles to their surrounding landscape and at Holt there is an excellent survival of the relationship between Holt Castle and its Little Park.

Little Parks (sometimes known as Inner Parks) were constructed next to castles for the enjoyment of the owners, so they could look out of their castle windows and into their park, or ride with invited guests through the park looking at the castle as a backdrop.

DSC_4132 crop

The view out from the apartments into the Little Park, the original boundary is the line of trees across the image with the park starting behind them.

This morning I spoke to the Excavation Director, Stephen Grenter, to find out what this year’s excavations had revealed, and this afternoon I’ll be working on another part of my PhD research.



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George Geddes (RCAHMS) – East Renfrewshire

East Renfrewshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

East Renfrewshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

George Geddes taking notes. Copyright RCAHMS (DP148563)

George Geddes taking notes. Copyright RCAHMS (DP148563)

Duncarnock was the first hill fort survey that I took part in with the Commission. The fort is by far the largest in East Renfrewshire, and it was a refreshing introduction to the way that the staff at RCAHMS go about tackling these complex sites. Perhaps 2000 years old, the fort must have been an important place in the local neighbourhood, commanding extensive views of the surrounding area and modern Barrhead. It is likely to have contained a group of roundhouses where people lived and worked, and there may have been the workshops of metal workers and craftsmen in leather, wood and pottery.

It was surveyed by a husband and wife team Dick and Meghan Feachem, during their work for RCAHMS in the 1950s. A more recent re-survey by RCAHMS has teased out a lot more detail and clarified the condition of the fort’s wall, which has been thoroughly robbed, the stone being use in the dykes and houses in the area.

Aerial view centred on the remains of Duncarnock fort, taken from the NW. Copyright RCAHMS (DP04015)

Aerial view centred on the remains of Duncarnock fort, taken from the NW. Copyright RCAHMS (DP04015)

This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.


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Day of Archaeology – Norfolk

This morning I’ll be working mainly on former RAF Coltishall, a World War Two and Cold War airfield, which closed in 2006 and which Norfolk County Council bought in 2013.  This currently takes up a lot of my time, and little did I expect when I started digging in 1970 that one day a) I’d be a County Archaeologist and b) that we’d have expanded the scope of our interest to include, for example, milestones and other roadside heritage assets, and buildings as recent as 1980 (another Cold War heritage asset, a rare DIY bunker just outside Norwich).  Anyway, I’m just about to make two calls.  The first to a conservator at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford (Cambs) to get some advice on how best to maintain and/or restore the huge military murals painted during the First Gulf War on the insides of the steel doors of Hangar 1.  Second to a local resident who turns out to have detailed knowledge of the site, including the World War Two E-pens, for Spitfires or Hurricanes, two of which are extant and one of which we have just cleared of ivy, undergrowth and weeks (through our Norfolk Monuments Management Project).  He also knows about our three Pickett-Hamilton forts, two of which were very recently relocated by the Airfield Research Group, hiding under the turf (and locations not known to anyone who I’ve met on site, some of whom have been there for decades and involved in its maintenance).  Also they are not visible on aerial photographs, which I would have expected.

David Gurney, Historic Environment Manager (County Archaeologist), Norfolk County Council



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Nature Reserves & World War Two Archaeology

My job involves visiting and advising on management of archaeological sites for the UKs largest wildlife charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). We manage land across Britain from Shetland to Cornwall, Suffolk to Ceredigion and also throughout Northern Ireland. I get to see an amazing variety of sites from shell middens to hillforts to 19th century timber storage ponds – thousands of sites including 200 which are Scheduled (legally protected). Many of the best preserved archaeological sites can be found in wild places because this land has not been subject to intensive agriculture or commercial development. In particular we have hundreds of World War Two sites and I’d stick my neck out and say we must have one of the largest and best preserved collections of any land owner (with exception of the Ministry of Defence!).

The military used many wild places for training, storage,  firing/bombing ranges or  fortified them against invasion.  Heathland and coastal wetland were particularly heavily used because they were out of the way spotst where they could conduct live firing. The military flooded areas as a form of  invasion defence, leading wildlife to recolonise in the 1940s – so conservationists have alot to thank the military for in Suffolk, see:

Today I visited two wetland sites in Suffolk which have well preserved buildings – RSPB Boyton Marsh and Hollesley Marsh in Suffolk. I was hosted by wardens Dudley, Reg and Aaron – a happier crew you will not meet, and once you get to see where they work you can understand why. Nice sunny day in the countryside, quiet landscapes with grass bending in the wind and some beautiful concrete block houses and pillboxes! Boyton was an Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) firing range where tanks trained in the run up to D-Day and a group of block houses survive which would have operated pulley systems to move targets for the tanks to fire at. It is hard to imagine the noise, and the tanks trundling past today. At Hollesely we have a beautiful pillbox, which was part of the coastal crust of defences that carpeted the east coast of England – and a nice place to stop on a walk, eat your sandwiches and look at the view. We discussed how we good interpret these sites for visitors and keep them in good order – luckily,  by and large they were built to last! Returned home to see the kids for a Romans vs medieval knights battle……historical accuracy is everything to us archaeologists.

