Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project

Medieval Gun Fragments Found on ‘Britain’s Bloodiest Battlefield’
by Tim Sutherland

Recent archaeological work on a medieval battlefield in Yorkshire has uncovered a remarkable discovery; fragments of some of Britain’s earliest firearms. Project metal detectorist, Simon Richardson working closely with the archaeological project director Tim Sutherland of York University, discovered fragments of medieval cannon and lead shot that were used during the battle of Towton, fought on 29th March, 1461, near Tadcaster, North Yorkshire.
The importance of one of the artefacts, a lead ball with a wrought iron core is highly significant; it is the earliest composite lead bullet known in Europe.

The two fragments of cannon discovered as part of the Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project are also considered unique in that they are the earliest found on the site of a known conflict. Initial analysis of the internal and external faces of one of the bronze fragments by Mike Dobby of Bruker AXS UK Ltd, using a hand held X-ray fluorescence analyser suggested that, not only was it a poorly cast piece of bronze but that it had enhanced traces of both sulphur and lead inside what appeared to be the gun barrel. The sulphur is thought to be traces of the original gunpowder and the lead is believed to be the residue of lead shot that rubbed against the surface as it was fired.

Subsequent analysis by Dr Evelyne Godfrey, carried out at the ISIS centre, a world-leading centre for research in the physical and life sciences at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, confirmed that the fragments were from two different guns. Dr. Martyn Bull a spokesman for ISIS described the instrument used as ‘like a giant microscope which is capable of looking at atoms 100,000th of the thickness of a human hair’. Dr Godfrey’s, results confirm Sutherland and Richardson’s thoughts that at least two medieval guns exploded on that fateful day when the forces of Lancastrian King Henry VI opposed those of newly proclaimed King Edward IV during the Wars of the Roses; the two kings fighting at Towton over the throne of England.
According to Sutherland ‘historical sources tell us that Burgundian gunners, led by Seigneur de la Barde were employed as mercenaries by the Lancastrian forces. The fragments were found on what is believed to be the Lancastrian position suggesting that they form parts of two of those very guns.’
Analysis at ISIS has also shown the surfaces of the fragments are covered with a layer of dense compacted clay which has accumulated over the centuries; next year sees the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Towton.The results of the analysis will be highlighted first on Monday 22nd November 2010 at 7.30pm as part of the TV magazine programme Inside Out, on BBC 1 television in the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire regions, and on BBC HD. Further information will be discussed in a future episode of Time Team Special, to be shown in the new year, 2011.

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