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[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #30: Beefsteak Fungus

October 14, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here.

Beefsteak Fungus

Fistulina hepatica (Schaeff.) With. (1792)

A large flat red fungus on a tree
By Jiří Berkovec – Own work (also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fistulina_hepatica.JPG), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1043395

Also known as poor man’s beefsteak

This fungus appears in late summer on the trunks and branches of broad-leaved trees, especially oak and sweet chestnut. At full size the fruit body is up to 40cms across. It is tongue-shaped and reddish-brown on its upper surface, which has a mat of short hairs. The underside is a yellowish colour, and the flesh is reminiscent of red meat. It emits a red fluid 

when bruised or broken. They are edible, but commentators such as Richard Mabey point out that they can be disappointingly bitter, even when young. Stewing the fungus repeatedly in water, changing the water each time, removes some of the bitterness.  Allen and Hatfield state that it was used in Ireland to treat ulcers. 

Timber on which beefsteak fungus has grown takes on a rich reddish brown colour and is known as brown oak, and is valued by cabinet makers.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #29: Beech

September 24, 2021
beech leaves and nut cupules
European beech leaves and nut cupules. Image by MPF. CC BY-SA 3.0

Beech

Fagus sylvatica L. 

Beech trees are common on well-drained chalky and sandy soils, and are able to germinate and grow in shade, for example under oak trees. They are limited by low summer temperatures (warm temperatures are required to ripen seeds) and frosts, and so are most common in southern Britain. They are tall deciduous trees, growing up to 50m in height, with grey bark that almost always remains smooth as the tree grows, and slightly zigzag-shaped twigs. The autumn leaves are tough and do not easily break down, creating deep litter. 

They produce edible nuts, known as beech-mast, from which an oil can be extracted. This oil is edible, and is non-drying. It has been used in soap production and lighting, and in France it has been used in cooking and for making margarine. Four nuts are contained in prickly brown husk, produced every three to four years between September and October. They can be eaten raw or roasted. The nuts are also valued as food for pigs. Beech leaves are edible when they are young, and leaf-hay can be made by collecting and drying leaves in late summer for use as winter fodder. Twigs cut in late winter and early spring can also be fed directly to livestock. Beech twigs are said to enhance milk production in cattle. Allen and Hatfield report a single case of beech being used in folk medicine, an infusion of buds used to treat boils or piles in Gloucestershire. 

Beech wood is hard and durable, with an even grain, however it tends to warp and crack if it is not well seasoned. It is generally viewed as an attractive timber, and is widely used in turnery, carving and furniture. It is durable underwater and so can be used in boat-building: the keel of the fifteenth century Newport Ship was made of beech wood. When seasoned, its wood does not taint food with odour or taste, so it is suitable for storage and for use as plates, cups and bowls. Beech was the most commonly recovered wood type at Pompeii and Herculaneum, a testament to its utility.  

Beech wood is an excellent fuel, which burns with little smoke but produces a good deal of heat. Interestingly, however, Carole Keepax found that beech charcoal is scarce in archaeological contexts earlier than the Iron Age in England. The wood can be distilled to produce tar, creosote and methyl alcohol. The leaves have been used to stuff mattresses to discourage pests. It is easy to scratch the bark, and fragments or even standing trunks could have served as writing surfaces. ‘Beech black’ is a pigment made from charred beech bark.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #28: Bee

September 16, 2021
tags:

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here.

Bee

Apoidea

A bee on a yellow flower
Honey bee. Image by Andreas Trepte. CC BY-SA 2.5

There are around 250 species of bee in Britain, the vast majority of which are solitary species. Social bee colonies vary in size between honey bee colonies of over 60, 000 insects, to bumble bee colonies of 20-150. 

Economically, honey bees (Apis mellifera Linnaeus) are an important species. As a food, honey is rich in vitamins, minerals and energy. Beeswax is an important material, with many uses, including candle making, as sealing wax, for waterproofing, for casting through the lost-wax method, and more recently as a pharmaceutical. Initially, honeycomb would have been harvested from wild colonies – it is not known when the first managed hives were used.

Beeswax is also produced by bumble bees, and this has occasionally been exploited.

Honey bees are sometimes found at archaeological sites, for example from Anglo-Scandinavian levels at 16-22 Coppergate, York, and an early record is known from Bronze Age deposits at Runnymede Bridge. 

Beeswax was detected on arrowheads associated with the burial of a butchered aurochs at Holloway Lane, Harmondsworth, in association with animal fats – presumably these had been combined to manufacture a mastic to haft the arrow. Beeswax can also be mixed with other substances to change the qualities of adhesives, and evidence from Fossellone Cave and in Latium, Italy, shows that Neanderthals were mixing beeswax into pine or conifer resin to improve the quality for hafting lithic flakes to wooden handles between 55 and 45 thousand years ago. A wax ball was recovered at the 16-22 Coppergate site mentioned above. Sealing wax, which was a mixture of beeswax and resin, has been found in late 2nd century deposits at Tanner Row in York.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #27: Bedstraw

September 10, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here.

