Bannockburn and the schiltron
Over this period, we investigated six British battlefields. Our oldest site, and perhaps because of this our greatest challenge, was that of the Battle of Bannockburn. The battle was fought between the Scots under Robert the Bruce, and the English under Edward II, in 1314, just outside the Scottish town of Stirling.
Despite being heavily outnumbered, it turned out to be a great victory for the Scots, who used the terrain to their advantage, and turned the enemy's greater weight against itself. The English may have had heavy cavalry but the Scots had the 'schiltron', a tightly packed and well disciplined body of spearmen, capable of moving across the battlefield like a terrifying hedgehog, with steel tipped spines holding at bay even the boldest mounted knight.
We got an idea of what it was like to be a Scottish soldier fighting in a schiltron through a re-enactment society, although the numbers involved were reduced - a real schiltron involved hundreds of men. We were given a spear, and taught some drill, and were ordered around by a sergeant - just as the Scots must have been 700 years ago.
The knights facing us were kitted out in heavy armour, with closed helmets, shields, and a sword, axe or mace - the English at Bannockburn were considerably better equipped than the Scots.
We were told to listen out for shouted orders and above all to stay together. This last instruction is very important. While the men in the schiltron stayed shoulder to shoulder, the enemy couldn't get anywhere near.
Only with archers did they stand any chance of causing serious damage, and at Bannockburn the English archers were routed fairly early on in the battle. The English knights knew their only chance was to break the Scottish formation - so they tried to draw individuals into single combat. Sergeants desperately shouted at the spearmen to close the formation and restore discipline, and so the schiltron continued to advance, eventually driving the English from the field.
Sedgemoor and Killiecrankie
At the battle of Sedgemoor, which marked the end of the Duke of Monmouth's audacious rebellion against King James II in 1685, many of the rebels were just everyday civilians who had taken up arms against what they saw as an unjust monarchy.
Many of them were armed with nothing more than scythe blades mounted on the end of long poles. This rag-tag army of farmers and weavers took on the might of the British army, with its muskets and plug bayonets. After a night march, in a failed attempt to surprise the enemy camp, the rebels faced volleys of musket fire and then a merciless pursuit by the king's regiments, thirsting for rebel blood.
Four years after Sedgemoor, in 1689, the battle of Killiecrankie marked the beginning of the first of the Jacobite rebellions that were to blight Scotland for the next 50 years. By now King James II was the rebel, with his throne taken from him in 1688 by William of Orange, during the so-called Glorious Revolution.
While James fought for his cause in Ireland, his supporters in Scotland, the Jacobites, led a government army on a merry dance around the Highlands, finally meeting them in pitched battle in the dramatic Pass of Killiecrankie.
The Jacobites, under John Graham of Claverhouse (known to history as Bonnie Dundee), were outnumbered almost two to one. They took position on the high ground and watched government troops form up on the slopes below. The commander of the 4,000 strong government force, Major General Hugh MacKay, a Highlander himself but with no love of the land or its people, arrayed his men in ranks three deep.
It was more usual to place musketeers six deep, but MacKay was about to use a technique newly introduced from continental Europe, called platoon firing. This would in theory allow his men to deliver a constant hail of fire. Instead of delivering fire en masse, small groups, or platoons, gave fire in a well-rehearsed order, thus allowing one group to reload while another fired.
MacKay has been criticised for stretching his lines too thin, but in truth he was a man not afraid to deploy new tactics. After several tense hours of facing one another off, the Jacobites finally charged down the hill. What nerve it must have taken to run into the face of massed musket fire.
Their blood up, the Jacobites, most of them armed with small round shields, known as targes, and double-edged broadswords, hurtled down the slope. Before they could get off more than three shots each, the government troops found themselves embroiled in hand-to-hand fighting, and the Jacobites soon had them on the run. It was a classic example of a successful Highland charge, but Bonnie Dundee was killed as he led his cavalry into the firing line, and the rebellion petered to a halt within months.
The slaughter wrought by the Jacobites, who had worked themselves up into a killing frenzy, is remembered to this day. Lochiel, one of the Jacobite commanders, brought his clansmen back to the field the next day to show them the product of their labours, and his men were horrified at what they had done in the heat of battle.
By the time of Killiecrankie the musket had become the dominant weapon on the battlefield, but it was the broadsword that won the day, largely through the superior use of terrain by the Jacobites.
Battle of Britain
Four Spitfires taking off for battle
The aerial showdown between the beleaguered British RAF and the mighty German Luftwaffe has attained an almost legendary status. We were fortunate enough to gain a unique insight into this bloody conflict, fought over southern England during 1940, when we investigated the site of the RAF station at Hornchurch in Essex.
A high point of that project was talking to the veterans of the battle, men and women who had given so much for their country during those dark days. It is one thing to study a battle hundreds of years old, but our conversations with these veterans, and those at Dover, undoubtedly rank as some of our most moving experiences as battlefield archaeologists.
Peter Brown was a young Spitfire pilot during those years, and described to us a mode of combat entirely different from those described above. The Spitfire pilot was not one man among many, standing shoulder to shoulder with his comrades, but just one individual, responsible for his own fate.
Certainly, planes flew in groups, but when it came down to the fight, it was just you and your aircraft. Combat was fleeting, with the contact between two fighters over in seconds - a Spitfire could empty the ammunition from all of its six machine guns in under 15 seconds.
Peter told us how pilots were encouraged to take up pheasant shooting, because it developed a killer instinct and trained them to fire in front of the fast moving target rather than directly at it. He also told us that when they weren't flying, the pilots were usually sleeping - so exhausting was the experience of aerial combat. He explained that back then there was no such concept as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome - the young pilots had to get on and do their job, no matter what the cost.
He illustrated this by telling us about a rookie pilot flying with the squadron. He was bounced by an enemy fighter and the tail of his plane was shot up, but he escaped with his life, and landed back at RAF Hornchurch. He told his superior officer the story of his lucky escape, but instead of showing him sympathy the officer dressed him down for bringing a perfectly good Spitfire back in a damaged state. As Peter explained, though, in reality the officer was doing the pilot a favour by giving him something else to think about. If pilots were allowed to dwell on the dangers they encountered, they would crack up and probably never fly again.
The experience of war may have changed down through the ages, but at its core the basic tenet of 'kill or be killed' remains, and along with it the whole gamut of complicated human emotions brought on by the realities of combat. In truth we are unable to answer the question, 'What was it like to stand and fight in this battle?' But the more we learn, the more we are grateful to be battlefield archaeologists - rather than battlefield combatants.
Find out more
Battle of Bannockburn: A Study in Medieval Warfare by W Mackay Mackenzie (Strong Oak, 1989)
Bannockburn by Peter Reese (Canongate, 2000)
The Battle of Bannockburn 1314 by AJS Nusbacher (Tempus, 2000)
Edgehill and Beyond by P Tennant (Sutton, 1992)
Sedgemoor, 1685: An Account and an Anthology by David G Chandler (Palgrave Macmillan, 1985)
The Killing Time: Killiecrankie and Glencoe by Niall Barr (Tempus, 2002)
The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain by Stephen Bungay (Aurum Press, 2001)
Battle of Britain (Wordsworth Military Library) by Len Deighton and Max Hastings (Wordsworth, 1999)
The Hardest Day: Battle of Britain, 18 August 1940 by Alfred Price (Cassell Military, 1998)
The Glasgow University Archaeology Department
The Royal Armouries, Leeds
Places to visit
The National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, London, SW3 4HT. Tel: 020 7730 0717