Skip to content
Open menu Close menu

Image of Skull (Towton 1) Towton Mass Grave Project

Project Staff

  • Anthea Boylston
  • Jennifer Coughlan
  • Malin Holst
  • Christopher Knüsel
  • Shannon Novak
  • Tim Sutherland

The Excavations

In August 1996, workmen disturbed a portion of a mass-burial pit during building work at the location of the Towton battlefield (near Tadcaster, North Yorkshire).  At the request of North Yorkshire County Council Heritage Unit, a team of osteoarchaeologists and archaeologists from Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford and members of the West Yorkshire Archaeology Service excavated the mass grave. They recovered the mostly complete remains of 43 individuals from a grave pit which measured 6m x 2m and was only 50 cm in depth. These tightly-packed individuals were recovered through the application of three-dimensional recording of the deposit and its contents, scaled photographs, and in situ sketch drawings. The original appearance of the deposit and associated entangled arms and legs with discrete individuals has been recreated using computer-assisted design software.

Historical Background

What transpired at Towton on a snowy Palm Sunday, March 29th, 1461, has ever since been something of a mystery, despite the battle being one of the largest and bloodiest ever fought on English soil.

Historically, the battle marked a turning point in the Wars of the Roses that confirmed the Yorkist Edward IV's accession to the throne of England. During the battle and ensuing rout of the Lancastrians, an estimated 28,000 men lost their lives. The application of forensic anthropological techniques for identifying and recording injuries has allowed us to confirm that the individuals from the pit were casualties of an extremely violent encounter. Moreover, they provide a unique glimpse of the personal consequences of battle for some who took part.

Osteological Analysis

Most of these individuals had sustained multiple peri-mortem (around the time of death) injuries from a variety of projectiles and hand-held weapons, many of which bear resemblance to those curated by the National Armouries Museum, Leeds (collaborators on the project), and dating to the late Medieval period. In order to document these injuries complete reconstruction of crania was necessary such that the wounds could be sequenced (the process of identifying the order in which blows were delivered and their physical ramifications).

Skull fracture Many of the individuals suffered multiple injuries that are far in excess of those necessary to cause disability and death. From the distribution of cuts, chops, incisions, and punctures, it appears that blows cluster in the craniofacial area, in some cases bisecting the face and cranial vault of some individuals and detaching bone in others. Series of cuts and incisions found in the vicinity of the nasal and aural areas appear to have been directed toward removal of the nose and ears. There are few infra-cranial (torso and limb) injuries, which may suggest that these areas were not targeted, that these individuals were wearing armour, or that they sustained their injuries while in a position that did not allow them to defend themselves.

The pattern, distribution, and number of these insults argues for peri-mortem mutilation. Many were left in a state that would have made identification difficult, even more so as they had been stripped of identifiable weapons and clothing prior to interment (a normal practice in the Medieval period).

(Above: Close up of blunt force trauma on Towton 11, showing radiating fractures)

The general size and robusticity of the individuals from Towton is unusual when compared with other medieval populations. Many of these individuals are more robust (stockier) than the medieval norm, appearing similar to modern professional athletes. The physical appearance of these individuals, then, may be related to extended periods of strenuous exertion prior to physiological maturity (i.e. in youth). Among these are numerous Schmorl's nodes in the vertebral column (from pressure exerted on the inter-vertebral discs in heavy lifting), os acromiale of the scapular spine, a condition that is often accompanied by rotator cuff (muscles that stabilise the shoulder) tears, and an avulsion fracture of the humeral medial epicondyle, a condition that develops from throwing (e.g. in projectile use) in more recent juvenile individuals. One hypothesis to explain this pattern is that these individuals were selected as participants in the battle because of previous experience and training in armed combat from a young age. Some support for this relationship comes from a number of healed injuries, testimony to prior involvement in armed conflict.

Towton Skull image 4 Analysis of the Towton assemblage offered a complementary view of medieval warfare to that offered by the chronicles of the Medieval period. The project enable us to place the Towton individuals within the context of late medieval society and address the effect of late medieval social change on warfare. Far from the chivalrous conflict so often associated with the Middle Ages, we may be seeing early evidence of the brutality more often encountered in the civil wars of the modern era.

(Left: Towton 25. Sharp force trauma across the back of the skull)

Publications

Fiorato, V., Boylston, A. and Knüsel C. 2000 Blood Red Roses. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Fiorato, V., Boylston, A. and Knüsel C. 2007 Blood Red Roses. Oxford: Oxbow Books. (2nd edn.)

Ongoing Research

The Battle of Towton Landscape Project is being undertaken by Tim Sutherland, and continues to gather evidence from the battlefield and its surrounding landscape.

The individuals recovered from the mass grave excavated in 1996 are curated at the Biological Anthropology Research Centre (BARC), Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford, allowing researchers to gather more information for specific projects from these remains. Because of the unique context and known date-of-death of these individuals, they have contributed to a number of more recent projects, both as the principal subjects of study and as an out-group for comparison in both population-based and osteobiographical studies. These include several published works from further research and Ph.D., and MSc. dissertation projects completed in the BARC and Light Stable Isotope Facility, including:

Amanda Blackburn

Now in the Ph.D. programme at the University of Manitoba, as part of her MSc. dissertation research examined bilateral asymmetry of medial epicondylar breadth in a living population and compared the extent of asymmetrical development with that of the Towton and 10th-11th-century Raunds Furnells, Northamptonshire, population. Her results demonstrate the greatest influence on this elbow dimension comes from activity, rather than age and sex and that the modern sample was much more lateralised than either of the two medieval populations. This result indicates that the medieval samples employed their upper limbs together (bi-manually) to a greater extent in the course of their lives (Blackburn and Knüsel 2006).

