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Outline of the search for the battlefield at Fulford. May 2006 Update
And preliminary findings of the work of the community project.
Produced as a part of the evidence to be submitted to the planning inquiry
The investigation began slowly with an examination of the literature in 1998. A retired archivist of the Borthwick Institute, Reginald Dearlove, had a special interest in the battle and was able to provide details of the various suggested locations recorded in antiquarian literature.
The Fulford Ings was the popular choice but other commentators placed the battle nearer to the southern city limit. Germany Beck is not listed as the location in any early source until Britton’s History of Fulford. Attempts were made to reconcile various locations along the Ings with the saga descriptions. Concurrently, my work with the Territorial Army required me to entertain visiting senior military officers and a contemplation of a local battlefield provided a useful entertainment.
It gradually became clear that Germany Beck was a sensible fit for the literature and the military minds unanimously favoured the beck as a defensible ‘choke point’. By a happy chance, a DPhil student from Manchester University, Susannah Gill, was willing to undertake an environmental survey of the Ings for her dissertation. This revealed that the Ings was an unlikely location for the battlefield because it was too wet. It also provided a model for the rate at which the ground level had risen since 1066. This was a great help in refining the search area.
Germany Beck became the focus of attention although when talking to local historians in Fulford, they raised the possibility of Naburn and even Middlethorpe as battlesites. These were subsequently investigated. There are reports of military-style artefacts being discovered along both banks of the river. However, nothing could be found to support these suggestions. It is feasible that military artefacts might have been moved in the mud by the flow from York to emerge at Naburn during one of the regular floods. There were many stories but nothing was ever seen to allow this line to be pursued although such find would not be inconsistent with Germany Beck as the focus of the battle.
It was when talking to local historians in Fulford that I leant of the possible housing development planned for the area. However, at that stage, there was no indication that Germany Beck was to provide the access route as the housing was some distance from the area of investigation.
The area to be investigated by the group of interested people that was getting together was initially defined as running from the Ings opposite Bishopthorpe Palace to the eastern part of Walmgate Stray. A large area was intentionally defined as artefacts from the battle, whose location was still at that time a matter of active debate, could be scattered beyond the fighting area itself. With the help of members of the York Metal Detectorists Club and donations for several local firms, work began in late 2001.
By a happy coincidence, the Battlefield Trust and York Archaeological Trust were jointly considering an investigation of the battles around York at this time. After some discussions, a plan emerged to seek some funding to allow a proper investigation using professional archaeologists to be undertaken.
Investigation of battlefields did not have a methodology at that time so there was much discussion with academics of many disciplines prior to an application being submitted to the National Lottery for money. With Lottery funding, professionals could be brought into the project and allow much more work to be undertaken than unfunded amateurs could hope to achieve.
With the expert input mentioned earlier, a programme of work was prepared and a Lottery grant, under the Local Heritage Initiative, was received in October 2002.
Around this time, the first international battlefield archaeology conference was held in London which provided more input especially from Doug Scott who had pioneered the work of investigating battlefields in America for their Parks Department. The Battlefield Trust, again with Lottery backing, was able to appoint the country’s first battlefield archaeologist, Glenn Foard. He helped devise a plan of work which has been the basis of the work the group has undertaken at Fulford.
However our understanding of how to look for battlefields continues to develop fast and is currently the subject of much academic study with the first undergraduate course being launched and English Heritage sponsoring a project based at Leeds University to devise methodologies for sites from different eras.
Unlike a road, burial site or old building, there are no precise limits to a battlesite. A battle takes place over an extensive area. It is worth noting at the beginning that the battlefield society project has probed 50% of the area with soil-depth surveys and covered about 15% of what we see as the core area of the battle with metal detecting plus 20% of the outer area. Approximately 85% of the site could, if permission was given, be surveyed.
The investigation has only competes a quarter of the ground survey work but every piece of work has increased confidence that Germany Beck is indeed the location of the important battle of Wednesday 20 September 1066.
It was recognised that there were considerable problems investigating an ancient battlefield.
Why is it so difficult to find ancient battle?
This limited the possible investigations:
A study of available literature to find landscape locations that matched.
