“Get off my land!” in the Bronze Age

I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Way back in 1784, when I started this blog, I commented on how farming seems to permeate archaeology as a discipline – from the Neolithic onwards, it’s a crucial thread in so much of human history. It’s hard to ignore.

But equally, it’s often a bit of a poor relation. Farming isn’t always a fashionable topic to research in some regions and periods. Burials, for instance, frequently attract much more attention, I suppose because of the immediate (and mysterious) human interest of a skeleton and its funerary trappings.

So on this occasion, I was surprised. I was reading the latest edition of British Archaeology, with a fascinating article on evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain:

Booth, T., Chamberlain, A. & Parker Pearson, M. ‘The Mummies of Bronze Age Britain’, British Archaeology 145 (Nov/Dec 2015), pp.18-23.

This is a fascinating piece of research – mummification is convincingly argued from ingenious scientific methods to have been widespread in Bronze Age Britain – and truly unexpected, certainly to someone like me with limited knowledge of the Bronze Age.

Most unexpected of all, however, were the speculative interpretations of Bronze Age mummification, and this is where agriculture comes in (p.23):

“After 1500 BC… large, planned (‘co-axial’) field systems were laid out. Mummies could have been important for legitimising access to ancestral rights and securing claims on land and property. In a world without written documents or legal title, what better way of producing tangible and incontrovertible proof of ancestry, ownership or descent!”

An intriguing theory indeed. What clearer way of articulating the time-honoured cry of “Gerroff my land!” than with the corpse of a desiccated patriarch?


Barnstorming in Roman Wiltshire

So there they were, poised to knock up a retail distribution centre outside Chippenham, when up pops a Roman barn. Turns out there’s a nationally important Romano-British rural settlement on the site, and Historic England (formerly English Heritage) has scheduled it accordingly – so the development has stopped.

This news nugget caught my eye in the latest edition of British Archaeology magazine, but it also made BBC local news, given the contest between developer and state over what should become of the site (not to mention local petitions).

What’s particularly interesting for Farming Unearthed is the discovery of an unexpectedly large barn, in a part of the country where Roman agrarian developments aren’t that well understood. British Archaeology reports: “Excavation of 12… postholes found second century AD pottery, suggesting that what might otherwise have been interpreted as a large medieval barn was in fact Roman.” As if that weren’t enough, Historic England itself has been excavating at another Romano-British farmstead in Wiltshire, of a rather different character, but nonetheless with “the corner of a large barn.” Are we on the verge of a scholarly overhaul of Wiltshire’s Roman farms?

Broadening the picture, this seems an appropriate moment to flag up a new (and growing) online resource courtesy of the Roman Rural Settlement project. It’s a mammoth collaborative effort from the University of Reading and Cotswold Archaeology, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Historic England. The project team has been busy harvesting vast swathes of excavation data, much of it previously unpublished, regarding rural settlements in Roman Britain. There’s an important agricultural strand led by Dr Martyn Allen, expert in zooarchaeology but also interested in things like corn-dryers (a hobby-horse of mine, you may recall). Anyway, the team is magnanimously uploading their data into a massive barn – I mean, database – on the Archaeological Data Service. Find it here, and have a browse. It’s a fantastic resource and a remarkable achievement.


Sorting the sheep from… the other sheep

Continuing this blog’s impromptu ‘DNA season’, I’d like to flag up another recent article. Now this is ingenious stuff. It made me chuckle with admiration, in an I-wish-I’d-thought-of-that sort of way.

First, the problem: historic livestock. How can we know what breeds of livestock were kept in the past? How far back can we trace so-called ‘heritage breeds’? For more recent periods of history, there might be realistic paintings or detailed descriptions that allow us some insight, but such sources will get much less reliable the further back we go. By the medieval period at least, we’d be skating on very thin ice. What about the evidence of animal bones? True, that’s extremely useful. Skeletal remains can allow a specialist to calculate the original size of animals (withers heights, etc.). This can allow the identification of selective breeding –  but only if the farmers were selecting for size. Potentially more information could be acquired by extracting aDNA (ancient DNA) from the animal bones, but these are usually far too degraded to allow any such thing. In most cases, after all, they’ve been butchered, gnawed, and thrown away.

