Farming Electrified

Why, hello there again. Welcome back to Farming Unearthed!

Talk about about a hiatus – I haven’t blogged for something like three months.

But there are good reasons for this, not least the penultimate stages of my DPhil project which, just to remind you, is entitled “Agricultural Development in Mid Saxon England”. I’ve long since submitted, have now been examined, and I’m currently waiting/hoping for the final approval of my minor corrections. Fingers crossed.

Besides this, I’ve also been involved with a rather different project: assisting in the digitization of the massive archive of Southern Electric – now part of SSE, the British energy company. Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that this has absolutely nothing to do with Farming Unearthed.

But, in fact, there is a link.

Just pop over to the SSE Heritage website and try entering some farm-related search terms. I’d particularly recommend trying “agricultural” and “plucking machine”.

It’s certainly a far cry from my usual territory of mouldboard ploughs and the like, but a fascinating field all the same, and one that I’d be tempted to revisit in the future.



The Day of the Doctor(al thesis)

Coming soon… the Day of the Doctor(al thesis)!

Yes, two incarnations of the same thesis will fight side by side – alongside a third, enigmatic “draft” version – to save their writer’s sanity and, hopefully, eventually, earn the name ‘Doctor’ for a certain timelord (or archaeologist, as we’re more commonly known).

But for now, as a Christmas treat, readers of Farming Unearthed can enjoy(!) some of the key findings from my thesis.

But first, you might like to step back in time and revisit a couple of earlier posts from last November: (1) The unexpected interest of wet grapeskins, in which I reported on Paul Arthur et al’s studies of Salento, the heel of Italy, where agricultural production underwent a significant shift/intensification around the 8th century, involving a greater emphasis upon cash crops; and (2) How fascinating is a buried soil?, in which I highlighted Puy and Balbo’s work on the creation of irrigated terraces in al-Andalus (modern Spain) – i.e. once again, agricultural development in the 7th-8th century period. As I hinted at the time, these studies are among the growing signs of a wider 7th-8th century phenomenon of agricultural development, embracing (in different ways) both Mediterranean and northwestern Europe, including Great Britain and Ireland.

My doctoral thesis has focused upon two core regions of Anglo-Saxon England (the Upper/Middle Thames valley and environs; and East Anglia/Essex), looking primarily at animal bones and plant remains, with a view to understanding how farming practices changed in these regions in the 7th-8th centuries. And, boy, did they change. The big story is the growth of arable farming at the (apparent) expense of animal husbandry. Cereal cultivation seems to have sprawled outwards, with more and more land being taken under the plough – including “challenging” terrains like the East Anglian fens, and heavy clay soils, the latter presumably requiring another innovation: the heavy mouldboard plough.

Through a study of weed ecology, I’ve also suggested that farmers adapted to these new terrains by sowing their crops at different times of year: viz., opting for springtime sowing on heavy water-retentive soils, so as to avoid the risk of winter waterlogging that might be incurred in an autumn-sowing regime. I also think that they adapted to local geological conditions in their crop choices, too: e.g. salt-tolerant barley in the saline silt fens, drought-tolerant rye in the sandy Breckland, wheat in the peat fens and Thames clay vales…

The result of all this expansion and creative adaptation was a growth in cereal surpluses, reflected not only in a burgeoning archaeobotanical record, but also in the renewed construction of arable accoutrements such as granaries and corn-drying ovens, particularly at high-status and/or ecclesiastical sites. Those same sites seem, meanwhile, to have grown/acquired a wider range of other crops too, besides cereals – including opium poppy and grape.

What, then, of the animals? Well, animal husbandry certainly doesn’t go off the radar. Rather, it seems to have become more closely controlled, with a surge in droveways and paddocks being constructed, to ensure that livestock go where they’re told, without straying onto (and nibbling) the increasingly important crops. There are also signs of specialization in the “secondary products” of animals (i.e. milk, wool, and – for cattle – sheer brute force), a trend which seems to be focused in East Anglia rather than the Thames valley.

So, we’ve got lively combinations of expansion, intensification, and specialization: a real battery of coherent, interacting, dynamic innovations that together constitute Anglo-Saxon England’s contribution to the wider phenomenon of agricultural development in the 7th-8th centuries.

Phew! Well, I rattled through that pretty quickly, but hopefully it gives you something to mull over with your mulled wine, to chew over along with your Brussels sprouts.

For now, I’ll sign off and wish my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!