Seminar CLXI: how to dig up Anglo-Saxon farming

I wrote this offline while WordPress continued not to have visibly done anything that made me prepared to log in, so I feel slightly less bad about the consistent fourteen-month-backlog with my seminar reports than I might do. Slightly. But with that expressed, let’s immediately turn to it in the person of fellow blogger Mark McKerracher, who on 4th February 2013 addressed the Oxford Medieval Archaeology seminar with the title “Mid-Saxon Agriculture Reconsidered”. I got to this one slightly late but I think I got most of it, and very interesting what I got was, also.

Historic field systems visible in the landscape on Burderop Down, Wiltshire

Historic field systems visible in the landscape on Burderop Down, Wiltshire, image used under Crown Copyright

I suppose it is worth first making the case that we really do need to know about farming in the Middle ages: it was the source of almost all wealth and the main activity of the vast majority of the population. If we don’t understand it, we don’t understand what is really the first thing about what the people we study did and cared about and how any of the other stuff they did was possible. Nonetheless, there is much here that we don’t understand, and for England this has actually got worse in the last few generations as archæology has improved, because old models, in which after a near-total reversion to pastoralism in the wake of the Roman withdrawal and the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the heavy plough arrived from the Continent in the ninth century and water-mills shortly after and in general set things up for an Agricultural Revolution that would explain England’s subsequent economic punch, have collapsed as we have found, for example, seventh-century heavy ploughs, eighth-century tidal mills, massive levels of seventh- and eighth-century monetisation compared to the later periods of supposed ‘take-off’ and so forth, and failed to find very much sign of fifth-century agricultural land going out of use in any case.1 Almost all the studies trying to deal with this have been economically-focussed, however, and very often on trade and proto-industry, whereas the base of the economy must have been and remained agricultural.2 So it is arguably in farming that change is most important, but also where it is hardest to actually find.

The Lyminge seventh-century plough coulter in situ

The Lyminge seventh-century plough coulter in situ

This, and the relatively early stages of Mr McKerracher’s doctoral work, meant that what we got here was largely a discussion of ways in which this lack of knowledge might be addressed, but that in itself was illuminating. Technology change, for example, would be a thing you’d hope to be able to see archæologically, but so far we just don’t have enough tools to do a chronology with, not least because the vast bulk of them were probably wood or bone; what then do ones that aren’t tell you about what was normal? Buildings are easier, at least mills are; barns, however, which should be good signs of the kind of productivity that necessitated storage, are basically shaped like houses, so unless they happen to have enough grain in their remains that you can reliably distinguish storage from, say, cookery, there’s still a problem. Grain-drying ovens, which do seem to be a Middle Saxon (i. e. late-seventh to ninth centuries) redevelopment, are still hard to date in use, especially in terms of how long they might go on being used, which obviously matters. Since they can be anything from huts to big stone-built affairs (the two of these known, interestingly, being on the probable border between Mercia and East Anglia which left me thinking that they could have roles in military provisioning3) form does not lead us to function as we might wish. There also arises a problem here that crops up still more with the general phenomenon of wool production which some are now seeing as important much earlier than used to be thought, which is: since any large-scale production of any kind in this period must still have effectively been cottage industry, how can you tell it archæologically from ordinary domestic manufacture? What’s an industrial number of loom-weights? Bear in mind that we can’t date loom-weights with any precision in your answer…

Analysis of cereal remains from the Anglo-Saxon site at Lyminge by Mark McKerracher

Analysis of cereal remains from Lyminge by Mr McKerracher himself and shamelessly hotlinked from his blog

Mr McKerracher’s thoughts as to how to deal with this revolved principally around bones and grains. Neither have been well-studied in all but the most recent digs of Anglo-Saxon settlements, but it still looks like the way forward (or even back, where the remains have actually been preserved). An area that was running sheep primarily for wool would slaughter them only late, whereas one where the wool was a nice side benefit of lamb chops would prefer younger meat: that would be reflected in bone preservation.4 Even if quantities of grain preserved (for which to have happened it usually needs to have been in a fire and charred) are hard to do much with, actually identifying grains can show you shifts in favoured crops from wheat to barley or more importantly to things that are probably fodder crops like rye and oats, suggesting a concentration on horses rather than people, or new growing on land where wheat wasn’t happy, suggesting growing demand, and so on. For these possibilities Mr McKerracher had some sites and information that suggested positive results could be expected, and which allowed him to suggest that his work would show a Middle Saxon farming culture in which we can show that the crops that were being grown were changing, that specialised wool production in the Cotswolds was perhaps the main economic concentration of the period (which might do much to help ground the way that the period becomes a contest for dominance between Wessex and Mercia rather than the kingdoms with an eastern seaboard) and that all of this was only to be found on a few big sites, suggesting that it was innovation from above rather than a general shift beneath the élites. It all needed more testing, he emphasised, but nonetheless this could be some very big things grown from tiny seeds here. I look forward to finally catching up with the blog to find out how things are coming up…

1. It seems unfair to target older books for what their authors couldn’t have known; there’s a reasonable round-up of the literature on the take-off of the tenth century (which is to say, more or less a take-off in the preservation of our sources on economic matters) in Christopher Dyer, “Les problèmes de la croissance agricole du haut moyen âge en Angleterre” in La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990), pp. 117-130. I’m sure there must be one in English as well, but remember I don’t actually work on this stuff, that’s the one I’ve read. The most aggressive statement of a case for a revolutionary change is indubitably Richard Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society (London 1989).

2. Especially Hodges, Anglo-Saxon Achievement, or his “Society, Power and the First English Revolution” in Il Secolo di Ferro: mito e realtà del secolo X, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 38 (Spoleto 1991), pp. 125-157, repr. in Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 163-175.

3. Here I’m obviously influenced by Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008).

4. Two good early examples of how this kind of work can underpin historical conclusions are Leslie Alcock, Dinas Powys: an Iron Age, Dark Age and Early Medieval Settlement in Glamorgan (Cardiff 1963), reprised and updated in his Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987), pp. 5-150 where the animal bones are discussed pp. 67-82, and Jennifer Bourdillon, “Countryside and town: the animal resources of Saxon Southampton” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 177-195.

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