That’s where parchments come in. Documents have been written on animal-hide parchment for centuries and, although they’re not guaranteed to survive forever, it’s safe to say that they won’t usually be gnawed or butchered. Indeed, because they often have legal value, a great number have been carefully curated over the centuries. In Britain alone, it’s estimated that more than a million parchments may survive from the last millennium. And now it’s been demonstrated that they can be used as a good source of livestock aDNA. Researchers from Dublin and York have done a pilot project, successfully getting verifiable aDNA from tiny samples of sheepskin parchment from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Past Horizons website has a good summary.

Not only that, but the original research is published in an open access article, free for anyone to read and download:

Teasdale, M.D., van Doorn, N.L., Fiddyment, S., Webb, C.C., O’Connor, T., Hofreiter, M., Collins, M.J., & Bradley, D.G. (2015). ‘Paging through history: parchment as a reservoir of ancient DNA for next generation sequencing’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, volume 370.

From the two parchments that they analysed, they suggest a speculative interpretation: that one represents an ‘unimproved’ sheep breed (i.e. closer to its natural progenitor) and the other a selectively ‘improved’ breed: potentially, we have here a major new tool to explore how livestock changed during the era of agricultural improvement in England – and of course other periods and places too, if the material survives.

Oh, and if curators don’t mind samples being trimmed from their parchments.


No spelt, please, we’re Saxon


My guest post from the “Not Just Dormice” blog

Originally posted on Not Just Dormice - Food for Thought:

Guest blogger Mark McKerracher considers the fate of foodstuffs after Roman rule…


The boats safely beached, four Germanic feet touched the sands of old Britannia. The heavily moustached faces of Hengest and Horsa looked out over these strange new shores, littered with imperial detritus. A limp, decaying sack lay at Horsa’s feet.

‘Spelt flakes,’ it read, ‘naturally rich in Romanitas.’

‘Pah,’ muttered Horsa. ‘Foreign muck.’


Behind this stirring vignette of the birth of England lies a real archaeological conundrum: why didn’t the Anglo-Saxons eat more spelt? The facts are simply stated. When charred crop deposits are excavated from Romano-British settlements, the wheat component is practically always dominated by one type: spelt wheat. Yet from the 5th century AD onwards, in deposits from Anglo-Saxon settlements, bread wheat takes its place, dominating the wheats to the near-total exclusion of spelt – as it has done, pretty much, ever since…

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Origins 6 – Fashionably early?

After a long pause, the blog is back – and it’s a blog of surprises. These particular surprises reached my attention through both British Archaeology magazine and the online news pages of Science. For those of you lucky enough to have full-blown access to Science, the reference is this:

Smith, O., Momber, G. et al. (2015). “Sedimentary DNA from a submerged site reveals wheat in the British Isles 8000 years ago”, Science 347, pp.998-1001.

Admirable clarity in that title, snappily stating the two things that had me so surprised – or “gobsmacked”, as they said in the Mesolithic.

Surprise 1 – sedimentary DNA

Bouldnor Cliff is a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer site with a twist: it’s underwater, 11m deep in the Solent, off the coast of the Isle of Wight. Although under threat of disturbance from modern shipping and fishing activity, it’s still remarkable for its surviving organic remains, including Britain’s oldest known piece of string (over 8,000 years old). The inundation of the site, when the Solent grew to separate the Isle of Wight from the mainland, has helped to preserve remarkable remains such as this, which have been investigated by maritime archaeologists since 1999: see what the folk at the Maritime Archaeology Trust have to say. But in this latest study, it’s not artefacts that are causing a stir: it’s aDNA in the sediment. Yes, they’re sequencing aDNA (= “ancient DNA”) left in the sediment by plants that have long since decayed. I had no idea that this was possible. Received wisdom (among non-geneticists, at least) seems to be that extracting and sequencing aDNA from any biological remains is fiendish enough, let alone from traces left in the sediment. But they’ve done it, and convincingly too, with unexpected results.

Surprise 2 – wheat?!

Yes, wheat. Besides the trees and wild grasses that you’d expect in a Mesolithic landscape, the team also identified domesticated wheat DNA in the sediment.The deposits were sealed on the seabed, and modern contamination has been ruled out: wheat seems, quite genuinely, to have been present at this hunter-gatherer site, circa 6,000 BC. And, to be blunt, it shouldn’t be there.

