What really lies beneath the battlefield at Hastings?

The Battle of Hastings is regularly fought all over again by re-enactors.
The Battle of Hastings is regularly fought all over again by re-enactors.
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It is arguably Britain’s most famous conflict, but can a Yorkshire archaeologist unlock the secrets of the Battle of Hastings? Sarah Freeman reports.

To Some it’s an anonymous green field, the kind which separates towns and cities up and down the country. Dr Glenn Foard sees it differently.

To him the grassy expanse, believed to be the site of the Battle of Hastings, is just a cover and beneath it may lay evidence of one of the important chapters of English history.

“I know it can be hard for people to understand its importance, because let’s face it, you can’t see a damn thing,” says Huddersfield University’s resident battlefield archaeologist. “But if we can just remove the top soil then we may discover the genuine remains of a battle which changed the course of history.”

Dr Foard is also hoping to change perceptions with a project which, if it comes off, will be the first major excavation of the site in years.

“There are still a few loose ends to tie up, but I am hoping that we might be on site in spring next year. It is important that we do this now. The Battle of Hastings is regularly fought all over again by enthusiastic re-enactors before large crowds of spectators.

“The problem is that they are depositing material which could compromise the archaeology of the site. Now the challenge is on to find out what archaeology is there, before it is too late.”

Dr Foard has form when it comes to pinpointing the exact location of centuries old battles. Following painstaking research, it was he who discovered that the Battle of Bosworth, was not fought on the heights of Ambion Hill where the modern visitor centre stands today, but a couple of miles down the road on low lying ground known as Fen Hole.

It was the battle which cost Richard III his life and not content with finding the battleground, Dr Foard also believes he knows the exact place where the king received the fatal injuries, still visible when his skeleton was discovered underneath a car park in Leicester last year.

The Bosworth project took off when a single 30mm lead ball was found by Dr Foard and the site has now yielded more shot than archaeological surveys on any other late medieval European battlefield.

“The further you go back in time, the harder evidence is to find,” he says. “It really is as simple as that. When you get to the point before armies were using gunpowder then locating evidence is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.”

While a team of trained experts will carry out the Hastings excavation, Dr Foard is hoping to use the project to increase public awareness about the importance of archaeology.

“We will be running parallel sessions aimed at children and parents, which will give them a chance to use metal detectors and us an opportunity to illustrate the difference between treasure hunting and archaeology.

“What we do is systematic. Every single item which is not junk is recorded, so that by the end of any project we have built up a detailed picture of an area. I have no idea what we will find at Hastings. The abbey was built right on top of where we think the main battlefield was, so all we can explore is the periphery, but the prospect of getting on to the land is exciting in itself.”

Should Dr Foard and his team shed new light on the battle where King Harold famously lost an eye and his life, he believes it will be a springboard for more detailed excavations of Britain’s other battlefields.

“If we can discover evidence of a battle there it will open doors elsewhere. These fields contain an important slice of our history and it is vital they are not lost forever.”

Bosworth 1485: A Battlefield Rediscovered by Dr Foard and Professor Anne Curry has been shortlisted in the British Archaeology Awards. The winners will be announced on July 14.