Farming unearthed… and transformed

I’m thrilled to say that, although I haven’t been able to write much of this blog over the past few months (or even years), I have managed to write a book which has lately been published by the excellent folk at Oxbow Books, in their Windgather Press imprint:

Farming Transformed front cover

My new book, featuring some lovely Hampshire farmland on the front cover

It’s called Farming Transformed in Anglo-Saxon England: Agriculture in the Long Eighth Century, and it covers material and themes that will be familiar to any regular readers of this blog: field systems, charred crop remains, the bones of livestock, and archaeological remains of farms, grain ovens and watermills.

With these things in mind, it tells the story of how Anglo-Saxon farming practices changed to become radically more productive from the 7th and (especially) 8th centuries onwards – that is, around the age of Bede – in the Thames valley, East Anglia, and beyond. How did this happen, where, when and why? Dig a little deeper into this fascinating story with Farming Transformed, now available for your perusal in paperback and e-book editions.


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).

An open (field) relationship

Many moons ago, as a teenager, I plumped for ancient history and archaeology on my university applications. In response, another lad said something along the lines of, “I don’t really get history myself – it’s all been and gone, hasn’t it?” It’s not an uncommon response, and in many ways it’s not unreasonable: why are history and archaeology interesting and important when they are, by definition, backwards-looking?

There’s a number of good responses to the question. One – that old, forgotten wisdom is wisdom nonetheless, and might be pertinent today – is not always convincing, especially to those whose default assumption is that folk tended to think the wrong things in the past. Another response is that history and archaeology help to explain how we got to where we are today (whilst also prompting the sobering thought that we’re not the pinnacle, we’re just the present). A good counter-thrust to this response would be to point out that a lot of what happened in the past has indeed been and gone, leaving little discernible trace on landscapes, cultures, politics, people, places… you name it.

Which brings me to the open fields.

Open field systems were once the farming setups of choice for huge expanses of medieval England. They were chiefly characterized by fairly tight-knit villages and large, open fields. And if you’re thinking that all villages are tight-knit, and all fields are pretty open, then you’ve got a point. But Open Fields in the strict sense are so open that even the bits owned by different people aren’t separated from each other. Agriculture sans frontières. Everyone has some strips, and the strips are spread out and intermingled so that everyone gets a share in the different soils, everyone gets a share in the harvest, and everyone gets a share in the labours and ploughing. Not so much a car share as a ploughshare (ho ho). Hence the tight-knit (“nucleated”) villages, so that the peasants could coordinate their activities, jointly planning which crops to sow, where and when, and which fields to leave fallow, when and where to graze their sheep, and all that sort of thing.


As far as I know, relics of this kind of system survive only in two places in modern England: Braunton in Devon and Laxton in Nottinghamshire. The rest were gradually broken up between (roughly) the 16th and 19th centuries in a process known as enclosure (or inclosure). This made the old open-field landscapes more like an allotment writ large: you have your patch to yourself, and you do what you like with it.

All of this comes under the general heading of “what every schoolboy used to know”. But I didn’t know it when I was a schoolboy, and I’m guessing that I’m not alone in that respect, so please bear with me if I’ve been teaching you to suck eggs thus far.

Enclosure is pretty well documented. But the origins of open field systems predate well-documented history, and so have provided fuel for historians’ debates for over a century (and counting). Estimates for their emergence range from around the 8th century to around the 12th. Estimates for the speed of their development range from a ‘village moment’ – a spurt of collective enthusiasm – to a long-drawn-out process lasting hundreds of years. Suffice it to say that nobody really knows how open field systems came into being, but everybody wants to know. And so, finally coming back to my preamble, I think it’s the near-extinction of open field systems – that very fact that they have been and gone – that makes them such an enduringly fascinating, obsessive topic in landscape history. At some point in the Anglo-Saxon or Norman periods, people made a really radical change to the landscape that lasted for centuries and, despite enclosure, still subtly shapes much of the English countryside today.

Like I say, the debate has been raging for more than a hundred years and, although new perspectives are still emerging, new evidence isn’t. Scholars keep finding ingenious ways of using place-names, charters, old maps and so on, but entirely new kinds of evidence are not forthcoming.

Until perhaps now.

A new project at the Universities of Oxford and Leicester, of which I am privileged to be part, is taking a radically different approach to this topic by studying excavated farmsteads, animal bones, charred grain and pollen deposits. We’re hoping to shed new light on the whole question of when, where, how  and why medieval farmed landscapes developed in the distinctive ways that they did. It’s called Feeding Anglo-Saxon England (or “FeedSax” for short) and you can follow our progress at the official blog:

I hope you enjoy it.