Examine mapping evidence and air photographic indicators. Topographical mapping (LIDAR) was available because the area had been surveyed as part of the Environment Agency’s flood assessment and planning.
Soil survey and reconstructing the landscape was identified as a key element because this provided the surface on which the drama of 1066 was enacted. Preliminary soil surveying was also employed to direct the metal detecting.
Environmental information from hedges and pollen would help to reveal the nature of the land in 1066.
Metal detecting would be employed to look for patterns of finds and clues to land use.
Geophysics investigations could look for sub-surface disturbance and some work on surface soil chemistry was proposed. However, permission was never grated to access the relevant land to allow these to be employed.
What was done and what does it mean?
In terms of priorities, reconstructing the shape of the landscape was ‘number one’. Understanding the soil beneath our feet seemed the best place to start. The group was immensely lucky to have the advice and training we received form Dr Andy Howard, then of Bradford University. He is the country’s leading Geo-Archaeologist.
Using a variety of augers, soil cores were taken.
The first phase was in support of the metal survey. This work generally preceded any metal survey work which allowed areas where the surface of 1066 was likely to reasonably near the surface. A simple one cm engineering auger was used and a team of two could take 10 measurements per hour. This was also used to explore Walmgate Stray which was believed to have been wetter and might have provided part of the marshy flank and a possible escape route for the routed defenders. However, both of these speculations could be dismissed after the soil survey.
The next phase was to explore the beck bottom and banks. The hope was to use this gash cut into the landscape to explore possible crossing points and look at the underlying layer of boulder clay. The results were inclusive mainly because it was so difficult to drill into the clay. The indications were that there were a number of crossing points where stones had been embedded in the clay, and that the whole length of the beck was remarkably consistent from which it might be concluded that its path has been stable and ‘natural’ or ‘unimproved’.
The early phases also helped to identify the fact that a number of old channels ran from the south into the beck. Access limited this work after 2002 which hoped to identify the nature of the land surface that we believe formed the marshy left flank of the defenders. Several channels were identified and a second phase of archaeology by the developers was also revealing as was the geological map of that area. However, it would be good to return to see if this area would have provided a secure flank and complete the survey of the beck.
During this work, several extensive areas of staining due to charcoal were revealed. It is hoped that it will be possible to return to explore these properly and take samples for carbon dating. They all lie above a layer of peat which predates the battle by two centuries and no model exists to estimate the relevance of their depth (around 1m bp). They are interesting for several reasons to pursue this work.
The third task was a transect across the Ings. This was done to confirm the earlier work by Manchester University and to understand the ecology of the Ings and the historic course of the Ouse. If, for example, the river had meandered it might have opened up other areas for investigation as battle sites. We now know that the 1066 Ings surface was over 2m below present.
This arduous work does much credit to the volunteers who often had to work in wet and cold because of the times of year allocated to us by the managers of the area, English Nature. The present course of the Ouse, south of York and as far as Bishopthorpe, has not moved for several millennia. The deepest core was over 7 metres long, extracted using a power auger from Leeds University.
The Leeds team also took the deep cores near the A19 crossing which was trying to explain the strange course of Germany Beck.
This fourth area of investigation demonstrated that the course of the beck was changed when the two bridges were constructed. The modern bridge over the A19 spans the channel cut by the water of Germany Beck at right-angles. The probable course of the channel, and the way it has migrated since the last ice age, can be confidently described. What made this particularly exciting is that the revised location makes sense of three comments in the description of the battle by Snoori.
The fifth, and final soil survey project, was designed to locate the old road running south of York. This has already involved drilling about 50 cores. This work has uncovered much evidence but it is not easy to interpret. There appears to have been a good deal of sub-surface activity as the crossing migrated east, perhaps as the level of the Ings rose with annual flooding. It would certainly explain the ‘dog-leg’ in the shape of the modern A19 where it crosses the beck. This would have been a good crossing point with the alluvial deposits pushing the ford steadily east as it is perpendicular to the underlying moraine so provides the shortest crossing point.
A further, tentative conclusion is that the beck formed a delta as it flowed towards the Ouse. The present route of the beck, which flows north, counter to the nearby river Ouse also makes sense when the land a few metres below the present surface is understood.