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Second World War Memorialisation on my Day Off

My day job is in the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum, but today is a day off for me. Not to worry, I’ve found plenty of archaeology, or at least, Cultural Heritage, to keep me occupied! [Since the Institute of Archaeology runs a master’s programme in Cultural Heritage Studies, I thought this would be allowed]

Yesterday, the Queen unveiled London’s newest monument, a memorial to the men and women of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command who gave their lives in service during the Second World War. The event was well attended by veterans and their families, and, coming 67 years after the conclusion of the war, could be regarded as overdue. Today I paid the monument a visit, and attempted to put it in context – amongst other monuments from the war, and also amongst the themes it addresses.

The new Bomber Command Memorial, viewed from the approach to the gyratory

The Bomber Command Memorial is a marble open-topped temple surrounding a bronze sculpture of seven crew members posed as if returning from a mission

Statues of crewmen in the Bomber Memorial

Doric columns, like the choice of building material, evoke classical values of the virtue of defense that are echoed in a quote from Pericles on the base of the statue. The monument is sited on the Green Park side of a large gyratory at Hyde Park Corner, inside of which are several other large war memorials and the massive Wellington Arch. So, whilst it dominates its corner of the roundabout, the new memorial is not out of place, and I thought if anything it mirrored rather nicely the neo-Classical (though Ionically columned!) entryway into Hyde Park.

  The monument also commemorates all of those people from any country who have suffered at the hands of aerial bombing, and in doing so makes a deliberate gesture to those who would criticize any commendation of the efforts of men who wrought such destruction on German cities like Hamburg and Dresden.  This is nice to see, and shows an awareness of the delicateness of the topic, which an earlier memorial did not.  I am referring to the statue of Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command during the closing stages of the Second World War, which stands in front of the church of Saint Clement Danes on the Strand.  The statue obviously commemorates the man, but a little plaque on the side also explains that it is erected ‘in memory…of the brave crews of Bomber Command, more than 55,000 of whom lost their lives in the cause of freedom.  The nation owes them all an immense debt.’  According to my little book London’s Monuments by Andrew Kershman (Metro Publications, 2007), when the statue of ‘Bomber’ Harris was unveiled in 1992, the attending crowd booed and threw eggs in disgust.  However much one may make allowances for Harris’ strategy of using his air fleet to attack centres of population (rather than strictly military or industrial targets) by saying that it ultimately helped win the war or was justified in the face of German attacks on British civilians, erecting an oversized statue in his honour was bound to be controversial.

What I found fascinating is the evolution of the capital’s commemoration of the RAF’s part in the Second World War over the last half century – and that you can see this evolution on a short walk or bike tour. Starting on the Strand, the church of Saint Clement Danes serves as the official RAF church and a memorial to everyone who has given their life for the force. Gutted in the war, it was reconstructed in the 1950s, and it’s interior is bedecked with plaques, flags and books recalling all of the individuals, units, and battle honours of the RAF. However from the outside the church is rather inconspicuous as a memorial and if anything is only noticeable for its ecclesiastical nature amidst the large buildings of Aldwych. For many years after the war, the more obvious monuments to the RAF would have been those to individuals.

Harris’s statue outside the church stands across the forecourt of Saint Clement Danes from another one erected in 1988, of his contemporary Hugh Dowding, who led Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Statue of Lord Portal

Down on Embankment, the figures of Lord Portal and Viscount Trenchard, giant figures in the development and leadership of the RAF, have stood watch since the 1960s and 70s.
It was only in 2005 that the memorial to the Battle of Britain was constructed on the Embankment opposite Trenchard and Portal. This piece honours the rank and file of the RAF and goes to the effort of listing every person who died during that conflict in 1940. Like the new Bomber Command Memorial, it shows an awareness of the importance of collective effort (and sacrifice) in the achievement of a nation’s prosperity. This isn’t a new phenomenon – witness the many memorials that sprang up after the First World War which gravely paid tribute to ‘the noble dead’. However it is curious to consider that it is only 60 years after the event that London is in a position to feel that the statues of individuals do not pay due respect to the others who served and died for them.
I personally thought the new monument was fitting and a poignant reminder of the service of these individuals. Because of the negative associations of carpet bombing German cities, the airmen of Bomber Command have received (to my mind) rather less acknowledgement than they deserve. Certainly they have not been immortalized like their colleagues in Fighter Command, ‘the few’ whom Churchill said we owed so much to.

It is interesting to ponder what some future students of material culture will make of the dates and styles of these various monuments to the RAF. I wonder if, when they question why the British felt it proper and necessary to construct a memorial to the 55,000 people from Bomber Command killed in the Second World War, they will reflect on contemporary outrage over British involvement in the Iraq War and the continual disappointment of the campaign in Afghanistan.

Poppies and a message left at the Bomber Command Memorial

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