Classic review: The History of the Countryside

Of course I had consulted it. Of course I’d cited it. But it’s taken a while to sit down and read it – properly, finally – from cover to cover. And it feels like a literary pilgrimage.

What am I taking about? None other than “Rackham’s Countryside”, or more formally:

Rackham, O. 1986. The History of the Countryside (J.M. Dent originally – but I’m reading the 2000 edition by Phoenix).


Rackham’s Countryside, in chunky paperback

The late Dr Rackham was a prolific writer, but this is probably his best-known, most widely-cited masterpiece. Although not an archaeological study as such, it feels like a foundation for modern agricultural archaeology and landscape history in Britain. It marks a turning point in modern approaches to British landscape history (a particularly auspicious milestone for me, as I was born the year it was first published).

More than that, some of it practically reads like a call-to-arms for Farming Unearthed:

“The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us… The landscape is like a historic library of 50,000 books. Many were written in remote antiquity in languages which have only lately been deciphered; some of the languages are still unknown.” (pp.26-9)

(Environmental archaeology has blossomed most fruitfully since 1986, adding a few more thousand volumes to that notional ecological library.)

That passage comes from a brief chapter on conservation, which is lively, stirring and would be pretty depressing too, were it not for a note added in the 1997 edition which reports an improving situation eleven years later. Conservation is not a central theme of the book, however, as Rackham marshals very many and varied sources to elucidate the history of the British countryside in spite of its vanishing antiquities. Some sources are ancient, others are relatively recent, such as Luftwaffe reconnaissance photos, one of which is glossed as a “Hitler’s eye view ” (Plate VIc). Such is the style of our mordantly witty, thoroughly incisive, academic but down-to-earth narrator.

This doesn’t read like a scientific paper. It’s more like a guided tour of the British countryside at breakneck speed, delivered by an expert so deeply steeped in his subject that maybe half the citations could simply be to Rackham’s brain. Indeed, several intriguing points are raised with no reference given, presumably because there is no citation due – Rackham simply knew what he was writing about from firsthand experience. We rattle through animals and plants – past, present, introduced, extinct – heathland and moorland, fields, fens, trees… He is particularly strong on all things arboreal: woods, woodmanship and woodland ecology. Maybe one third of the book is in some sense ‘woody’, a reflection of the fundamental importance of woods in the story of the countryside as whole, and also of Rackham’s own particular interests. Other scholars pop up too, of course. On page 80, he alludes to a study on medieval woodland near Taunton by a certain “Mr Michael Aston” – surely the late Professor Mick Aston, latterly of Time Team fame?

The illustrations are not perhaps what you’d call lavish, although they are plentiful. There are lots of hand-drawn maps which are mostly very pleasing to the eye (well, to my eye), the exception being the general maps right at the start, which are so densely packed with place-names that it makes your head spin.


Tiny notes on a small island

To be honest, the density of facts and observations in the text itself can be a bit like that. Map upon map, charter after charter… the erudition would be overwhelming were it not stitched into such a well-written narrative. It’s fairly brisk and ‘no-nonsense’, all the same. You might expect a book about the countryside to have some kind of slightly sentimental, reflective or poetic epilogue. This one signs off with a factual remark about fish-weirs.

Ultimately, I can’t really review this book. Some of its arguments will stand the test of time, other may not, but that hardly matters. It’s a cornerstone of the modern canon, so all I can do is encourage you – if you haven’t already done so – to read it. Probably more than once.

What’s up on the Downs?

My phone started ringing before I had unlocked the door.

It was my dad.

“Quick,” he said. “Turn on the news.”

Whatever’s happened? I wondered. Has the Queen emigrated? Has the Isle of Wight declared independence?

As it happened, no, neither of those things had occurred. But still, it was big: agricultural archaeology on the evening news.

You see, there’s a project underway in the South Downs National Park, in southern England, called Secrets of the High Woods. One strand of this project is a pioneering LiDAR survey of parts of the Downs, LiDAR being a form of aerial survey that’s a bit like radar, but with laser beams instead of sound waves. Crucially, LiDAR readings can produce detailed landform surveys regardless of vegetation – it harmlessly penetrates woodland cover to reveal patterns in the land beneath, with never a trowel in site.

And what have they discovered? Nothing less than a vast, sprawling network of enclosures – fields of some sort or another – hitherto lying unknown beneath the downland woods.

