Ploughing Ahead: Medieval Perspectives

Well, it’s that time of the year again when journals start coming through the post, and I hope to review some of the more agriculturally-themed articles on Farming Unearthed in the not-too-distant future.

For now, in a bit of shameless self-indulgence, I’m happy to note that March’s Ploughing Ahead  conference has had two short, medieval-slanted reports printed in the new Medieval Archaeology Newsletter this month. This seems like a good excuse to upload the “director’s cut” of my own write-up, copied below.

NB. The medieval bias here is due to the intended audience of the piece, and implies no disrespect to the excellent non-medieval papers and posters that were presented!


Ploughing Ahead

On Friday 15th March, 45 students, professionals and enthusiasts in agricultural history and archaeology assembled in Oxford for Ploughing Ahead, a one-day colloquium exploring the social, environmental and technological dimensions of Old World tillage practices. The event was organized by myself and Lisa Lodwick, both postgraduate students in the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford. Ploughing Ahead received generous financial support from both the School of Archaeology’s Meyerstein Fund and the British Agricultural History Society, whose sponsorship helped to subsidise the attendance of nine postgraduate delegates.

The colloquium aimed to highlight recent developments and the current state (or lack) of understanding in the history of ploughing, and also to initiate inter-disciplinary dialogues about this crucial topic in rural history. Through thirteen papers and four posters – all of excellent quality – we were taken from prehistoric China to early modern Ireland, from soil thin-sections to manuscript illuminations, from animal palaeopathology to LIDAR. Although the geographical and chronological scope of the colloquium was extremely wide, medieval topics featured prominently in the programme. Richard Thomas’ opening paper discussed the recognition of traction pathologies in cattle bones and, with a case study from Dudley Castle, introduced a compelling model for the eventual rise of horses as plough-beasts after the catastrophic impact of the Black Death upon cattle populations. Richard Macphail, meanwhile, reported on the multi-faceted palaeoenvironmental programme conducted during highway excavations in Vestfold, Norway, including the study of ploughsoil colluvia in Viking age soil sections, elucidating agricultural practices in the poorly preserved upslope settlements. Soil was also examined in Jan Nyssen’s study of lynchets which, in both excavated sections in east Belgium and current field observations in Ethiopia, were demonstrated to have emerged naturally – accidentally, even – on steep ploughed slopes.

After lunch, Gabor Thomas presented results from the conservation and analysis of the famous Lyminge coulter – highlighting in particular the sophistication of its workmanship, and the design indicative of a ‘swivel-plough.’ The broader continental context of this find was brought to light by Joachim Henning, whose wide-ranging work persuasively suggests that the swivel-plough’s eventual medieval dominance was previously delayed by the Roman villa system which, with its enslaved labour forces, restricted itself to the use of simpler ards.

Catarina Karlsson gave an interim report on her important experimental work, replicating medieval Swedish ard shares in order to gauge the loss of iron through wear over time. The work is on-going, and its results will surely have far-reaching implications not only for agricultural research, but also for studies of medieval metal consumption in rural communities. Continuing the technological theme, Charles Martell, trainer of oxen and owner of a Gloucestershire Long Plough, gave an entertaining and highly informative account of this tool’s design, usage, and local persistence from the medieval period through to the 20th century. In the final session, Niall Brady presented a new perspective on agriculture in early medieval Ireland, utilizing the wealth of archaeological data generated during the late lamented boom years, and highlighting an apparent growth in arable production from around the 7th century although, intriguingly, the adoption of the mouldboard plough is not evident before the 10th century. The colloquium was concluded by Debby Banham’s reassessment of the pictorial and documentary evidence for ploughing in Anglo-Saxon England, which provided a salutary warning, not only that such sources cannot be taken at face value, but also that the ‘face value’ itself should not be overestimated.

Besides these contributions, the colloquium benefited from a vast array of historical, ethnographic, environmental and experimental expertise concerning other periods and localities, and we hope that fruitful interchange of ideas will ensue. We are enormously grateful to all participants, travelling from across England, Ireland, Belgium, Sweden and Germany, for their involvement in such a rewarding and stimulating day.



Lyminge Part 4 – dropping by, oats and rye

What better way to spend a fine summer’s day than visiting the fine fields of south-east Kent? Where the fields are ripe with swaying golden corn, and Anglo-Saxon archaeology? Yes, it’s Lyminge, and it was well worth spending seven+ hours on the train to visit this year’s dig.

Cereals growing on the outskirts of Lyminge - no, I didn't take any for charring and identifying...

Cereals growing on the outskirts of Lyminge – no, I didn’t take any for charring and identifying…

Saxo-Norman ditch

Saxo-Norman ditch in this year’s trench

As ever, you can follow the story in detail on the project’s excellent blog. In brief, this year they’ve unearthed more of the turn-of-the-7th century high-status complex that made Beowulfine headlines last year – all kingly feasting, roistering, and – apparently – Ray Winstone. Besides this, there’s a Saxo-Norman (c.11th-12th century) boundary ditch and rubbish/latrine pits, a medieval field boundary, and WWII huts whose dismantlement might unfortunately have obliterated part of an Anglo-Saxon building(!!).

But anyway, the most exciting thing for Farming Unearthed is that environmental remains are still coming thick and fast. I was privileged to see some of the (metaphorically) juicy flots from the environmental processing, and to hear about the burgeoning faunal dataset – something like 300,000 bones from the campaigns to date, if I heard correctly. It seems that sheep become particularly abundant in the site’s monastic phase, which – if there’s good evidence for a special wool-bearing flock (e.g. lots of mature wethers)  – would make for a neat parallel with Middle Saxon Brandon in Suffolk and North Elmham in Norfolk, both ecclesiastical (see e.g. Crabtree 2012).

All of which raises the question of whether  – and how – arable production changed in this same period. In earlier posts, I’ve discussed evidence for sheaves and spelt, but haven’t much mentioned the four main cereal crops that constitute much the 10 samples that I studied. Well, here goes. Feast your eyes on this preliminary diagram:

Rainbow effect: a range of cereals to make Mr Kellogg  proud

Rainbow effect: a range of cereals at Lyminge to make Mr Kellogg proud

There’s a lot that one could say about this diagram (I stress that it’s preliminary – please don’t write in). But the most striking feature, I think, is diversity: samples 2 and 42 are clearly wheat-heavy, 3, 26 and 53 barley-heavy. Most notable, however, are samples 24 and 30, which are very dense, abundant samples, and which contain notably high proportions of oat and rye. In my doctoral research, I’ve come across very few sites at which oat and rye are so well-represented relative to wheat and barley. The chief exception, oddly enough, is Middle Saxon Ipswich – the proto-urban craft and trading settlement:

Monochrome, but not monocrop - 17 samples from Ipswich

Monochrome, but not monocrop? – 17 samples from Ipswich (with thanks to P. Murphy)

What significance, if any, could we attach to this observation?

We shall see, perhaps, in the next post. Meanwhile, if you have the chance, pay a visit to Lyminge. The excavation runs for another three weeks, and there’s an excellent, informative site tour every Saturday at 2pm (and even a full-blown open day next Saturday, 17th).



Crabtree, P. (2012). Middle Saxon Animal Husbandry in East Anglia (East Anglian Archaeology 143, Bury St Edmunds).

…& thanks to Gabor, Simon, Alexandra & Zoe!

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…



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.

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…



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 ~