Origins 5 – Domesticated Bliss

Happy February, readers! I hope you’re not too wet.

Now, I was lucky enough to receive as a Christmas present this excellent volume:

Cunliffe, B. (2012). Britain Begins (Oxford University Press; Oxford).

The prolific and erudite knight Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe probably needs no introduction for the readership of this blog but, for the curious, here’s a link to his departmental page, and to his rather more up-to-date Wikipedia entry.

So, this is a great book, as well-written and scholarly as you’d expect, with splendid production values (lots of maps and photographs, full colour throughout). It tells the story of Britain and Ireland between 10,000 BC and AD 1100. The book sets itself up as the successor to the ages-long tradition of ‘origins myths’ – the latest answer to the general question, Where do we come from?

“Like the myth-makers of the distant past, we are creating stories about our origins and ancestors conditioned by the world in which we live.” (p.vii)

With this in mind, there’s some fascinating introductory, historiographical matter about the stories that have been told about British origins throughout history, from ancient Greek allusions, all the way through to cutting-edge DNA research.

So, from a Farming Unearthed point-of-view, what’s inspired me to blog about this book?

Well, oddly enough, it ain’t agriculture. At least, not as we know it. I’m only up to the Mesolithic so far, in Chapter 4. The Neolithic, with all its new-fangled farming technologies, awaits me in Chapter 5. So, with this in mind, what do we make of the Mesolithic site at Oakhanger in the Weald with its unusually high percentages of hazel and ivy pollen? The interpretations cited by Cunliffe are thought-provoking (p.109):

“…there may have been deliberate felling of other trees such as alder, lime, and oak around the camp to allow hazel to flower  more freely and thus to produce a greater yield of hazel-nuts…”

“…one suggestion is that ivy was collected and brought to the periphery of the camp as fodder to attract deer during the winter months [i.e. to hunt them], when food was in short supply…”

Now, while it would perhaps be playing semantic games to call these practices “agriculture”, nonetheless to my mind this is something rather more than hunting-gathering: it seems like a kind of environmental management, to enhance local access to wild foods. I suppose the difference is that the productive environment isn’t being entirely managed by human hands. The encouragement of hazel growth isn’t quite arboriculture; but if you started planting and nurturing hazel saplings in your own specially-grown plants, would that count? And, crucially, how could we identify such a subtle difference in the archaeological record?

One archaeological clue, at least for some species, in at least some circumstances, is domestication. The emergence of domesticated varieties, distinct from their wild progenitors, implies that “environmental management” had passed a tipping point, that human intervention had effectively disrupted the process of natural selection: domestic traits are those which offer little or no advantage in the wild, but are selectively favoured (consciously or otherwise) by farming.

Here’s a nice example: the shattering and non-shattering of wheats. Put simply, wild wheats shatter; domesticated wheats don’t shatter. That is to say: wild wheats have a brittle rachis, which allows spikelets to disarticulate spontaneously, thus shattering the reproductive units (grains) over the ground and helping the plants to reproduce themselves; barbs on the spikelets help them to stick in the ground, and to deter hungry animals, to increase chances of germination. Domesticated varieties, by contrast, don’t shatter: the spikelets stay put, all the better for harvesting by hand.

So, a simple indicator of the division between “gathering” and “farming”?

Well, no, as it happens, because you could sow and harvest a shattering variety of wheat, just so long as you harvest the spikelets before they start spontaneously disarticulating. It would not be a domesticated crop, in this case, but it would be a cultivated crop: an important distinction, and one central to the debate about when and how agriculture began.

But that’s another story.

Some references:

Cappers, RTJ & Neef, R (2012). Handbook of Plant Palaeoecology (Barkhuis, Groningen): pp.380-387.

Renfrew, C & Bahn, P (2012). Archaeology: Theory, Methods and Practice (6th ed., Thames & Hudson, London):pp.273-292.

Tanno, K-I & Willcox, G (2006). “How fast was wild wheat domesticated?”, Science 311 (no.5769): p.1886.

Happy Plough Monday!

Happy New Year, Farming Unearthed fans! (yes, all two of us)

And while we’re at it, Happy Plough Monday too!

As Farming Unearthed begins an exciting new year, full of “promise”, and hopefully containing a viva at some point, I thought I’d flag up an old article which, while not strictly about agricultural archaeology, nonetheless sheds an interesting light on what you could call “plough lore” in Great Britain, this being Plough Monday an’ all:

Davidson, T. (1959). “Plough Rituals in England and Scotland”, Agricultural History Review 7(1), pp.27-37.

We learn first of the old Scottish custom, observed upon the ploughing of the first furrow, “streeking the plough”, which is to say, laying some food upon and pouring a libation over it; likewise given to the ploughman, to consume by way of refreshment.

