Come, ye thankful people come…

Raise the song of harvest home!

The harvest festival is not, it seems, an official fixture in the Church of England calendar. It is deemed a local celebration and permissible on a Sunday only if there isn’t a more significant celebration to be had that day. Some traditions hold that the harvest festival  should be celebrated on the last harvesting day in September. Or the last Sunday in September. Or the Sunday closest to the harvest moon – which is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox (6th Sept 2017, since you ask  – yes, I missed it too).

Photograph by jarmoluk on Pixabay

Encyclopedia Britannica sums up the character of the old English harvest-home festivities in describing shouting, singing, corn-dolly-drenching and sprite-slaying – calculated to excite your inner pagan and get a certain kind of anthropologist salivating. Suffice it to say that this is deep, ancient, widespread stuff. And even though I’ve never gathered a harvest beyond collecting some garden herbs, I still find the harvest service a moving occasion. A year should have its seasons, after all, and it’s heartening to think of my arable forebears reaping enough to see them through another winter.

Interestingly, it’s not just Homo sapiens – and not even just the animal kingdom – for whom all is safely gathered in with the onset of autumn. Trees are in on the act too. Apparently the glorious, gilded, roseate displays by our deciduous dryads do not quite meet the ‘withering heights’ of poetic imagery. As Richard Mabey (2013) puts it:

The time of high colouring isn’t a signal of fading away, but of detox vitality, ruddiness, rude health.

He argues that the leaf-shedding represents “an opportunity for the tree to get rid of waste products… including toxins absorbed from the soil”, hence the synthesizing of those ruddy-hued anti-oxidant carotinoids and anthocyanin. At the same time, chlorophyll and sugars are all safely gathered in from the leaves, conserved within the trunk, ere the winter storms begin (Mabey 2013). Gather your resources, and put on a show: not so much arboreal hibernation as arboreal harvest-home.

Hibernation, harvest or detox? (Photograph by pixel2013 on Pixabay)

At which point, you may be wondering, isn’t this supposed to be an archaeology blog? Where’s the archaeology?

Good question, and one that I find myself asking when trying to study grain-storage in 5th-9th century England (the Early and Middle Saxon periods). We know that they farmed cereals, presumably they held and celebrated a harvest – the Old English haerfest apparently stood for autumn as a whole – but precious little do we find of their garners in the archaeological record. Mark Gardiner’s sensitive re-assessment of the archaeological evidence for grain-storage structures in medieval England raises some intriguing possibilities, but examples are still pretty thin on the ground, especially before the 8th century (Gardiner 2012). It’s quite likely that, in this early period, corn surpluses were fairly small and could be stored without specialist facilities, as Helena Hamerow (2012) has suggested, with sheaves raised up in the rafters of your house, perhaps, or down in your local Grubenhaus.

Even so, what remains fairly odd is that, so far as I know, there isn’t a really rich, dense deposit of charred grain from excavated settlements of this period – not even one. If you know of any, I’d like to hear about it. Because the thing is, even if grain surpluses were tiny in this period (and I think they were), surely it had happened from time to time that some unfortunate soul lost their harvested crop in a conflagration? In short, I wouldn’t expect a lot of very rich charred grain deposits from Early Saxon England, but I’d expect more than none.

Unless… unless this has something to do with chemistry. Research by Boardman and Jones found that the grains of free-threshing wheat and barley – the crops favoured by the early Anglo-Saxons – survive more poorly, becoming fragile, distorted and conglomerated more quickly, in an oxidizing rather than a reducing atmosphere (Boardman & Jones 1990). Might the rafters of a house provide a more oxidizing atmosphere than, say, a closely-packed granary? Might such “informal” means of storage have in fact militated against good archaeological preservation of cereal grains by charring?

I don’t know, but it’s a thought.



Boardman, S. & Jones, G. (1990). Experiments on the effects of charring on cereal plant components. Journal of Archaeological Science 17, pp. 1–11.

Gardiner, M. (2012). Stacks, Barns and Granaries in Early and High Medieval England: Crop Storage and its Implications. In: Quirós Castillo, J. A. ed. Horrea, Silos and Barns. (Vitoria-Gasteiz: University of the Basque Country), pp. 23–38.

Hamerow, H. (2012). Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Mabey, R. (2013). The Ash and The Beech: The Drama of Woodland Change (Vintage Books).


3 thoughts on “Come, ye thankful people come…

  1. “with sheaves raised up in the rafters of your house”: really? The wheat gives you two main things: grain – for next year’s sowing and for this winter’s eating – and straw, for bedding your cattle. I’m not clear that there’s an advantage to storing them together as sheaves. Wouldn’t it be better to do your threshing in the autumn? Would it be easy to find dry threshing floors in winter?

  2. Maybe grain stored in sacks in the rafters through winter would spend its time in an atmosphere high in CO2 from the fire. Would that be similar to silo storage i.e. the high CO2?

    But would it place high demands on the structure of the hall/house/hovel? How about cellar storage? Did they ever have cellars?

  3. Good points. Your idea about CO2 from the fire raises another interesting thought: in this earlier period when grain-drying ovens are scarce in the archaeological record, cereals stored in the rafters might have been kept dry by heat rising from the hearth (presumably also valuable for the straw?), with the smoke also perhaps deterring pests. Leaving the grain unthreshed whilst in storage might also, arguably, have given it some extra chaff-protection from insects…?

    Regarding cellars, there’s a theory that grain-storage may have been among the functions of the versatile “Grubenhaus” – or Sunken-Feature Building – that’s so characteristic of Anglo-Saxon settlements, and which is distinguished by it’s prominent underground space. I think the jury’s still out on that one, but it seems plausible enough.

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