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!



Yes, corn-dryers! There, I’ve said it, and there’s no going back.

Familiarity, as the old saw goes, breeds contempt – or at least indifference. I think that sometimes that holds true for archaeology as much as anything else: there are certain topics that feel done, perhaps even overdone. Topics with which you feel you’ve spent as much time as is useful. Topics which you probably encountered in your youth, and feel – at best – nostalgic about, but not nostalgic enough to delve into.

And so, corn-dryers. If, like me, you visited Romano-British villas as a child, you’ve probably seen the foundations of a classic Romano-British corn-dryer: big, stone-built, T-shaped and – let’s be honest – winning no beauty contests. Very possibly, it was the boring adjunct to a tour of the hypocausts and mosaic-flaunting bath chambers. By comparison, a bit dry.

Here’s one courtesy of Wessex Archaeology, posted under the Creative Commons licence:

Surveying the location of a corn dryer using a Total Station Theodolite

Even for the student/researcher in British archaeology, corn-dryer literature has been rather quiet for a few decades (full references provided at the end of this blog post). In the 1970’s, we find Rickett’s undergraduate dissertation on “post-Roman and medieval drying kilns” – unpublished but still at Cardiff University library – and a chapter in Morris’ Agricultural Buildings in Roman Britain. There was also a practical experiment by the late Peter Reynolds  and co. at Butser Ancient Farm, involving the reconstruction and operation of a Roman-style corn-drying structure, whose results were usefully published. In the 1980’s, we find a paper by Monk on post-Roman drying kilns, and one by van der Veen on the charred plant remains from Romano-British corn-driers. All very good stuff indeed – but not much else in last 25 years, although hopefully a little paper of my own will find its way into print soon (watch this space).

By contrast, Irish archaeology has benefited from some very good recent publications by Monk and his colleagues. Surely progress can be made in British archaeology too? The Roman-period evidence alone must be worth another look.

So I’m taking the plunge. No research grant (yet), no institutional setting (yet), but enough enthusiasm to give it a bash in my spare time. It might not be fashionable. It might generate more interest if I called the project something like, “Being Human, Being Grain: concepts of cereality in antiquity (a phenomenological approach)”. But really, it’s about the corn-dryers, those chunky items of agricultural technology that deserve another look – and a few blog posts too. I’m interested in shapes, sizes, dates and distributions; contents, contexts, and composition. I’ll be stacking up evidence and looking for patterns, particularly in terms of form and function (I am an archaeologist, dash it).

Here goes.



Select References (with apologies for omissions of obvious key texts that have slipped through my sieve-like mind)

Goodchild, R.G. (1943). “T-shaped Corn-drying Ovens in Roman Britain” The Antiquaries Journal 23, pp. 148–153.

Monk, M. & Power, O. (2012). “More than a grain of truth from a rash of corn-drying kilns?” Archaeology Ireland 26 (100), pp. 38–41.

Monk, M.A. (1981). “Post-Roman Drying Kilns and the Problem of Function: a preliminary statement”, in Ó Corráin, D. ed. Irish Antiquity. Essays and Studies presented to Professor M.J. O’Kelly. (Cork: Tower Books), pp. 216–230.

Monk, M.A. & Kelleher, E. (2005). “An Assessment of the Archaeological Evidence for Irish Corn-Drying Kilns in the Light of the Results of Archaeological Experiments and Archaeobotanical Studies” The Journal of Irish Archaeology 14, pp. 77–114.

Morris, P. (1979). Agricultural Buildings in Roman Britain. Hands, A. R. & Walker, D. R. eds. (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports).

Reynolds, P.J. & Langley, J.K. (1979). “Romano-British Corn-Drying Oven: An Experiment” The Archaeological Journal 136, pp. 27–42.

Rickett, R.J. (1975). Post-Roman and Medieval Drying Kilns. (unpublished BA thesis – University College, Cardiff).

Van der Veen, M. (1989). “Charred Grain Assemblages from Roman-Period Corn Driers in Britain” The Archaeological Journal 146, pp. 302–319.

Farming on the Emerald Isle

Welcome back to Farming Unearthed! Regular visitors may notice that I’ve redecorated – after more than two years of blogging, it seemed like time for some sprucing up. It seems like time, too, to revisit one of my pet topics: agricultural change in early medieval Europe. Previous posts have touched upon Spain, Italy,and my own province of Anglo-Saxon England (on which, more to come). Today I set my sights upon Ireland, and an excellent new(ish) publication:

O’Sullivan, A., McCormick, F., Kerr, T.R. & Harney, L. (2013/2014). Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100. The Evidence from Archaeological Excavations. Royal Irish Academy Monographs: Dublin.

Early Medieval Ireland AD 400-1100

This hefty and impressive monograph is something that could easily make other countries envious: a synthetic account of life and death in 5th-11th century Ireland using archaeological evidence from excavations spanning 1930-2012. It’s a handsome and well-illustrated tome of nine chapters, covering:  the background to early medieval Irish archaeology; dwellings and settlements; the church; farming; crafts and technology; trade and exchange; death and burial; and, of course, a conclusion. Naturally, it’s the agricultural Chapter 5 in the spotlight here.

