Lyminge Part 3 – Spelt… wrongly?

Q: What do you call a spelt grain in an Anglo-Saxon pit?

A: Residual

OK, so it’s not going to win any prizes at the Edinburgh Festival. Indeed, it’s not even a joke – it almost makes a serious point. You see, it’s all about the shadow – the spectre, even – of residuality that hangs over spelt wheat when it ‘crops’ up in Anglo-Saxon deposits, as it does in the sub-assemblage that I’ve been studying from Lyminge.

Spelt is a variety of wheat – Triticum spelta in traditional botanical parlance. It’s well-known as the favoured cereal crop (or at least, the favoured wheat crop) of Roman Britain, as in much of the Roman world. Bread wheat, by contrast, is well-known as the favoured wheat crop of Anglo-Saxon England, and pretty much thereafter. I’ve simplified the scenario somewhat, but you get the gist of it. And the persistently puzzling question is this: when and how did the change between the two wheat varieties occur?

There seems to be an uneasy consensus that spelt wheat probably went out of fashion pretty rapidly after the formal end of Roman governance, early in the 5th century, with bread wheat metaphorically stepping into the breach. (There’s another popular theory, too, concerning the relationship between bread wheat and barley in this period… but I’ll talk about that at a later date.) So, if spelt wheat disappeared with Roman taxation, etc., then any archaeobotanical spelt remains found in an Anglo-Saxon context must just be the residue of old Roman or prehistoric activity, right?

Well, that’s the possibility that every archaeobotanist has to consider when they come across spelt from early medieval deposits. But in some cases, as with the material from Lyminge, the spelt seems to be just as well-preserved as the rest of the cereal remains. It doesn’t look particularly “roughed up”, as if it’s been kicking around for an extra couple of centuries. It seems to belong with the rest, and we’re not just talking about a negligible quantity of grains here. Of all the sites studied for my DPhil project, Lyminge is in the top 10 for numbers of charred spelt items – and that’s just from the few samples that I had time to study; there could be a lot more still to come. (Disclaimer: this doesn’t necessarily mean that spelt was proportionally more abundant than other cereals at Lyminge. In the great scheme of things, it’s actually a very minor occurrence, relative to oats, bread-type wheat, etc.)

So is this really Anglo-Saxon spelt and, if so, why does it matter? Well, let’s go back to that initial dichotomy between spelt and bread wheat. Biologists will tell you that they do, in fact, belong to the same species of wheat (Triticum aestivum). But there’s what you might call a functional difference: spelt is a ‘hulled wheat’ (aka a ‘glume wheat’), whereas bread wheat is a ‘free-threshing wheat’. When the harvested crops are threshed, hulled wheat grains remain encased in their tightly adhering spikelets, whereas the grains of free-threshing wheats fall free from the chaff immediately upon threshing. Here’s a simplified explanatory diagram which, so as not to breach anyone’s copyright, I’ve concocted from my own sketches…

Free-threshing wheatGlume wheatSo, back to the issue at the heart of this post: what is the real significance of spelt among Anglo-Saxon crop remains?

Ah. Well. There you have me. Nobody’s quite sure. It could of course have persisted as a crop – in which case, why is it so rare? It could have persisted merely as a self-seeding, so-called volunteer amongst the cereals (like bread-type wheat) which apparently replaced it – in which case, why do we occasionally find it in relatively large quantities, sometimes with plenty of chaff, suggesting that it’s actually been deliberately processed (not something you’d necessarily do with an unwanted contaminant!). There again, some of the stuff might really be residual Iron Age/Roman material, as so often assumed.

My feeling is that pockets of spelt-cultivation did survive into the Anglo-Saxon period – not everywhere, to be sure, but in certain locations – and that spelt remains might be more common in Anglo-Saxon archaeology than we have yet realized. We might be overlooking it, assigning spelt-rich samples at multi-period sites to the Iron Age or Roman periods largely because that’s where we expect to find them.

Naturally, I still need to think through this issue a lot more. At the very least, we need some more good, solid, radiocarbon dates before we can say anything with confidence.

So now it’s back to the thesis, and some more spelt-y theorizing…

MJM.

Bibliography

There’s an extensive and sometimes complicated literature pertaining to the history of crop husbandry in Britain in the early medieval period, and indeed the whole first millennium AD. As a good starting point, with lots of key references, I’d recommend:

Moffett, L. (2011). “Food plants on archaeological sites: the nature of the archaeobotanical record”, in H. Hamerow, D. Hinton & S. Crawford (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology (O.U.P.), pp.346-360.

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Lyminge Part 2 – A cast of thousands

In the last thrilling instalment, I introduced my tangential involvement with the Lyminge Archaeological Project, and described how I spent a substantial slice of life examining large quantities of charred plant remains. So, what did I find?

Well, the most striking thing about my assemblage is Sample 24 which, not to put too fine a point on it, is enormous. More professionally, I might say that it is both extraordinarily abundant, and unusually dense, for a Middle Saxon archaeobotanical sample – i.e. there are lots of charred items per litre of soil sieved.

