Honour at stake in Bannockburn rematch

A SECOND Battle of Bannockburn is raging but this time, rather than the massed ranks of English and Scots, the combatants are two television archaeologists and a museum curator.

The ‘rematch’ of this most celebrated victory of Scottish brains over English brawn is over three sharp wooden stakes that have long been regarded as the only known artefacts recovered from the battlefield.

The Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Stirling has proudly displayed the stakes, which were discovered in 1923, for many years.

They are said to have been among those planted in shallow, covered pits with the intention of impaling English cavalry horses and their riders.

But carbon-dating tests of the spikes carried out during the making of the BBC archaeological programme Two Men in a Trench has produced a shock: they are more than 8,000 years old. That means the ‘stakes’ were in existence around 7,300 years before Robert the Bruce’s 1314 rout of the army of King Edward II.

And that, according to archaeologists Dr Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver, means the Smith Art Gallery has a potentially serious problem.

Pollard, an English-born academic at Glasgow university, told Scotland on Sunday: "Our testing shows the three wooden pieces in the museum are actually anchorage roots from a Scots pine, and that explains why they are spiked.

"The wood is from 6,000 BC, making it over 8,000 years old. The reason why it was so well preserved was that it was recovered from a peat bog.

"The chances of Bruce’s men finding the wood over 7,000 years later and recycling it as spikes are highly remote."

New carbon-dating techniques mean as little as a gram of original material is needed to establish the age of an object with a high degree of accuracy. The 300 test works by measuring the ‘decay’ of a radioactive isotope called Carbon-14.

Pollard said: "Archaeology is as much about debunking myths as it is about establishing facts, and we also discovered a few other misconceptions about the battle site."

Two areas, for example, have been suggested as remnants of the pits into which English cavalry fell and were impaled.

"For example, it has also been suggested that the two areas near to where the Bruce camped were the pits which Edward’s calvary fell into and were impaled on the spikes.

"But our dig discovered that these sites were originally dug by coal prospectors some time during the late 19th century," Pollard added.

Rubbing salt into the wound, he claims the television investigation found the only genuine artefacts from the bloody, two-day battle - a pair of riding stirrups once worn by a medieval knight.

"The stirrups we found date back to the 14th century and as far as we know, are the only known find on the site which is contemporary with the battle."

The stirrups are on public display at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, and Pollard said he wants the find to return eventually to Stirling.

However, Elspeth King, the director of the Smith Art Gallery and Museum, refused to accept the findings.

She said: "The wood was found by local archaeologists in 1923. They wrote with such clarity, and without the mumbo-jumbo associated with archaeology these days, so that I believe the stakes are authentic relics from the battle. There is no proof that they were not used in the battle.

"The BBC team said they could not have been used as spikes because there were no markings on them to indicate the wood had been sharpened.

"But that does not mean to say they were not used because the wood might not have needed sharpening anyway. They are disbelieving an earlier generation of archaeologists. The wooden stakes will remain on display as authentic relics from the battle."

The battle of Bannockburn was undoubtedly one of the most spectacular conflicts of the Scottish Wars of Independence (1291-1320). Although the struggle against the English was to continue for another 13 years, the Scottish victory secured the throne for Bruce.

Edward II gathered an army of 40,000 men to march north and fight for Stirling Castle, which was under siege by the Scots.

The army was an enormous one, even by medieval standards, and very well armed and supplied.

Following this army north was a huge train of equipment and supplies, which included weaponry, siege engines, food and wine.

Meanwhile, the Scots forces gathering in Stirling numbered only 13,000. Many feared the worse and the end of the Scottish struggle for independence.

The main battle took place on June 24, 1314. However, disorganisation in the superior English ranks was exploited by Robert the Bruce’s tactical nous and courage of his soldiers.

The expected English victory turned into a rout and Edward II escaped to England by sea from Dunbar.

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