The conclusion from all of this soil-survey work is that we can interpret the shape of the 1066 landscape.
The beck created a marshy delta as it flowed across the Ings to the river Ouse.
Along the edge of the river, a firm walkway or levee created the Ings which were wetter in 1066 and were probably drained by the digging of channels to create pasture when the settlement of Fulford was built after 1066. Water Fulford, south of the fording place, would not be occupied until the century after the battle (Confirmed by pottery finds).
The defender’s shieldwall along the line of Germany Beck from the place on their left, where there is the first major fork, to the right where the moraine dipped below the Ings would have provide the defenders with a straight line about 350 metres long.
Offset right-of-centre relative to the defender’s shieldwall was the area of the ford. This is the only area where the landscape of Germany Beck has been substantially altered. The beck used to loop through what is now the Fulford Parish Council play area which has been illegally filled burying the natural amphitheatre where earl Morcar’s men were trapped. The 1066 surface is about 2 metres below the modern surface.
The landscape revealed during 4 seasons work is consistent with the literature and makes military sense for a battle of that time. The exciting point is just how little the landscape has changed since 1066 and how the discoveries enhanced our understanding of the literature.
The story of why the Germany Beck area was selected as the focus of our work was told in the introduction. Through the early years of the investigation the assessment was continued, using air photography, ancient mapping, written records which were all studied. With much guidance from Keith Challis, then working with York Archaeological Trust, the area south of the city was assessed.
The conclusions again pointed back to Germany Beck as a suitable place to block any attack from the south. Just as important, a study of the maps provide no other suitable locations for the battle closer to the city.
There are many tempting pointers, and some fragments of archaeology, indicating the possible route of a road going towards the beck from the city. The location for the nearest community to the beck was probably based along St Oswald’s Road, a kilometre north of the beck. Battles of the time avoided built-up areas which is consistent with this location for the settlement which we might call ‘Old Fulford’ but which is called Sutton on one old map. The construction of the present village of Fulford in the century after the Conquest is consistent with the name of Fulford first being associated with the battle 100 years after the event.
The extensive work carried out on the landscape north and east of the Germany Beck by the developers archaeologist failed to find any artefacts from the 11th Century. This is further confirmation that this was not a built area at the time of the battle. The area has records of almost continuous use since Neolithic times. However, the fact that there is so little from this one era might indicate that something traumatic took place on this landscape during the 11th Century.
Early maps also helped to show that key features around Fulford have not moved. This is confirmed by the local geology which explains the reason for the wet-lands to the east and Ings to the west of the Fulford which were the result of glacial moraines deposited 15,000 years ago. The two moraines, the ‘Escick’ and the ‘York’ moraines, meet at Fulford. The breach provides a drain for the Walmgate, Heslington and Fulford wet-lands.
The landscape south of York is sandwiched between these two glacial retaining walls which has created a marshy area, now centred around the main campus of York University. The many ponds and canals around the campus were built to cope with the geology. The construction there is a creation of post-war hydrological technology.
So, the location of the battle at Germany Beck fits well with the literature and the maps while other work shows that the layout of this landscape has been remarkable stable. Almost as important, the geology almost certainly precludes other possible sites for a ditch as the locus for a battle of this size.
The working hypothesis before the work at Fulford was undertaken was that no complete weapons would be found since no other battlefield had revealed any such finds. However, the exercise was deemed worth undertaking because the battle was fought by men clad in iron using iron weapons. So it was not unreasonable to expect there to be some increased trace of ferrous material on the battlefield.
Iron material is not normally collected by detectorists who can set their detectors to discriminate against ferrous material but the small army of volunteers from the York Metal Detectorists Club agreed to do so for the purposes of our research. They contributed thousands of hours to the project over four seasons.
Work to analyse the material is still in hand but proper analysis will have to wait until the data set can be complete when data is available from the rest of the area of interest. The hope is to carry out analysis by quantity, mass and find-density over the whole area. The preliminary findings from this work-in-progress was presented to a gathering of archaeologists at the British Museum in April 2005.
Meaningful analysis requires a study of the whole site and so far, this has been blocked by the developers. The hope is to find ‘hot-spots’ that will stand out against a background ferrous material. It is these amorphous fragments that might provide a faint echo of the events of 1066.