This becomes particularly clear if we plot a graph of Middle Saxon charred samples by density (number of standardized items per litre soil), highlighting those from Lyminge. As you’ll see, only two samples in this dataset are more dense than Sample 24 (those two, incidentally, do not represent my own work, but will be studied more closely in my thesis – read it and find out!). We’ll encounter one of these two samples (one from Yarnton in Oxfordshire) again in a few moments.

msax-density-lymingeSo, what – if anything – does this tell us? Well, as a general rule, it’s been argued that relatively dense deposits probably represent material that was deposited quickly, maybe abruptly; it’s unlikely to represent a gradual accumulation of stuff, which would produce a sparser sample (e.g. van der Veen 2007, p.987, Table 6). But I’m not saying that this sample is homogeneous. On the contary, there are significant differences in the contents of its six constituent sub-samples, suggesting perhaps that several different bodies of material were deposited here at about the same time: something like a dump of assorted rubbish.

So, then: what kind of “rubbish”? Well, firstly, there’s a relatively high proportion of culm nodes and internodes – straw, in plain English.
And that’s where the very dense sample from Yarnton (mentioned above) comes back onto the stage: for straw is unusually well-represented in that sample, too. The Yarnton material was analysed by Chris Stevens, who suggests that this sample may represent the burning of sheaves (Stevens in Hey 2004, p.361). This is a more interesting suggestion than it might sound. It suggests, perhaps, that the people of Yarnton were storing cereals as sheaves: still with the straw, straight from the harvest, not even threshed.

Now, in a seminal paper on grain storage, Sigaut describes how grain stored in sheaves is relatively well-protected against deterioration, albeit at the cost of taking up more space than ‘cleaned’ grain (Sigaut 1988, 6). Sheaves themselves are typically stored either in barns, or in open-air ricks (or bykes, stacks, etc. – terminology and forms have subtle variations) – see Sigaut’s invaluable table on p.17.

The Yarnton sample comes from a pit, within a small fenced enclosure just to the south of a building with (hints of) a line of central internal posts. The Lyminge sample comes from a pit adjacent to a building with a clear line of central internal posts, identified by the excavator as an aisled barn – with a supposed threshing floor nearby.

If you’ll allow me to be a bit fanciful, then, might I suggest that both samples represent sheaves from their nearby barns? If the Lyminge sample really does represent burnt sheaves, then that might help to explain the lack of homogeneity between sub-samples: grain, chaff, straw and associated weeds might well cluster in different parts of the deposit, depending upon how the sheaves were bound up.

Just some thoughts, anyway. And there’s more to come…

MJM.

References

Sigaut, F. (1988). “A Method for Identifying Grain Storage Techniques and its Application for European Agricultural History”, Tools & Tillage, 6(1), pp.3-32.

Stevens, C. (2004). “Yarnton. Charred plants remains,” in G. Hey, Yarnton: Saxon and Medieval Landscape and Settlement (Oxford Archaeology), pp.351-364.

van der Veen, M. (2007). “Formation processes of desiccated and carbonized plant remains – the identification of routine practice”, Journal of Archaeological Science 34, pp.968-990.

Lyminge Part 1 – Curse of the Black Spelt

It was a cold, darkling evening in winter, and the Institute of Archaeology lay safely at anchor in Oxford harbour, sheltered in the lee of the Ashmolean. As the clock struck 7 bells, a visiting Captain – I mean, lecturer – took his stand upon the quarterdeck and delivered an engaging Powerpoint presentation. The subject: buried treasure, at the village of Lyminge in Kent… buried treasure of an Anglo-Saxon variety.

After the lecture, before the attendees departed for a swig of grog and some archaeological banter, a young midshipman – I mean, doctoral student – piped up about how interested he was in the agricultural aspects of the lecture. Not least the famous plough coulter – and not least the charred plant remains which, intriguingly, contained spelt.

A few e-mails and research proposals later, I found myself in the privileged position of having 10 environmental samples from the Middle Saxon monastic site of Lyminge, just waiting for me to shove them under a microscope and starting analysing, courtesy of Dr Gabor Thomas and his team at the University of Reading, to whom I’m very grateful for the opportunity. Before I start expounding on charred plant remains, I should say that the (ongoing) Lyminge Archaeological Project is one to watch – perhaps the most exciting Anglo-Saxon excavation project of the decade. And it also has an impeccable online presence, including a blog, a popular website, and an academic profile with downloadable reports. With a monastery, a coulter, and now a great hall of Beowulfian proportions… You can’t help feeling that the Lyminge crew will hit the headlines again before too long.

One small part of this epic tale is provided by the charred plant remains, recovered through the flotation and sieving of soil samples. Commendably, the Lyminge team take samples from virtually everywhere, and preservation conditions are good, so there’s (potentially) a huge botanical dataset here. My concern, however, was with the 10 samples which, according to a prior assessment by English Heritage’s environmental expert (Campbell 2012), were the richest source of charred plant remains from the Middle Saxon monastic phase at Lyminge.

What I didn’t know at the outset, of course, was just how rich these samples would prove to be – just how many tiny black grains I’d be confronted with. Little did I know, when I first sat down in the basement of the Institute of Archaeology with a microscope before me, that I’d be counting over 10,000 of the little blighters.  That I would see burnt cereals in my dreams.

So it was that I came under the curse of the black spelt.

At times I thought I might go mad – but then I remembered that I was already an archaeologist.

Eventually, though, slowly but surely, a picture began to emerge…

~ to be continued ~

MJM – MMXIII