That is to say, it jars with the accepted narrative. Cast your mind – or your browser – back to a previous post in this series: “Britain goes nutty”.  This reviewed an article by archaeobotanists Stevens & Fuller, who looked at the dated evidence for crop remains in prehistoric Britain. In accord with the conventional narrative, they found that domesticated crop remains appear in the archaeological record pretty soon after 4,000 BC. So the Bouldnor wheat DNA is 2,000 years older than we might expect. It predates the introduction of agriculture to the British Isles in the Neolithic period. So what’s going on here?

Well, Gaffney and co. stress that this new evidence doesn’t mean that we should redate the British Neolithic. Just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, one site with wheat DNA in the sediment doesn’t make an agricultural dawn. Things would be different if we had securely-dated pollen – a stronger indicator of local cultivation – but the DNA could easily represent something imported from faraway lands. That in itself would be of huge significance, implying far-reaching networks linking British Mesolithic hunter-gatherers with new-fangled Neolithic farmers further east, long before farming communities became established in northwestern Europe.

With evidence like this, the cultural picture of this period could become a lot more complex, along with our understanding of the dynamics of early agriculture and its spread across Eurasia. Heady stuff, but for now I’ll leave you with the image of those Bouldnor hunter-gatherers, peering curiously at an object newly arrived on their shores: “Congratulations! You are the lucky winner of a Luxury Wheat Gift Hamper from the Fertile Crescent Company. Try before you sow! Call now to reserve your free Neolithic Package while stocks last…”



Gaffney, V., Garwood, P. & Momber, G. ‘How sedimentary DNA brought wheat to mesolithic Bouldnor Cliff’, British Archaeology no.142 (May/June 2015), pp.22-27.

Lyminge Part 5 – The Hidden Mysteries of Midden Histories

It’s been a while since I last blogged, and especially since I last blogged about the Lyminge Archaeological Project – a fantastic research excavation undertaken by Reading University which I’ve been following with great interest. I popped back down to visit the dig in sunny Kent this summer to catch up with the 2014 campaign of excavations. As ever, it did not fail to impress. Lyminge is the Anglo-Saxon site that keeps on giving.

You can keep abreast of the full story through the official project blog. There’s a forthcoming conference, too, marking the end of the latest phase of the project: read about it here. For this blog post, however, I just want to flag up a couple of things that are of particular interest to Farming Unearthed.

Firstly, environmental supervisor Simon Maslin showed me the ‘bonus’ trench that had been opened by the banks of the Nailbourne, just downslope from the main focus of excavation on Tayne Field. The exciting thing here is the degree of waterlogging in the deposits, which makes for a (frankly) unsightly trench, but excellent preservation of organic materials, including worked wood, pollen, and additional remains of plants otherwise unlikely to be preserved. Cereals are prone to being charred; other species – edible or otherwise – can often slip through the taphonomic net, unless we have waterlogged or mineralized material. And now at Lyminge, for the monastic Mid Saxon phase at least, it’s looking to be a veritable botanical hoard: charred, waterlogged, mineralized… a far cry from the thin smattering of charred grains that characterize so many Anglo-Saxon botanical assemblages. So we can hope, as analyses proceed, to find out much more about the plant economy and ecology of Lyminge than we can with most other sites of the period.

Down where the Nailbourne river flows...

Down where the Nailbourne river flows… (NB trench not in shot!)

Secondly, back up at the main excavation, there’s a feature initially identified by geophysical survey as an amorphous blob. Now, at the sight of an amorphous blob, archaeologists prick up their trowels, mattocks begin to twitch, and trenches open. And out of the blob cometh forth Early Saxon rubbish, yea even metal-working debris.

The Lyminge midden/’blob’ under excavation

And slowly but surely, there appeared to those diggers a hollow in the earth, a hollow apparently once used for metal-working, and sometime after backfilled with rubbish. And all this in the 6th century, of all times. As Anglo-Saxonists will realize, this is pretty astonishing stuff: specialist metalworking – and then a midden to boot – are exceptional in the 6th century. Most tantalizing for Farming Unearthed is the possibility of yet more botanical bounty in the soil samples taken from the midden. The majority of archaeobotanical samples from this Early Saxon period come from the fills of “sunken-featured buildings”, and tend to be very sparse – plausibly because of the disturbance involved in the backfilling of those buildings.