Conversely, ploughing on Good Friday – and, for some, on Fridays generally – was considered unlucky in the extreme. Davidson proffers a possible explanation, in the traditional belief that the nails of Christ’s crucifixion were made upon Good Friday – so, perhaps, an aversion to using metal tools on that day? (p.28)

Several more customs and tales are related, some involving colourful quotations in Scottish dialect. Well worth a read.

In England, meanwhile, we find Plough Monday (first Monday after 12th Night – i.e. today, in 2014): “the day for starting ploughing operations” (p.29). The occasion was marked with processions and plays: see the jolly illustrations on the relevant Wikipedia entry.

The Plough plays – apparently a central English speciality – sound particularly interesting. 19th century accounts are related. Naturally, this being an English custom, St George and inflated pig bladders were involved, besides an actual plough, with which to plough up the ground before any welcoming households who didn’t want to see the show. It must have been a harrowing experience for them.*

There follows some discussion of the relationship between these customs and “old fertility rites”, which is interesting food for thought but perhaps not quite so entertaining as the anecdotes offered earlier in the article!

And talking of entertaining anecdotes, I crave your indulgence for a shameless, irrelevant plug: some silly stories I penned about an Oxford city rat are now available as a cheap Kindle edition ebook (The Adventures of Filbert Nibbleif you’re interested). If you like rats, pigeons, or silliness, it may interest you.

But I digress.

If you have access to it, I’d certainly advise giving Davidson’s article a peruse. Whilst writing my thesis, I sometimes fell into the trap of thinking of farming as a kind of detached, practical, economic process, which of course is no more than half the story. The “lore” aspects are just as crucial, in their own way. When your health and wellbeing depend on the harvest, I guess you’re going to say “God speed well the plough” right heartily, and throw yourself into the relevant festivities, because it’s the vital stuff of traditional agrarian life – at least in the place discussed by Davidson, and presumably with variants elsewhere in the world too.

Perhaps I should have got into the spirit of the thing today, decking my thesis in ribbons and parading it through town, asking for refreshments. Then again, I wouldn’t want a libation poured over my graphs.


* Harrowing is not the same as ploughing, of course, so I admit the pun falls a bit flat.

The Day of the Doctor(al thesis)

Coming soon… the Day of the Doctor(al thesis)!

Yes, two incarnations of the same thesis will fight side by side – alongside a third, enigmatic “draft” version – to save their writer’s sanity and, hopefully, eventually, earn the name ‘Doctor’ for a certain timelord (or archaeologist, as we’re more commonly known).

But for now, as a Christmas treat, readers of Farming Unearthed can enjoy(!) some of the key findings from my thesis.

But first, you might like to step back in time and revisit a couple of earlier posts from last November: (1) The unexpected interest of wet grapeskins, in which I reported on Paul Arthur et al’s studies of Salento, the heel of Italy, where agricultural production underwent a significant shift/intensification around the 8th century, involving a greater emphasis upon cash crops; and (2) How fascinating is a buried soil?, in which I highlighted Puy and Balbo’s work on the creation of irrigated terraces in al-Andalus (modern Spain) – i.e. once again, agricultural development in the 7th-8th century period. As I hinted at the time, these studies are among the growing signs of a wider 7th-8th century phenomenon of agricultural development, embracing (in different ways) both Mediterranean and northwestern Europe, including Great Britain and Ireland.

My doctoral thesis has focused upon two core regions of Anglo-Saxon England (the Upper/Middle Thames valley and environs; and East Anglia/Essex), looking primarily at animal bones and plant remains, with a view to understanding how farming practices changed in these regions in the 7th-8th centuries. And, boy, did they change. The big story is the growth of arable farming at the (apparent) expense of animal husbandry. Cereal cultivation seems to have sprawled outwards, with more and more land being taken under the plough – including “challenging” terrains like the East Anglian fens, and heavy clay soils, the latter presumably requiring another innovation: the heavy mouldboard plough.

Through a study of weed ecology, I’ve also suggested that farmers adapted to these new terrains by sowing their crops at different times of year: viz., opting for springtime sowing on heavy water-retentive soils, so as to avoid the risk of winter waterlogging that might be incurred in an autumn-sowing regime. I also think that they adapted to local geological conditions in their crop choices, too: e.g. salt-tolerant barley in the saline silt fens, drought-tolerant rye in the sandy Breckland, wheat in the peat fens and Thames clay vales…

The result of all this expansion and creative adaptation was a growth in cereal surpluses, reflected not only in a burgeoning archaeobotanical record, but also in the renewed construction of arable accoutrements such as granaries and corn-drying ovens, particularly at high-status and/or ecclesiastical sites. Those same sites seem, meanwhile, to have grown/acquired a wider range of other crops too, besides cereals – including opium poppy and grape.