Old channels, and places where the land had been built-up, were avoided as ancient finds would be undetectable if they are not near the surface. A soil pre-survey was valuable to get the best from the metal detectorists. It was quick to do since it employed a 1cm core which could easily distinguish layers of topsoil and sand. Areas of particular interest were where the hard moraine material was within a metre of the present surface.
It is worth noting that the detectorists would instinctively avoid areas where the land had been filled in a way that put material out of range of their detectors. During the project, two areas were chosen that were outside the battle area for comparison. These areas yielded very little, possibly because the soil depth was not assessed beforehand and the land was prone to build-up by flooding.
We also returned to another two areas to test how much was missed on the first pass. The results are also not conclusive because those undertaking the work, who did not know this was a second visit, became bored by how little they were finding and abandoned the search. Both of the re-visited areas were for unploughed areas but it does give me confidence in the professionalism of the metal detectorists. This did provide some measure of control to our work and will be analysed in more detail in due course.
The metal survey told us much about the later land use and some non-ferrous items have been passed on to national experts with the land owners consent. The key ferrous finds must be the small knives of the Anglo-Saxon era and the evidence of metal working on the site.
The significance of the seaxes is difficult to assess. These were carried in war and in peace. Perhaps the ford was a popular picnic spot! Perhaps this density of finds is normal for an area like this but we will not know until other areas are similarly surveyed. Perhaps these knife fragments which at about 4cm were small enough to be missed when the site was cleared after the battle.
Fulford provides, for the first time, compelling evidence that metal working was carried out near the heart of the action. Until further work is carried out in the area of this smithing find and the adjacent charcoal stains, this work cannot be dated.
A call to the community of battlefield archaeologists has yielded two other sites with metal working finds on the battlefield. In Sweden one archaeologist has even suggested, based on unreported finds in Scandinavia, that there might have been some sort of sacrificial metal offering after a battle.
However, the recovery of so many billets from an area that was formerly swampy, among which were two metal working tools, invites us to speculate that the owner intended to return to recover this heavy haul. The finds are of iron that has been hammered into a billet which are suitably shaped to be forged into weapons. Iron billets were tradable items. Several are clearly axe-shaped. If these are contemporary with the battle, the destruction of the victors of Fulford at Stamford Bridge, five days later is one explanation why the hoard was not recovered by its owner.
Even if these finds are not contemporary with the battle, an explanation needs to be found for why a short-term forge was established in the countryside when there was natural supply of iron and no building project nearby requiring the services of a blacksmith.
This is another very exciting discovery and it is frustrating not to have been able to complete the investigation. There is much more to be written about the ferrous finds but, for the moment, it will have to wait.
There is much unfinished business
Less than a third of the available site has been surveyed for metal. The analysis of all the finds will yield more information in due course. But this analysis depends upon a consistent area study to help identify any ‘hot spots’. There is a large hole in the centre of the study area.
A systematic soil survey to the area beyond the eastern boundary of the Fulford Cemetery might reveal how secure a flank obstacle this was and if it provided a suitable retreat route for the defeated earl Morcar.
The areas where it was hoped to conduct various geophysical investigations has not been available.
When permission is granted, the area of the furnace finds and billet hoard must be properly investigated and in the case of the latter, excavated.
Pollen and heavy-metal analysis of the core samples already taken could help to clarify some outstanding questions about the landscape.
We support English Heritage’s suggestion that the peat layer along the line of the access route must be removed and analysed. A mitigation strategy to investigate and possibly remove does form part of the planning consent that was granted by the council.
A slit trench could be dug parallel to the Ouse where Germany Beck used to enter the river. This would help to confirm the interpretation of the battlesite. But this would need to be 3 metres deep so it is technically challenging.
The possibility of some dendrochronology and/or carbon dating on the some of the trees fringing the Beck would help to confirm the interpretation of the landscape and identify those trees that stood in 1066.
Much effort has been expending in the search for the two roads that are believed to have run south of York. The locations are strongly suspected and it is possible that little remains of these minor roads in the area of the battlesite.
The full story of the project and all the data will be published in the Autumn of 2007.
You can look at many of the images and much of the work on the website
Fulford Battlefield Society