A closer look into the depths of the midden, wherein lies slag

But here, potentially, we could see primary waste deposits from crop-processing activities, dense and informative, besides all the other fascinating domestic and industrial rubbish.

As I’ve said before, this project really is one to watch, and the hidden mysteries of midden histories could turn out to be some of the richest pickings of the project.


With thanks to Gabor, Simon, Alexandra & Zoe

Double Review: Bringlish Landscapes

“That’s a classic,” said the man in the Oxfam shop, tapping the front cover of the little paperback.

I nodded in agreement. “I thought it was about time I bought a copy.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“That’ll be one ninety-nine,” he intoned.

And so it was that I bought a copy of a true classic in the field:

Hoskins, W.G. 1955. The Making of the English Landscape, originally published by Hodder & Stoughton – but my copy is a 1983 reprint of the 1970 Pelican edition.

I’ve finally read it, along with a natural – and much more recent – companion volume, already cited once or twice in previous posts:

Pryor, F. 2010. The Making of the British Landscape, Allen Lane but my edition is the Penguin paperback.

Here they are together, apparently sunbathing.


Bringlish Landscapes old and new: from Hoskins to Pryor

Many readers of this blog will be familiar with one or both of these books – even if only by reputation. Their subject isn’t exactly “farming unearthed”, but nonetheless they make crucial reading for anyone trying to get a handle on the broad sweep of British agricultural history.

It’s the broad sweep, in fact, that made Hoskins’ classic such a pioneering work in its day: examining, apparently for the first time, how the modern landscape(s) of England were shaped not only by parliamentary enclosure acts around the 18th century, but by processes stretching back into medieval times – if not earlier. This is the pioneer world of 1950’s landscape history, focusing very much upon the visible landscape. It is – explicitly – not an archaeological study, and so anything pre-dating the Anglo-Saxons is dealt with in a single, fairly brief chapter. It’s probably the least readable chapter, but the rest of the book sets the bar pretty high. The academic might bemoan a dearth of footnotes, but the narrative is brimming with both erudition and character. Hoskins quotes extensively from the likes of Dickens, Wordsworth, and John Clare, and gets quite literary himself – passionate, even, in a way that you just don’t expect after years of student reading. On 17th century England:

“Few boys lived beyond easy walking distance  of thick woodland, or of wild and spacious heaths, where they could work off freely the animal energies that in the twentieth century lead too many of them in the foul and joyless towns into the juvenile courts.” (p.139)

“No industrial smoke, nothing faster on the roads than a horse, no incessant noises from the sky… how infinitely more pleasant a place England then was for the majority of her people!” (p.139)

Coming to the industrial revolution: “in the Potteries and the Black Country especially, the landscape of Hell was foreshadowed.” (p.222)

And the modern landscape of 1950’s England? “It is a distasteful subject but it must be faced for a few moments.” (p.298)

Half a century later, and Francis Pryor offers a not-too-dissimilar reading experience. Like Hoskins, Pryor is an adept communicator both in print and on-screen; his writing can be passionate and characterful, too. And he’s more sympathetic than Hoskins towards 20th century developments (bungalows notwithstanding). In terms of content, there are differences: Pryor covers Scotland and Wales, for instance, and has much more on recent and maritime landscape history, including e.g. Palmerston forts in the Solent, 20th century wartime defences, and 21st century shopping centres. But the biggest difference, perhaps, is that Pryor is an archaeologist and a prehistorian at that. Add to this the fact, noted already in Hoskins’ 1976 preface, that archaeological research has been (and still is) transforming the subject, and we have Pryor’s narrative progressing in detail from Ice Age to Iron Age before covering the same chronological ground as Hoskins. We finally enter the Anglo-Saxon period on p.209; by the same page, Hoskins has just about finished with parliamentary enclosure. Pryor’s book is more comprehensive in a way, covering a bewildering array of sub-topics (pylons, seaside resorts, “polite landscapes”…); these make for accessible reference points, in articles that can usually be read out of context if desired. Consequently, the overall narrative flows somewhat less smoothly than that of Hoskins, but that’s a very minor point given the ambitious scope of the book.

So I’d say: have them both. Read them cover to cover, and refer back to them, especially if you need to branch into a period/topic that’s unfamiliar.

And pretty soon, British readers at least, you’ll be reaching for your walking boots and loving your local landscape!