What, then, of the animals? Well, animal husbandry certainly doesn’t go off the radar. Rather, it seems to have become more closely controlled, with a surge in droveways and paddocks being constructed, to ensure that livestock go where they’re told, without straying onto (and nibbling) the increasingly important crops. There are also signs of specialization in the “secondary products” of animals (i.e. milk, wool, and – for cattle – sheer brute force), a trend which seems to be focused in East Anglia rather than the Thames valley.

So, we’ve got lively combinations of expansion, intensification, and specialization: a real battery of coherent, interacting, dynamic innovations that together constitute Anglo-Saxon England’s contribution to the wider phenomenon of agricultural development in the 7th-8th centuries.

Phew! Well, I rattled through that pretty quickly, but hopefully it gives you something to mull over with your mulled wine, to chew over along with your Brussels sprouts.

For now, I’ll sign off and wish my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!



TV watch, and Winchester

Hello again.

Anyone watching Tudor Monastery Farm on BBC2 at the moment?

I’ve just seen the opening episode. It’s the first of the BBC’s Period-of-history Farm (or Pharmacy) franchise that I’ve seen (previous versions have included Victorian and Wartime), and I found it pretty good:

BBC Two – Tudor Monastery Farm

The premise is that a historian and a couple of archaeologists undertake some experimental archaeology, by pretending to be the tenant farmers of a monastery in the time of Henry VII. The replica setting is the Weald & Downland open-air museum in Sussex – somewhere that looks well worth a visit.

The production values are, it must be said, a little whimsical. In places it felt a bit like Ye Greate British Bake-Offe. But there are plenty of interesting nuggets about traditional crafts and farming practices circa 1500. Best of all, though, is a rare attempt at ploughing with a pair of alliterating draught cattle. This part features practical plough expert – and Ploughing Ahead delegate – the authoritative Charles Martell. Unsurprisingly, the presenters’ gallant struggle to use an intriguing replica mouldboard plough was my personal highlight. I’d like to have seen and heard a bit more about the plough itself – but then, this is a programme for the general viewer, not for the tillage nerd.

And on a completely different note, on wandering into the Sackler Library this morning, I noticed the arrival of a new book:

Maltby, M. (ed.) (2010). Feeding a Roman town: Environmental evidence from excavations in Winchester, 1972-1985 (Winchester Museums).

The volume is part of a new-ish series of reports detailing the results of important rescue excavations in Winchester which took place in the 1970′s and 80′s and which, in the time-honoured fashion of British archaeology, have taken 20-40 years to publish (nobody’s particular fault, of course: it’s a considerable logistical undertaking, as summarised on pp.3-4). So it is that we have pieces here by some of the pioneers of modern environmental archaeology in Britain – e.g. Jennifer Coy on animal bones, Francis Green on plant remains – elucidating the food supply of Venta Belgarum, the fifth-largest town in Roman Britain. (The official site for the report series can be found here.)

The report is surely worth the wait. It feels like a luxury to have a whole book (c.400 pages) dedicated to faunal, botanical and molluscan remains, instead of just a chapter/appendix or two. But of course, environmental archaeology isn’t a kind of luxury appendage, an expensive side-dish that we can engage or ignore according to taste. On the contrary, it reveals the most fundamental parts of ancient life, so it’s great to see so many pages bristling with graphs, statistics, and (B&W) photos of bones, etc. The data are frequently broken down by, e.g. context type, or set alongside comparative data from other sites, so as to set the Venta Belgarum datasets within their wider contexts. Naturally, this makes for a somewhat dense and technical book – no bad thing, since it makes a lot of useful data available for future study – but a juicy, discursive synthesis  helps to make all this accessible. I was a little surprised to find that such a discussion (focusing on animal bones) is found, not as a concluding chapter, but roughly halfway through (pp.255-304); nonetheless, it looks tremendously useful, as Mark Maltby has drawn together umpteen strands of comparative data.

I should note too that there’s a companion volume for the medieval period – again worth a look for very similar reasons:

Serjeantson, D. & Rees, H. (2009). Food, craft, and status in medieval Winchester. The plant and animal remains from the suburbs and city defences (Winchester Museums).

So, from Tudor farms to Roman and medieval towns, there’s plenty of food for thought right now.


Ploughing Ahead: Medieval Perspectives

Well, it’s that time of the year again when journals start coming through the post, and I hope to review some of the more agriculturally-themed articles on Farming Unearthed in the not-too-distant future.

For now, in a bit of shameless self-indulgence, I’m happy to note that March’s Ploughing Ahead  conference has had two short, medieval-slanted reports printed in the new Medieval Archaeology Newsletter this month. This seems like a good excuse to upload the “director’s cut” of my own write-up, copied below.