The volume is one result of the elegantly-entitled “Early Medieval Archaeology Project” (or EMAP, to its friends), based at University College Dublin, which since 2007 has been working to synthesise, analyse and interpret data from early medieval sites in Ireland. This is no mean undertaking because, as the introduction makes clear, that’s an awful lot of sites (p.1):

“Nowhere else in Europe, and arguably perhaps in the world, is it possible to view early medieval settlement landscapes of such quality and preservation. In no other European country is there anything like 47,000 identified early medieval settlements.”

Much of this abundance is due to a boom in development-led excavation during the so-called “Celtic Tiger” years, circa 1995-2008. This aspect is important for our purposes here, because such recent excavations will often have employed good modern sampling strategies for the recovery of plant and animal remains – crucial for a better understanding of farming practices. The dataset (p.7) comprised plant remains from 60 sites and animal bones from >130 excavations, and the results were originally published in 2011, in a project report available online here. The chapter in this new volume presents the findings in a more digested – and digestible – form, and incorporates parallel work by other scholars, e.g. Monk & Power 2012. It should also be noted that, unlike its counterpart across the sea in Anglo-Saxon England, early medieval Irish farming is comparatively well-documented, mostly in law texts. Indeed, there’s an authoritative book on the mass of textual evidence, to which the EMAP work provides an archaeological counterpart (Kelly 1997).

 So, down to business, what’s the story in McCormick et al. 2014? The chapter leads us through seven sections discussing (1) social and economic organisation; (2) field boundaries, enclosures and roadways; (3) tools and tillage; (4) cereals and cultivation, including watermills and corn-dryers; (5) livestock farming; (6) natural food stocks, i.e. gathering, hunting and fishing from the wild; and (7) a conclusion. It’s a lengthy discussion, with some key points arising:

  • (p.193) There’s little archaeological evidence for a “permanent and organized pattern of fields”, but rather “open landscapes, with areas for cultivation and livestock rearing being secured by temporary wattle or brushwood boundaries.”
  • (p.195) Although there’s no firm evidence for coulters being added to ploughs before the 10th century – as previously argued by Brady – two possible examples have recently been discovered that appear to date from the early/mid 7th century. However, since one is apparently suspiciously small and the other hasn’t been fully published, the authors remain sceptical and plump for the 10th century date.
  • (p.197) There’s a shift in cereal cropping around the 8th century, characterised by diversification: earlier assemblages tend to be dominated by a single crop, whereas later assemblages are more heterogeneous.
  • (pp.198-209) Numbers of corn-drying kilns declined from the late eighth century onwards, after a 6th/7th century peak; confusingly, as the kilns decline in number, watermills increase in number (perhaps initially concentrated at ecclesiastical sites). A nuanced interpretation is offered, based on the changing morphology of the ovens over this period (emphasis added): “The evidence for fewer but more sophisticated larger kilns is a convincing indicator of a growing shift of economic power to a small noble class as arable farming develops from subsistence to producing surpluses.”
  • (pp.209-211) Cows were “a basic unit of wealth” and dominated animal husbandry until c.AD 800 when, in some parts, livestock diversified and cattle lost their predominance.

From all this, a synthetic model of change is proposed: in the 8th-9th centuries, livestock rearing diversified and became less important to the agricultural economy, while arable husbandry also diversified but became more important – and perhaps more closely controlled by lordly elites, who were perhaps responsible for the larger corn-dryers and watermills that appear around this time.

It’s a complex addition to the complex emerging picture of agricultural change in 7th-9th century Europe. Should we be viewing this as an international phenomenon? And what can it all mean?



Additional references

Kelly, F. (1997). Early Irish Farming: A study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD (Dublin).

Monk, M. & Power, O. (2012). ‘More than a grain of truth from a rash of corn-drying kilns?’, Archaeology Ireland 26 (100), pp.38-41.


Makin’ hay

OK, so there I was, strolling leisurely through the Tyrolean countryside in Austria on a beautiful sunny day, when out pops a bit of striking agricultural heritage.

“Hello,” thought I, “this could be a little something for the ol’ blog back home.”

And so it proves. Ladies and gentlemen, meine Damen und Herren, meet the Stannger, here demonstrated with and without hay.

Demonstration of Stannger: hay-drying poles in North Tyrol, Austria, July 2014

Demonstration of Stannger: hay-drying poles in North Tyrol, Austria, July 2014

As you can see, it’s a simple bit of kit: a wooden pole of around 2m, tapered at each end, with 3-4 cross pieces inserted at different angles. A nearby information board helpfully explains how these are driven into pre-made holes in the ground (created by “Stannger irons”), and the cross-braces laden with hay, plus a final hay “cap” on top. Thus, the gathered hay is left to dry – rain running clean off the outer surface. While industrial drying methods have largely replaced the Stannger, the Tyrol is a region clearly proud of its traditions, and you can still see a few of these devices in active use around the countryside.

Given the apparent simplicity and effectiveness of Stannger, one could imagine a long history behind them, which naturally leads me to wonder: could something like this show up in excavation, at a site with good waterlogged preservation of wood? And if a piece of Stannger did show up, would we necessarily recognize it? Might it not appear more like, say, a fragment of ladder? Off the top of my head, the best typological distinction of Stannger seems to be the jaunty angles at which the cross-braces are set, which would be odd (to say the least) in your average ladder.

I leave you with that thought, and with a fence of traditional type from the same Tyrolean village – included here purely for aesthetic reasons!

A traditionally-built fence in North Tyrol, Austria, July 2014.

A traditionally-built fence in North Tyrol, Austria, July 2014.