By Michael Livingston
Two years ago, a Hollywood producer was trying to figure out how to describe what I do.
“We need a cool way,” he said, “to talk about how you find battlefields and what that has to do with finding UFOs.”
Perhaps I should explain.
You see, by 2019 I was surprised to find that I’d developed a reputation as someone who finds and reconstructs battles. It wasn’t something I ever meant to do. I’d gone to graduate school for history, but along the way I was drawn deep into the world of manuscripts and paleography as a means of accessing sources. That led to a PhD in English and an initial publication path of editing medieval texts. It was good, productive work. I thought it would be a career.
But then Brunanburh came calling. Unexpectedly, I decided to organized an ambitious project to create what we would ultimately call a “casebook” for the long-lost battle in 937 in which English King Athelstan defeated an alliance of kings and did so much to define what we now know as England. One half of the book presented all the primary source materials annotated with English translations. The other half featured original essays discussing the battle’s location and its impact on culture, history, and literature. As the editor and the author of the historical introduction to the book, I found myself quickly immersed in the debate over the battle’s location. And it didn’t take long at all to find myself making my own version of the same argument espoused by several of the book’s extraordinary contributors: Brunanburh happened on the Wirral.
Brunanburh never left me, even after The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook finally appeared in print. Part of it was the hate-mail that started rolling in: the puzzler in me never ceased thinking about the criticisms and about other ways to prove or disprove our arguments. (That latter part might surprise people, but it’s true: I spend far more time trying to find holes in my reconstructions than I spend trying to prove them.) I continued this work for a decade, and the result appears in my new book, Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England. In that decade I discovered more evidence that refined my thinking. We also received potential artifacts on the proposed site of the battle: an astonishing number of them are coming out of the ground today thanks to the work of Wirral Archaeology and an increasing number of specialists. It’s an exciting time.
But those ten years also found me investigating the location and reconstruction of a lot of other battles, too: from north to south, from east to west, from Thermopylae to Towton. In print I kicked more hornets’ nests when I suggested the battle sites of Crécy and Agincourt were probably both incorrect. Behind the scenes, I worked on the reconstruction of others, as well.
Across that decade I became … well, a “conflict analyst” is what the Hollywood guy finally decided to call it: someone who takes every shred of information related a past battle and tries to reconstruct the truth of it.
Which is about where the UFOs came in.
The show they were casting was ultimately called Contact, and it was being made for Discovery. The idea, as they pitched it to me and my co-star, Myke Cole, was “Mythbusters for UFOs” — which frankly still sounds great. My role, they said, would be to take UFO cases and see if I could take the same investigative skills I used to reconstruct the truth of battles, and use them to reconstruct the truth of UFO sightings. Basically, was the object someone had seen identifiable or not?
A strange gig at first glance, I admit, but someone somewhere had somehow recognized that what they wanted done was almost exactly what I did in my work on battles, where I extracted new information from existing data sets (or found new information to plug into them) while struggling with biased witnesses and preconceptions. A battle or a UFO … a chronicle from a medieval monk or a classified report from a military investigator … in many respects all that really changed was the form of the case and the amount of raw data I could access for it. I don’t have weather reports and iPhone videos to help reconstruct the Battle of Hastings but I can get them for the Phoenix Lights.
If you’ve seen the show on the Discovery or Science Channels, you’ll know that Contact didn’t turn out exactly like we thought it would. Most of our expertise fell to the cutting room floor in favor of keeping UFOs a “mystery.” Too bad, since I suspect a lot of folks would’ve enjoyed learning how to take a bit of grainy naval footage of a “UFO” and figure out exactly which commercial flight it was and where it was headed. Something else that people would have enjoyed, I think, was seeing our delight at engaging in this research. Maybe it isn’t for everyone, but for us there was something enormously satisfying in finally putting a puzzle together — whether it included little green men or not.
