Farming on the Emerald Isle

Welcome back to Farming Unearthed! Regular visitors may notice that I’ve redecorated – after more than two years of blogging, it seemed like time for some sprucing up. It seems like time, too, to revisit one of my pet topics: agricultural change in early medieval Europe. Previous posts have touched upon Spain, Italy,and my own province of Anglo-Saxon England (on which, more to come). Today I set my sights upon Ireland, and an excellent new(ish) publication:

O’Sullivan, A., McCormick, F., Kerr, T.R. & Harney, L. (2013/2014). Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100. The Evidence from Archaeological Excavations. Royal Irish Academy Monographs: Dublin.

Early Medieval Ireland AD 400-1100

This hefty and impressive monograph is something that could easily make other countries envious: a synthetic account of life and death in 5th-11th century Ireland using archaeological evidence from excavations spanning 1930-2012. It’s a handsome and well-illustrated tome of nine chapters, covering:  the background to early medieval Irish archaeology; dwellings and settlements; the church; farming; crafts and technology; trade and exchange; death and burial; and, of course, a conclusion. Naturally, it’s the agricultural Chapter 5 in the spotlight here.

The volume is one result of the elegantly-entitled “Early Medieval Archaeology Project” (or EMAP, to its friends), based at University College Dublin, which since 2007 has been working to synthesise, analyse and interpret data from early medieval sites in Ireland. This is no mean undertaking because, as the introduction makes clear, that’s an awful lot of sites (p.1):

“Nowhere else in Europe, and arguably perhaps in the world, is it possible to view early medieval settlement landscapes of such quality and preservation. In no other European country is there anything like 47,000 identified early medieval settlements.”

Much of this abundance is due to a boom in development-led excavation during the so-called “Celtic Tiger” years, circa 1995-2008. This aspect is important for our purposes here, because such recent excavations will often have employed good modern sampling strategies for the recovery of plant and animal remains – crucial for a better understanding of farming practices. The dataset (p.7) comprised plant remains from 60 sites and animal bones from >130 excavations, and the results were originally published in 2011, in a project report available online here. The chapter in this new volume presents the findings in a more digested – and digestible – form, and incorporates parallel work by other scholars, e.g. Monk & Power 2012. It should also be noted that, unlike its counterpart across the sea in Anglo-Saxon England, early medieval Irish farming is comparatively well-documented, mostly in law texts. Indeed, there’s an authoritative book on the mass of textual evidence, to which the EMAP work provides an archaeological counterpart (Kelly 1997).

 So, down to business, what’s the story in McCormick et al. 2014? The chapter leads us through seven sections discussing (1) social and economic organisation; (2) field boundaries, enclosures and roadways; (3) tools and tillage; (4) cereals and cultivation, including watermills and corn-dryers; (5) livestock farming; (6) natural food stocks, i.e. gathering, hunting and fishing from the wild; and (7) a conclusion. It’s a lengthy discussion, with some key points arising:

  • (p.193) There’s little archaeological evidence for a “permanent and organized pattern of fields”, but rather “open landscapes, with areas for cultivation and livestock rearing being secured by temporary wattle or brushwood boundaries.”
  • (p.195) Although there’s no firm evidence for coulters being added to ploughs before the 10th century – as previously argued by Brady – two possible examples have recently been discovered that appear to date from the early/mid 7th century. However, since one is apparently suspiciously small and the other hasn’t been fully published, the authors remain sceptical and plump for the 10th century date.
  • (p.197) There’s a shift in cereal cropping around the 8th century, characterised by diversification: earlier assemblages tend to be dominated by a single crop, whereas later assemblages are more heterogeneous.
  • (pp.198-209) Numbers of corn-drying kilns declined from the late eighth century onwards, after a 6th/7th century peak; confusingly, as the kilns decline in number, watermills increase in number (perhaps initially concentrated at ecclesiastical sites). A nuanced interpretation is offered, based on the changing morphology of the ovens over this period (emphasis added): “The evidence for fewer but more sophisticated larger kilns is a convincing indicator of a growing shift of economic power to a small noble class as arable farming develops from subsistence to producing surpluses.”
  • (pp.209-211) Cows were “a basic unit of wealth” and dominated animal husbandry until c.AD 800 when, in some parts, livestock diversified and cattle lost their predominance.

From all this, a synthetic model of change is proposed: in the 8th-9th centuries, livestock rearing diversified and became less important to the agricultural economy, while arable husbandry also diversified but became more important – and perhaps more closely controlled by lordly elites, who were perhaps responsible for the larger corn-dryers and watermills that appear around this time.

It’s a complex addition to the complex emerging picture of agricultural change in 7th-9th century Europe. Should we be viewing this as an international phenomenon? And what can it all mean?



Additional references

Kelly, F. (1997). Early Irish Farming: A study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD (Dublin).

Monk, M. & Power, O. (2012). ‘More than a grain of truth from a rash of corn-drying kilns?’, Archaeology Ireland 26 (100), pp.38-41.


Makin’ hay

OK, so there I was, strolling leisurely through the Tyrolean countryside in Austria on a beautiful sunny day, when out pops a bit of striking agricultural heritage.

“Hello,” thought I, “this could be a little something for the ol’ blog back home.”

And so it proves. Ladies and gentlemen, meine Damen und Herren, meet the Stannger, here demonstrated with and without hay.

Demonstration of Stannger: hay-drying poles in North Tyrol, Austria, July 2014

Demonstration of Stannger: hay-drying poles in North Tyrol, Austria, July 2014

As you can see, it’s a simple bit of kit: a wooden pole of around 2m, tapered at each end, with 3-4 cross pieces inserted at different angles. A nearby information board helpfully explains how these are driven into pre-made holes in the ground (created by “Stannger irons”), and the cross-braces laden with hay, plus a final hay “cap” on top. Thus, the gathered hay is left to dry – rain running clean off the outer surface. While industrial drying methods have largely replaced the Stannger, the Tyrol is a region clearly proud of its traditions, and you can still see a few of these devices in active use around the countryside.

Given the apparent simplicity and effectiveness of Stannger, one could imagine a long history behind them, which naturally leads me to wonder: could something like this show up in excavation, at a site with good waterlogged preservation of wood? And if a piece of Stannger did show up, would we necessarily recognize it? Might it not appear more like, say, a fragment of ladder? Off the top of my head, the best typological distinction of Stannger seems to be the jaunty angles at which the cross-braces are set, which would be odd (to say the least) in your average ladder.

I leave you with that thought, and with a fence of traditional type from the same Tyrolean village – included here purely for aesthetic reasons!

A traditionally-built fence in North Tyrol, Austria, July 2014.

A traditionally-built fence in North Tyrol, Austria, July 2014.


Farming Electrified

Why, hello there again. Welcome back to Farming Unearthed!

Talk about about a hiatus – I haven’t blogged for something like three months.

But there are good reasons for this, not least the penultimate stages of my DPhil project which, just to remind you, is entitled “Agricultural Development in Mid Saxon England”. I’ve long since submitted, have now been examined, and I’m currently waiting/hoping for the final approval of my minor corrections. Fingers crossed.

Besides this, I’ve also been involved with a rather different project: assisting in the digitization of the massive archive of Southern Electric – now part of SSE, the British energy company. Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that this has absolutely nothing to do with Farming Unearthed.

But, in fact, there is a link.

Just pop over to the SSE Heritage website and try entering some farm-related search terms. I’d particularly recommend trying “agricultural” and “plucking machine”.

It’s certainly a far cry from my usual territory of mouldboard ploughs and the like, but a fascinating field all the same, and one that I’d be tempted to revisit in the future.


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!