Last week’s post was vaguely theoretical, and theoretically vague. This week, by contrast, I have decided to think about something altogether more solid and down-to-earth: staddlestones.
The word may be familiar as a name for a place or building; I know it as the name of both a Grade II listed building in Oxfordshire and a Nissan car dealer on the Isle of Wight. Neither of these establishments, to the best of my knowledge, is actually perched upon staddlestones. Nonetheless, these mushroom-shaped protuberances are instantly recognizable – even a simple sketch can capture their essence:
Now largely favoured as quirky garden ornaments in English villages, these features were originally designed to serve an elegantly simple, practical purpose: the elevation of agricultural storage units. Wooden frames resting upon an arrangement of staddles could support, for example, a haystack or a rick. Alternatively, entire buildings (such as granaries) or substructures (such as beehives) could be rested upon them. An unexpectedly lengthy and well-referenced Wikipedia article provides some interesting and nicely-illustrated examples.
Elevation upon staddles offers two advantages: (i) it permits the circulation of air around the storage unit, which is important for the preservation of cereal crops; and (ii) it inhibits access by rodents, who would struggle to surmount the “mushroom cap” element (though I’ve yet to see a practical demonstration of this!).
Staddlestones, then, are simple, functional, perhaps ornamental… but how old are they, and is there any such thing as an archaeology of staddlestones?
In contrast to the proliferation of staddlestone images online (try it and see – a basic search reveals how popular they are with photographers), my searches have so far turned up only a handful of archaeological research papers relating to the subject. Staddlestones feature in the addendum to Sigaut’s highly important review of grain storage in pre-industrial Europe, where they are discussed under the heading “rat-guards” (1988, 123). This functional perspective reminds us that the archetypal staddlestone as sketched above is only one formulation of a general principle – i.e. thwarting rodents by placing “stone or wooden discs… between the posts and the supporting beams of elevated buildings” (ibid.). Indeed, without the disc/cap element, the device becomes simply a post. The functional essence of the staddlestone, sensu stricto, is therefore found in the horizontal dimension. Archaeological identification then becomes problematic. We may find a posthole, but how can we know whether or not the disc/cap was in place? We may find a stone cap… but would we recognize it? Might it look instead like a quern or millstone? Might querns or millstones have been recycled in this way? Would good milling stone have provided adequate strength? Are these considerations of any practical value, or are we limited to speculation on the issue?
Functionality is not the only consideration. My second reference is to a paper entitled “Staddle-stones and silage-pits” – an unexpectedly phenomenological study of agricultural objects (Nowakowski 1987). For those unfamiliar with the weird/wonderful world of archaeological theory, phenomenological approaches are those which consider how objects, places, etc. were experienced in the past. In this case, Nowakowski studies modern perceptions of old/obsolete agricultural equipment on Bodmin Moor (Cornwall, UK). Staddlestones appear in connection with residents who have moved to the area and, while not actively engaged in agriculture, have some romantic, aesthetic appreciation of their new homes’ agricultural heritage. In this way “staddle stones and granite troughs often become garden furnishings” (ibid., p.50). This angle would be even harder, maybe impossible, to explore archaeologically, unless perhaps we can find staddlestones or similar devices occurring in ancient pastoral imagery, such as in the wall-paintings surviving at Pompeii.
Finally, I must mention Joy Peach’s “Study of the Staddle Stone Granary in Hampshire” (Peach 1989, 183), which includes a gazetteer and an architectural classification based on dimensions and materials, specifically concerning the Hampshire examples. A general discussion of function and chronology is also included. Peach notes how most remaining staddlestone granaries date from the 18th-19th centuries, building upon a long-established tradition whereby haystacks or ricks were constructed upon a frame, set upon staddles (ibid., 183-4). Peach’s thoughtful discussion is well worth reading, and one wonders how other regional studies might contribute to the study of surviving staddlestones in Britain.
Overall, I rather gained the impression of staddlestones as robust, long-serving, eminently re-usable, but probably inherently undatable features. Wooden varieties, even more so, must remain an “unknown quantity”, unless we are lucky enough to find a waterlogged example somewhere. An archaeology of staddlestones might not yet be attainable, but I think it remains an interesting field of thought.
Nowakowski, J. (1987). “Staddle-stones and silage-pits: successional use in an agricultural community,” in I. Hodder (ed.)Archaeology as long-term history(Cambridge), pp. 43-53.
Peach, J. (1989). “A study of the staddle stone granary in Hampshire,” Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society 45, pp.183-189.
Sigaut, F. (1988). “Storage and threshing in preindustrial Europe: additional notes,” Tools and Tillage 6, pp.119-124.