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Blood red roses: the archaeology of a mass grave from the Battle of Towton, AD 1461.

VERONICA FIORATO, ANTHEA BOYLSTON & CHRISTOPHER KNUSEL (ed.). Blood red roses: the archaeology of a mass grave from the Battle of Towton, AD 1461. x+277 pages, 330 b&w figures, 36 colour figures, 29 tables. 2000. Oxford: Oxbow; 1-84217-025-2 hardback 30 [pounds sterling].

On 29 March 1461, the Lancastrian army fought that of Edward, Duke of York, on a plateau between Towton and Saxton in what is now North Yorkshire. The battle lasted 10 hours and 28,000 died. The Yorkist victory led to the flight of King Henry VI and Queen Margaret and the coronation of York as Edward IV.

In 1996, the skeletons of approximately 38 men with weapon injuries were found in a mass grave at Towton. A multidisciplinary project was initiated by the North Yorkshire County Council Heritage Unit, staffed by the University of Bradford and the West Yorkshire Archaeology Service, to recover the remains, document the injuries in the light of contemporary arms, armour and combat, survey the battlefield and potential burial sites and set all in socio-cultural context. This thorough and elegant volume documents the work of the project so far.

The book sections progress logically from the historical background to the excavation, the analysis of the human remains, a study of the armour, weapons and combat techniques and the wider implications of the work for the study of battlefields and medieval warfare. Extensive appendices include contemporary documents, palaeopathological inventories and a Sites & Monuments Record battlefield survey.

Battlefield sites have been neglected: of 288 known or supposed battlefields, Fiorato (chapter 16) finds that only 22 have been investigated by archaeological means, with few significant results. In the ongoing investigation to determine the extent and foci of the Towton battlefield, Sutherland (chapter 14) found that some commonly used techniques gave poor evidential recovery. He recommends the production of `potential battlefield signatures' based on a more realistic artefact assemblage -- at Towton, for example, personal objects rather than military equipment -- and a sequence of archaeological methods which, unusually, favour collaboration with responsible metal-detectorists.

For the excavation, Sutherland developed a new recording system for multiple graves (chapter 4). Conventional drawn plans were replaced by Electronic Distance Measurer plotting of skeletal landmarks and multiple photographs, which were harmonized into individual skeleton plans and scanned into a `layered' composite which can be viewed in any combination of its parts. Along with other archaeologists, those of us who work in modern mass-grave contexts will welcome this system which appears to preserve accuracy while relieving time and other logistical pressures.

Who were the men and what was their lifestyle? The physical anthropology and pathology of the assemblage (chapters 5-7) shows that it resembles other medieval populations (given that the group consists only of males of fighting age) and its heterogeneity does not suggest military recruitment criteria. Knusel (chapter 9) compares the Towton men with the crew of the Mary Rose -- well-recovered assemblages of clear date and some demographic similarity. He demonstrates that, while the latter were specialist combatants, the former probably mingled levies from the ordinary population with specialists having the skeletal changes of combat training and healed weapon-trauma. Novak's section on the perimortal injuries is shudderingly precise and demonstrates the value of applying forensic anthropological methods to ancient material. She determines in most cases the type of wound (e.g. sharp- or blunt-weapon or projectile) and their sequence. Identifying weapon signatures proves, at present, more problematical, even with the assistance of armourers and combat experts (chapters 10-13), although punctures from daggers, various arrows, poleaxe spikes and the beaks of war hammers have been identified. The contrasts between the few body injuries and the multiple head injuries suggests that, in the rout, these probably humble infantrymen might have discarded their helmets but retained their torso-protecting jacks.

There are few errors or omissions in this volume. The method of excavating from overlying planks is not new, as claimed, but already established in archaeology. The reproduction of a few figures is too pale for the detail to be understood (especially, the weapons from the Beauchamp Pageant), but most of the photographs, including 36 in colour, are excellent, and Caroline Needham's drawings outstanding.

Blood Bed Roses is distinguished by its unusual combination of broad scope, painstaking detail and sensitivity. The soldiers, to quote Robert Hardy's Foreword, speak out from their endless silence. With their archaeological context and the support of contemporary documents, they inform us about aspects of 15th-century English society: strenuous work for the peasant and training for the soldier; the recruitment of an army; preferred weapons and the effectiveness of armour; the overturning of burial conventions in the aftermath of battle. And they convey to us their human experiences, ending in the brutality, agony, mutilation and inglorious death of the medieval battlefield.
Wolfson College, Cambridge
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Title Annotation:Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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