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:
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.