Leading Article: Let the battlefields rest in peace

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THE battlegrounds of Britain, where thousands died in gory violence, are often marked by no more than the tranquil silence of a graveyard. Green fields offer few reminders of the noise, mutilation and chaos that briefly filled these places. Yet it is deeply moving to imagine, quietly, bloody conflicts such as those that raged at Hastings, Bosworth Field and Culloden.

They are as important as great listed buildings and should be as sacred as cemeteries. Just as the battlefields of the First World War are treated with respect, so should the more ancient sites of death. It is distressing, for example, to learn that a gravel pit may destroy Blore Heath, near Market Drayton in Staffordshire, where Yorkists and Lancastrians fought for control of England in 1459. Like other battlefields, it does not have the protection enjoyed by listed buildings. Naseby in Leicestershire, where Cromwell's forces overwhelmed the Royalists in 1645, has recently been bisected by a road. The Americans, so careful to respect the grief of places such as Gettysburg, would never have allowed such desecration.

British sites have immense significance. Certain battles decided the outcome of wars and so settled the country's political future, sometimes for centuries. Bannockburn, for example, is almost sacred ground, symbolising Scottish nationhood. Victory in 1314 expelled the English and paved the way for an independent Scotland. There are other battlefields, whose significance is almost forgotten. On the River Medway in AD 43 the ancient Britons failed after a fierce two-day struggle to hold back the Romans, and so there followed more than 300 years of Roman occupation. The battle of Brunanburgh in 937, which saw the Danes defeated by the English, was pivotal in the creation of a united England. Bosworth Field in 1485 led to the end of the War of the Roses and established the Tudors on the English throne.

Yet the details of some of these events are patchy and of questionable accuracy, since they were usually recorded by the victors. Nor have battlefields been the subject of much serious archaeological investigation. Dramatic reconstructions of battles have captured the imaginations of many, but the digging brigade has generally taken its spades elsewhere.

However, the archaeologists' aversion may be ending. Advances in forensic science now offer opportunities to question the recorded history of such sites. Where firearms were used, for example, one can, by collecting used cartridges, trace the movements of forces and identify where skirmishes took place. More sophisticated scientific techniques would probably be required to analyse earlier battles, when arrows were used. In some cases it is likely that forensic evidence will support revisionist accounts.

However, for such techniques to be useful, it is vital that sites remain undisturbed. Even repeated ploughing can cause irreparable damage. The development of gravel pits and the building of new roads offer little hope for the archaeologists. It is already too late to save all Britain's battlefields, but the move by English Heritage to create a register is a welcome step. Once destroyed, these sites can never be re-created.