Archaeology

From Chris Bowles

Proposed Archaeological Investigation: Battle of Carham

Very little is known about the Battle of Carham beyond the few historical sources that exist, the place name and traditions. Archaeology can be a key tool in helping to fill in the gaps left in the historical record. There are however difficulties with using traditional archaeological techniques for assessing battlefields in this case, so any investigations that do take place need to use a variety of desk and field based activities that will accumulate a breadth of information and hopefully lead to a much better understanding of this important battle.

At nearly 1000 years old, approaching the battlefield of Carham itself as a target for archaeological investigation is very difficult, but not impossible, proposition. There are three primary reasons for this. First, the exact location of the battlefield is unknown. Given the scant nature of historic sources from the period in which the battle took place, and the lack of any direct written accounts to draw from, we are left with only vague traditions pointing to the site of the battle. It would be important as part of any investigation to try to ascertain the origins of the local traditions. Ultimately this may not bear fruit, but as part of a wider historical exercise this could give very useful information about the battlefield’s location that is not readily apparent at present. Secondly, even if the battlefield’s location is discovered it is unlikely that much physical evidence for the battle will be found. In traditional battlefield archaeology, techniques of metal detecting surveys and geophysics have been employed to locate, map and recover objects and even human remains associated with a battle. However, the age of this battle and the largely iron based objects that were likely involved means that most evidence will have significantly deteriorated or vanished entirely. That is not to say that nothing will survive. For instance, some ferrous objects may have entered into soils or water-logged deposits that favour their preservation. On analogy with other battlefields, there is also a high likelihood that non-ferrous materials, such as personal ornamental objects (e.g. crosses, brooches etc.) were lost during the battle and may yet lie buried. Despite the issues with preservation, conducting traditional battlefield surveys at Carham is still worthwhile and may lead to important new discoveries. However this leads to the third potential issue. The battlefield of Carham, wherever it exists, likely lies within an area that saw a number of other military actions over several centuries. The key to this is the presence of Wark Castle. As a highly strategic asset along the Anglo-Scottish border from the Norman period through the 16th century, Wark attracted a number of other battles and sieges from both English and Scottish forces. As such, the battlefield of Carham may be layered with objects from later actions. Disentangling these from those left during the battle will be difficult and will require specialists in the archaeology of medieval warfare to become involved in both the recovery and assessment of items from the area.

Beyond the battlefield, it is extremely worthwhile to understand the landscape and settlement context for the Battle of Carham. All battles are dictated by physical features in the landscape. Whether this is from physical impediments that may lead to an army to move one way or another (before, during and after the battle) or from strategic choices of landscape and built features, the environment is often THE deciding factor in a battle’s ebb, flow and outcome. The obvious key feature in relation to the Battle of Carham is obviously the border it helped establish: the River Tweed.

A key question for how and where the battle took place is what role the river had at the time. It must have been crossed by one army or another before (and after) the battle, but where? A likely place for the crossing is at the village of Birgham in the Scottish Borders. The name of Birgham itself (meaning the settlement by the bridge) indicates a key strategic cross point. In fact, the bridge was the site of several significant treaties between Scotland and England in the medieval period indicating its importance to both sides. But the bridge no longer exists, so finding the site of the bridge and any physical evidence that still exists must be a critical part of any archaeological project.

Beyond the bridge, where did the River actually flow 1,000 years ago and how did this constrain the battlefield? Old meanders of the river are visible in the landscape today. By looking at LiDAR (light, detection and ranging) derived images of the Tweed it will be possible to very accurately map the various meanders of the river. But of course this will not tell you their age. It is possible to get this by looking at the sediments that are buried in the base of the old channels. Because rivers carry organic matter such as pollen, branches and leaves, carbon rich traces of these may yet survive. Similarly, the channels eventually filled in with silt and other debris that contain organic materials. Such materials can be dated through the likes of radiocarbon dating. To get at these, sediment cores need to be taken and analysed for carbon rich materials in a lab. Some of this work has already taken place in this area of the Tweed. For instance, a large meander just south of Coldstream at Leet Haugh was found to date from the 11th or 12th century. It is therefore likely that this meander, several hundred metres from the current course of the river, was open during the time of the battle leaving a large area to the south of the meander where a battle could have taken place. By looking at sediment cores taken from other meanders, and coupling this with LiDAR we should be able to determine the likely course of the River Tweed at the time of the Battle of Carham and perhaps other likely candidate areas for where and how it took place.

There are other interesting lines of enquiry we might use to help us understand the battle better. For instance, what role if any did the church of St Cuthbert in Carham, play during the battle? Can we use the church as an indicator of where the battle took place and why it was located at Carham in the first place? Also, was Wark placed where it was because the battle took place nearby? Recent and future excavations at Wark by the Flodden 1513 group may help answer this question. No doubt during the course of an investigation other interesting possibilities will emerge.

Archaeology alone is unlikely to tell us everything about the Battle of Carham. But by combining techniques of traditional survey and modern landscape analysis with a better historic understanding, it is hoped that we can at least fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge.

From Glenn Foard Richard Morris – Archaeology of English Battlefields
There is no early medieval English battlefield for which there is an accepted secure location. Even Maldon, the only Registered Battlefield pre-Conquest, is not without doubts.
There are various possibilities for identifying sites :
• Commemoration – the location of chapels or mass graves
• Clues from antiquarian reports and place names – but require caution
• Artefacts previously found – but little is known about the type of artefact that might have been lost. Confirms that ferrous metal objects in waterlogged ground may survive
• Studying the strategic and tactical aspects of the landscape – has been some recent work in this area – roads, signalling systems, mustering points, topography
• Places of assembly are important – necessary for the assembly of larger forces – established meeting places

Conclusion : without the chance find of a mass grave the likelihood of finding an early medieval battle site is very low