Identifying battles might not have as much TV cachet as identifying UFOs, but here, too, I hope my enthusiasm comes through in something like Never Greater Slaughter. Because the truth is that the work I do — conflict analyzing? — is an absolute blast. Roving archives for new sources of information, muttering to myself as I wander some field or another … I’m sometimes stunned at how lucky I am to do this work. It’s immensely rewarding.
For all the excitement, though, there are other things I feel when I’m working on a battle. One of them first struck me when I was studying the Battle of Bryn Glas, where the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr destroyed a much larger English force on a hillside above the town of Pilleth. We think we know almost exactly where the battle happened, so in this case it wasn’t a question of finding the battle so much as it was a question of understanding it. How did Owain pull it off? How were so many English killed that day?
After a bit of walking around the presumed battlefield, I found a spot of grass where the sheep hadn’t been. Taking a seat, I stared down the long valley up which the English had marched on the day — a day that for so many would be their last. Time has rendered most of those men nameless and faceless, and I thought about how much I wished I could recover their names and their memory. Impossible, of course. But I decided that if I couldn’t do that, then at the very least I owed it to them to do my best to figure out where and how they’d died.
I had this same feeling of weight when Kelly DeVries and I were studying the Battle of Crécy. That project started with Kelly simply wanting another pair of eyes on his attempt to reconstruct the battle on its traditional site. It ended with the two of us standing on a field in northern France miles to the south of the accepted location that all my research had pointed to as the real location of the battle.
It was late in the day, I remember. The sun was setting over the quiet fields and surrounding trees. We’d spent a couple of days walking around and taking turns playing devil’s advocate as we considered every scrap of information we had, trying to find some way — any way — to disprove my theory. We were finally all out of objections. Kelly cursed in joy. “This is it,” he said. He was beaming, elated. “You found it.”
I felt the same rush. The battle had been a tremendously difficult puzzle, in part because everyone had been so bloody sure about truths that didn’t turn out to be certain at all. But there, in this moment, we could see how our sources and the landscape might come together to form a more complete and coherent picture of the past. It was incredible. Kelly was right to be overjoyed. But at the same time I also felt weighed down by what that meant. “Only two people in the world know where all those men died,” I said. “And we’re probably standing right in the middle of it.”
Look, I don’t believe in ghosts any more than I believe in UFOs, but you can’t help but feel a stir in such a place, in such a moment. Not of the dead themselves, but of our responsibility to them.
I’m often asked how exactly I do this work. I don’t have a simple answer, though I devote a chapter of Never Greater Slaughter to laying out some of my basic principles and tools. Each case is different. One of the UFO cases I worked on hinged on the fact that I remembered how certain fungi are bioluminescent — which was an obscure fact that I believe came from a pub trivia night.
Odd bits of data like that ultimately relate to the other incredible feeling I get to experience in this work: absolute astonishment at the knowledge of other people. I try to collect expert contacts like other people collect Pokémon cards: that way, when I don’t know something — which is often — I can defer to the folks who have devoted their lives towards understanding it better than I ever possibly could. And, like an actual expert on fungi bioluminescence, what they know never ceases to amaze.
The case for the location Brunanburh that I make in Never Greater Slaughter relies on archaeology, history, hydrology, linguistics, literature, logistics, paleography, poetics, politics, topography, and more. While I know about all these tools and can even use most of them, I can’t possibly claim to be an expert in them all. No one can. Having the chance to work with specialists in their own unique fields is consistently humbling and researching.
Call it conflict analysis or something else entirely, finding and reconstructing battlefields is a joy.
Michael Livingston, PhD is a two-time winner of the Distinguished Book Prize from the International Society for Military History, an author of best-selling fiction, an award-winning full professor at The Citadel, and a star in Contact, which aired on Discovery and Science Channels worldwide. You can learn more about Michael through his website, or follow him on Twitter @medievalguy
Top Photo: Courtesy Michael Livingston