You can read the National Park’s own news report for the details, also covered by the BBC among others.

So why the excitement? It’s not news to learn that people in the past farmed in the South Downs; we might have guessed that much. I think it’s partly the technical wizardry of LiDAR that makes this a good piece for the camera, but there are two other aspects which make this a really interesting story, and one to watch as more data are produced: the scale and the antiquity of the field systems.

James Kenny, archaeologist with Chichester District Council, is quoted as saying:

“…The scale is so large that it must have been managed, suggesting that this part of the country was being organised as a farming collective on a very large scale… The degree of civilisation this implies is completely unexpected in this part of the world at this time – something closer to the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians than current views of pre-historic Britain.”

Now, this raises a number of questions. How prehistoric are we talking? No dates are mentioned in the news report, which is perfectly understandable since nothing has been excavated so there’s no material to date. It’s said to be pre-Roman, presumably because it is overruled by the Roman road which is another of the LiDAR survey’s key findings. But that could mean any kind of date, from Neolithic to Iron Age, and it would be a pretty harsh critic who denied any kind of “civilization” behind, say, the Avebury complex or Danebury hillfort – which aren’t a world away from the South Downs, after all.

The planning of field systems wasn’t beyond the wit of prehistoric farmers, but that certainly doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious questions to be asked here. We really need some dates. We also need to understand where the farmers in question were living, since (apparently) no prehistoric settlement remains are known or evident in that area. And while we’re at it, we could do with some environmental remains to reveal what kind of farming occupied these sprawling field systems.

Comparisons with field systems known elsewhere in the country would be a fascinating avenue to explore, as well.

So for me, for now, the excitement of the discovery itself is rather less than the excitement of its future research potential. Full steam ahead!


Origins 7 – The Ghost of the Sea

Max Planck (1858-1947) was a trailblazer of quantum theory, that confusing branch of physics which describes the inherent unpredictability of the very small. It’s kind of appropriate, then, that researchers at his namesake foundations – two of the Max Planck Institutes in Germany – are shedding uncertainty in the tiny world of molecular archaeology.

It’s a response to what was, arguably, last year’s blockbuster story in agricultural archaeology: the identification of 8,000-year-old wheat DNA in sediments at Bouldnor Cliff, at the bottom of the Solent. Farming Unearthed covered the story here. The shocker, as I wrote then, is that this makes the wheat Mesolithic – 2,000 years older than the first evidence for farming in Neolithic Britain. It was suggested on this basis that early farmers from further east were bringing their wheat products to Britain long before cultivation reached these shores – an idea which would have paradigm-quivering implications for agricultural prehistory in north-western Europe.

It sounded so improbable, and there were sceptical responses from the start, but the argument also seemed very strong. The team seemed to have done everything possible to avoid contamination, prove the integrity of their samples, and demonstrate that they’ve really got wheat DNA.

But, it’s now being argued, they may have missed something. Bouldnor, we have a problem.

Geneticists from the afore-mentioned Max Planck Institutes (for Development Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology) have applied rigorous tests to investigate the antiquity of the sedimentary ancient DNA, or ‘sedaDNA’.  I confess that I can’t follow all the arguments and statistics of Weiß et al. 2015. But the crux of it seems to be about deterioration. Ancient DNA, even if it’s good enough to identify, still doesn’t look like new DNA. It doesn’t even look like recent historic DNA. Essentially, ancient DNA has a distinctive pattern of reasonable wear and tear, fraying at the edges: damage, whereby cytosine starts to look like thymine at the ends of the molecules, known as ‘C-to-T substitution’.

The teams conducted thorough statistical comparisons between the Bouldnor Cliff sedaDNA and other libraries of well-dated ancient and modern DNA, and conclude that the pattern of C-to-T substitution at Bouldnor doesn’t look anywhere near 8,000 years old. Apparently, it looks even more modern than material collected 85-170 years ago (Weiß et al. 2015, p.3).

Now, like I say, most of the details of this research are beyond my ken. Way over my head. But the essential clash of results between the two research projects is deeply confusing. The original research appeared to rule out all conceivable means of contamination: the sediments were collected in stainless steel boxes straight out of sealed Mesolithic contexts deep under the Solent, and analysed in pristine labs that hadn’t handled wheat before. Not only that, but the type of wheat – where identifiable – is described as ‘domesticated einkorn wheat… Near Eastern wheat, as distinct from distantly related species in northern Europe and Britain’ (Gaffney et al. 2015, pp.25-6). Einkorn, one of the earliest domesticated cereals, hasn’t been popular in Britain for thousands of years. It was old news when Boudicca was a lass. It still exists today, to be sure, but why – of all possible modern contaminants – should einkorn turn up here?