NB. The medieval bias here is due to the intended audience of the piece, and implies no disrespect to the excellent non-medieval papers and posters that were presented!


Ploughing Ahead

On Friday 15th March, 45 students, professionals and enthusiasts in agricultural history and archaeology assembled in Oxford for Ploughing Ahead, a one-day colloquium exploring the social, environmental and technological dimensions of Old World tillage practices. The event was organized by myself and Lisa Lodwick, both postgraduate students in the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford. Ploughing Ahead received generous financial support from both the School of Archaeology’s Meyerstein Fund and the British Agricultural History Society, whose sponsorship helped to subsidise the attendance of nine postgraduate delegates.

The colloquium aimed to highlight recent developments and the current state (or lack) of understanding in the history of ploughing, and also to initiate inter-disciplinary dialogues about this crucial topic in rural history. Through thirteen papers and four posters – all of excellent quality – we were taken from prehistoric China to early modern Ireland, from soil thin-sections to manuscript illuminations, from animal palaeopathology to LIDAR. Although the geographical and chronological scope of the colloquium was extremely wide, medieval topics featured prominently in the programme. Richard Thomas’ opening paper discussed the recognition of traction pathologies in cattle bones and, with a case study from Dudley Castle, introduced a compelling model for the eventual rise of horses as plough-beasts after the catastrophic impact of the Black Death upon cattle populations. Richard Macphail, meanwhile, reported on the multi-faceted palaeoenvironmental programme conducted during highway excavations in Vestfold, Norway, including the study of ploughsoil colluvia in Viking age soil sections, elucidating agricultural practices in the poorly preserved upslope settlements. Soil was also examined in Jan Nyssen’s study of lynchets which, in both excavated sections in east Belgium and current field observations in Ethiopia, were demonstrated to have emerged naturally – accidentally, even – on steep ploughed slopes.

After lunch, Gabor Thomas presented results from the conservation and analysis of the famous Lyminge coulter – highlighting in particular the sophistication of its workmanship, and the design indicative of a ‘swivel-plough.’ The broader continental context of this find was brought to light by Joachim Henning, whose wide-ranging work persuasively suggests that the swivel-plough’s eventual medieval dominance was previously delayed by the Roman villa system which, with its enslaved labour forces, restricted itself to the use of simpler ards.

Catarina Karlsson gave an interim report on her important experimental work, replicating medieval Swedish ard shares in order to gauge the loss of iron through wear over time. The work is on-going, and its results will surely have far-reaching implications not only for agricultural research, but also for studies of medieval metal consumption in rural communities. Continuing the technological theme, Charles Martell, trainer of oxen and owner of a Gloucestershire Long Plough, gave an entertaining and highly informative account of this tool’s design, usage, and local persistence from the medieval period through to the 20th century. In the final session, Niall Brady presented a new perspective on agriculture in early medieval Ireland, utilizing the wealth of archaeological data generated during the late lamented boom years, and highlighting an apparent growth in arable production from around the 7th century although, intriguingly, the adoption of the mouldboard plough is not evident before the 10th century. The colloquium was concluded by Debby Banham’s reassessment of the pictorial and documentary evidence for ploughing in Anglo-Saxon England, which provided a salutary warning, not only that such sources cannot be taken at face value, but also that the ‘face value’ itself should not be overestimated.

Besides these contributions, the colloquium benefited from a vast array of historical, ethnographic, environmental and experimental expertise concerning other periods and localities, and we hope that fruitful interchange of ideas will ensue. We are enormously grateful to all participants, travelling from across England, Ireland, Belgium, Sweden and Germany, for their involvement in such a rewarding and stimulating day.


Conference Watch: dayschool on transhumance

Hello there! Just popping in to flag up a forthcoming dayschool that has been brought to my attention, which may well be of interest to Farming Unearthed readers:

Animals on the Move: Transhumance in Early England

Saturday 1st February 2014 – at the Department of Continuing Education, Rewley House, Oxford

The official page is here.

The day includes four presentations on the movement of livestock in Anglo-Saxon/medieval England, covering topics as diverse as ecology, identity, animal-management, and Cornwall. A discussion session is set to conclude the day.

It all sounds pretty fascinating and, although not a regular attendee, I hear good things about these courses at Rewley House. I can certainly vouch for the venue and catering, having held Ploughing Ahead there in March. About which, more to come…



Fallow my leader

Statistics suggest that people are still visting this blog, for one reason or another.

And those people would be forgiven for thinking that the blogger has given up, so long has it been since anything resembling a new post appeared to adorn these pages.

In fact, however, the blog is simply lying fallow while the blogger faces the unenviable task of writing up a doctoral thesis. Normal service will resume if and when the painful process is complete.