Gundula Müldner

Now Lecturer in Palaeo-Health and Diet at Reading University, has analysed the group for dietary isotopes, finding that they are distinguished from medieval peasant farmers from Wharram Percy, east Yorkshire, but also from Gilbertine monastics from Fishergate, York, and from high status, late medieval aristocrats, such as the St. Bees Lady (Cumbria). Their diet was high not only in terrestrial, but also marine and freshwater sources (fish), as indicated by enriched 13C and 15N values (Müldner and Richards 2005).

Jill Rhodes

Now Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, used computer tomography to obtain transverse ‘slices’ from the Towton humeri to identify geometric properties that relate to use and function of the upper limbs, as well as architectural aspects of humeral morphology, such as diaphyseal torsion. The results of this research demonstrate that individuals who sustained weapon trauma have skeletal manifestations associated with long-term strenuous use of their upper limbs that likely relates to extended pre-adolescent training with weapons, long before the creation of a standing army in England. Furthermore, the development of cortical bone deposition and robusticity in the left upper limb of the Towton individuals, when compared with a largely 12th century sample of blade-injured from the Fishergate site in York, suggests greater bi-manual use of the upper limbs in the late 15th-century Towton sample, which may relate to the advent and dependence upon the long bow in medieval warfare (Rhodes and Knüsel 2005).

Marianne Schweich

Previously Visiting Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Birmingham, completed her doctoral research on stature and body mass and proportions reveals that the Towton individuals, although distinguished from the mass majority of human populations inhabiting Britain over the last 2,000 years by their tall stature and increased body mass, also form an outlier when compared to the shorter and lighter, near-contemporary medieval populations- a testament to their generally beneficial lifestyle and good diet. However, they do not attain to the statures of high status medieval rulers such as the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich (Henry) IV (the imperial protagonist in the Investiture Contest) or the earlier Carolingian Emperor Charlemagne (Schweich and Knüsel 2003).

The sample has also stimulated studies of trauma in earlier populations and the unravelling of unusual mortuary contexts, such as that from the Late Bronze Age site of Velim Skalka, Czech Republic. The injuries sustained by the Towton men has permitted a reconsideration and clearer definition of such trauma and its casualties/victims in the past, as demonstrated in three chapters contributed to Parker-Pearson and Thorpe's Warfare, Violence and Slavery in Prehistory (2005) and by a recent re-analysis of the Walkington Wold Anglo-Saxon decapitation population sample (Buckberry and Hadley 2007) and a review of weapon-related trauma in British archaeological populations (Boylston 2000), published in Cox and Mays' (2000) Human Osteology: In Archaeology and Forensic Science. The sample has also contributed to training in the skeletal analysis of weapon trauma and continues to reveal details on the effect of physical activity on skeletal morphology.

In this regard, it is the basis for Rebecca Storm’s present doctoral research on fluctuating asymmetry, which forms a baseline for population comparisons of bilateral asymmetry and for the identification of congenital conditions in archaeological human remains. In addition, to providing excellent specimens for laboratory-based practical sessions, the diagnostics developed on the sample also forms the basis for Sarah King's Ph.D. study of engendered violence in the Iron Age.

References

  • Boylston, A. 2000. Evidence for weapon-related trauma in British archaeological samples. In: Cox, M. and Mays, S. Human Osteology in Archaeology and Forensic Science. Greenwich Medical Media, London, pp357-380
  • Blackburn, A. and Knüsel, C.J. 2006. Bilateral asymmetry of the epicondylar breadth of the humerus. Current Anthropology 47(2), 377-382
  • Buckberry, J.L. and Hadley, D.M. 2007. An Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery at Walkington Wold, Yorkshire. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 26(3), 309-329
  • Cox, M. and Mays, S. Human Osteology in Archaeology and Forensic Science. Greenwich Medical Media, London
  • Müldner, G. and Richards, M.P. 2005. Fast or feast: reconstructing diet in later medieval England by stable isotope analysis Journal of Archaeological Science 32, 39–48
  • Rhodes, J.A. and Knüsel, C.J. 2005. Activity-related skeletal change in medieval humeri: cross-sectional and architectural alterations. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 128(3), 536-546
  • Schweich, M. and Knüsel, C.J. 2003. Bio-cultural effects in Medieval populations. Economics and Human Biology 3, 367- 377

The Battle of Towton Landscape Project

Towton Battlefield Cross The Battle of Towton was the last of a series of battles in the middle of the War of the Roses, where the Lancastrian and Yorkshire forces faced each other in a snowstorm on Palm Sunday (the 29th of March) 1461. The Lancastrians lost the battle with heavy casualties and as a result, Edward IV was crowned king of England. Richard III later built a small chapel at Towton to commemorate the dead although the whereabouts of the remains of this structure are unknown.

In 1996 a mass grave was detected at Towton Hall and excavated by a team from the Department of Archaeological Sciences. Following on from this initial discovery and extensive research project was started (main researcher Tim Sutherland) to investigate the landscape of the battle using the full range of archaeological prospection methods. The search for traces of the chapel and other mass graves from the battle form a part of this research project.