By Sam Wilson (@conflictarchaeo on Twitter and Instagram)
In August 2021 I was privileged to be part of a collaborative project in the beautiful county of Northumberland as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded Project ‘Revitalising Redesdale’. Led by Northumberland National Park Authority it also included archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology, battlefield specialist Dr Glenn Foard, landscape archaeologist Dr Tracey Partida as well as a small army of local volunteers. My role as a battlefield archaeologist was to lead a systematic metal detector survey to search for unstratified artefacts from the battle.
The battle itself was fought in August 1388 (the exact date is disputed) between English and Scottish forces during the ongoing border wars of the period. The English commander was the famous Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy who was captured at the battle and later killed at the 1403 Battle of Shrewsbury after rebelling against King Henry IV. Fought as the sun set, Otterburn was a pyrrhic victory for the Scots as, although they ultimately won the field, their commander James 2nd Earl of Douglas was killed.
The survey aimed to recover objects that had been dropped or broken in combat such as buckles or weapon fittings which might indicate where the epicenter of the battle took place. A recently discovered sketch map in a private archive seemed to indicate the original position of a monument marking where Douglas fell, within the enticingly-named field ‘Battle Riggs’, so this formed the focus of the area surveyed. Wessex Archaeology were also undertaking widespread geophysics to the south of the River Rede in the hope of establishing the line of the medieval road which would have been integral in bringing the armies to the place of battle and indicating the position of the Scottish camp.
Detection transects were closely spaced in parallel lines, with the positions of any finds of interest precisely recorded with a GPS point. The volunteers were trained in the operation of the metal detectors, the methodology for setting up transects as well as recording. They were also able to get hands on with some test pitting and auger survey under the supervision of Wessex Archaeology.
Working in an upland environment with ground that hasn’t been cultivated (and thus bringing artefacts closer to the surface) for a number of centuries presents it’s own set of challenges and the results were unfortunately limited. There were no finds which could confidently be associated with the battle, the only possible relevant find being a buckle, but which could only be broadly dated to the later medieval/early post-medieval period. The medieval road also appeared elusive, although the geophysics results more accurately mapped the medieval extent of the river, useful information in understanding the wider topography of the battlefield as it may have been in the 14th century. However, the main achievement was the engagement with numerous local volunteers who were able to explore a more unusual aspect of the local heritage of their area. A local public event at Elsdon Church one evening even gave the chance to update people on the survey as it was happening, alongside a programme of Otterburn-themed entertainment and discussion.
You can find out more about the Revitalising Redesdale project here: https://www.revitalisingredesdale.org.uk