Einkorn – a golden oldie (source)

Einkorn, forsooth!

Any cultivated plant DNA in a Mesolithic context would seem implausible, but a Near Eastern strain matching einkorn is arguably the least implausible of the bunch. At least there’s a hypothesis – albeit a rather earth-shattering one – to explain how it might have got there. But if it’s actually less than 200 years old, how do we explain that?

Its presence is surprising if it’s ancient, but also pretty mind-boggling if it’s modern. Am I missing something? Could the state of being buried under the seabed somehow inhibit molecular spoilage?

One thing’s for certain: we haven’t yet heard the last of this mysterious story.



You’ll be pleased to know that the new research is in an open-access article:

Weiß, C.L., Dannemann, M., Prüfer, K. & Burbano, H.A. (2015). “Contesting the presence of wheat in the British Isles 8,000 years ago by assessing ancient DNA authenticity from low-coverage data”, eLife 4,
The original work is discussed by:
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
And the first, seminal article can now be accessed with free registration to Science:
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.

A Grand Challenge: to blog or not to blog?

This post is a belated contribution to ‘The Grand Challenges for Archaeology’, a blogging carnival organized by archaeologist-blogger Doug Rocks-Macqueen.


It’s about half-eight in the morning, and I’ll soon have to be at work. But I’m snatching a moment to blog about blogging in archaeology.

These days I’m paid to do admin, not archaeology. But the past still has a habit of catching up with me. After all, archaeology is a vocation. One cannot simply ignore it when the money stops.

It is also addictively stimulating – cognitive caffeine.

Academic pursuits such as this come at a price, of course. The problem is that, given half a chance, the past can devour the present. Research and dissemination are intellectually demanding, time-hungry activities. Time marches on. The internet can speed the process along, but also bogs the researcher down in endless links, distractions, tweets, comments, bile, graphics, videos… and blogs.

Blogs. Now there’s a mixed blessing for writer and reader alike. The so-called blogosphere: global coffee house and repository for corridor conversations, challenging insights, hot new research, sloppy spelling, pub politics, fact and factoid, enticing hyperlink roads that all lead – at some point – to Wikipedia. The busy, burgeoning blogosphere: free of charge but time-expensive, open-source but unaccountable. Anyone with a mind to blog can jump in and do it. I took the plunge, in the first instance, after being favourably impressed by the blog of a friend from the natural sciences.

A question has dogged my typing ever since: is it worth the time and effort to stay in step with the digital zeitgeist? Here we come to the crux: a grand (or navel-gazing) challenge for the online archaeologist: is my blog a real vehicle for research and education, or merely ‘go-faster stripes’? The fact that many enthusiasts and academics alike maintain blogs does not necessarily, by itself, legitimize the medium. Popularity has some force, in the cyber-democratic milieu of the 21st century. To put it bluntly, if I stop getting hits I’ll have precious little excuse to carry on – if nobody’s reading it, I might as well just keep a private research diary.

But the existence of readers still doesn’t quite answer the question: what is it for? Why, if it all, is it useful for those readers? I started blogging largely as an experiment because it seemed like ‘the thing to do’, and – flatteringly – people still read it. Colleagues at conferences comment favourably on it, often adding ‘I’d like to blog too, if I had the time.’ Indeed. I hardly ever blog these days, not because I don’t want to do so but because, let’s face it, it takes ages to write something worth reading, and there’s no obvious, tangible return from this major time-investment.

Or is there? When I get around to doing it, composing a new post exercises my writing and thinking muscles – valuable simply on a personal level, like physical exercise. As for the end result, it’s still evolving: if the blog is to have any lasting value as a form of archaeological literature, the blogger should presumably look at which posts attract the most interest, and give the readership more of that (in my case, the unexpected answer is lazy beds, corn-dryers, and the origins of farming). But this can be balanced by innovation and experimentation – testing the waters in the inherently fluid environment of the internet. This, perhaps, is the unique strength of the blog, the best way to exploit its  incremental, transient/permanent, paradoxical character. It is, by its very nature, a constant work in progress – it can evolve, it can mature, in step with the blogger’s own career and changing interests, and the wider development of the discipline.

After three and a half years, Farming Unearthed is still finding its feet. Maybe it always will be.

Maybe it always should be.