Yellow flowers of Galium verum
Ladies bedstraw (Galium verum) – image by Follavoine CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=129770

Bedstraw

Galium spp.

A widespread group of trailing plants with clusters of small flowers, and square stems bearing whorls of 4 -12 leaves. The soft nature of these stems, leaves and flowers gives rise to the English name for the plants. Bedstraws often appear in archaeological assemblages as segetal weeds, that is to say plants growing among crops. A red dye may be extracted from bedstraw, and ladies bedstraw (Galium verum) is a source of vegetable rennet, a substance that can coagulate the casein in milk for cheesemaking (although Richard Mabey noted a distinct lack of success replicating this use). 


A preparation derived from marsh bedstraw (Galium palustre) has been used on Eriskay and South Uist in the Western Isles as a cure for dropsy (edema, or fluid retention typically in the legs or arms). Ladies bedstraw (G. verum) may be used to stem bleeding, and dried and. placed in wardrobes and drawers, has been used in Berkshire to repel moths. The heath bedstraw (G. saxatile) has been used to treat shingles in Wales, and to treat nosebleeds on the Isle of Man.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #26: Beaver

September 6, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here.

A beaver in a river
European beaver, Castor fiber. By Per Harald Olsen – User made., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=944464

Beaver

Castor fiber Linnaeus, 1758

Beavers are large woodland rodents, with a preference for broad river valleys and lakes where water is slow flowing or still. They fell trees to create dams which then inundate the upstream area. The ponds created by these dams trap silt and nutrients, becoming productive ecosystems. In autumn and winter, their diet consists primarily of the bark and twigs of deciduous trees such as aspen, poplar and willow. In spring and summer, they eat aquatic plants and herbs and grasses. They live in underground dens of 5 to as many as 12 animals, an adult pair together with their young of the current and previous year, per lodge. The riverside den is reached by burrow dug from below the water level.  It is possible that the activity of beavers helped create environments suitable for the spread of alder trees. As well as being hunted for their meat, beavers were a source of fur. They may have been especially favoured in autumn and winter, when their fat content is 30-40% of live weight and their pelts would have been fullest. Their teeth, especially their incisors, could be used as tools, and castoreum, secreted from the animal’s anal glands and used recently in perfume manufacture, could be used as a medicine as it contains salicyclic acid, derived from willow bark, which is an analgesic.

Beavers survived in a few places into the Early Medieval period, with the last known documentary references coming from Wales and Scotland in the twelfth century, but they may have survived into the sixteenth century in Scotland. It appears that they were not present in Ireland. The late woodland ecologist Oliver Rackham noted that they survived surprisingly long after the demise of wildwood in floodplains for an animal that draws such attention to itself due to its dam building and for having such high commercial value. They have subsequently been reintroduced in south west England and in Scotland.

In addition to finds of bone, evidence for beavers comes in the form of wood which has been gnawed by beavers. In fact, Bryony Coles has noted that they probably have more evidence other than their bones in the archaeological record than any species other than humans. The Neolithic Baker Platform in the Somerset Levels contained a good deal of wood which had been chewed by beavers, and a suspected beaver lodge was repurposed as a platform at Walpole Landfill Site, also in Somerset. Beaver chewed wood was also recovered during an excavation at Benedict Street in Glastonbury in Somerset. Indirect evidence for beavers comes in the form of place names: the town of Beverley is named after beavers. Beaver bones have been found at Brean Down in Somerset, and at Cherhill, the Coneybury Anomaly, West Kennet, and Durrington Walls in Wiltshire. At the Iron Age Meare Lake Village in Somerset, beaver mandibles that may have been used as woodworking tools were found. They are also known from medieval Fishergate in York. Some of the bones at Durrington Walls are butchered. The lyre from Sutton Hoo may have been kept in a beaver pelt or beaver skin bag, from which there is a remarkable survival of beaver fur. As the former lake found during excavations at Thatcham was hard to explain on topographical grounds, John Evans interpreted it as the probable result of beaver dams.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #25: Bearberry

September 1, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here.

A bearberry bush showing the fruits
Bearberry By Sten Porse – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12037

Bearberry

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (L.) Spreng

A low-growing evergreen shrub that in modern times forms dense ground cover in mountainous areas. It is tolerant of cold climates, and its pollen is sometimes found in sediments from glacial periods. It has dark oval leaves, and bell-like flowers in Spring. The berries are an important food source for grouse and other mountain birds. They are also an antiseptic, astringent and diuretic, and are rich in vitamins A and C, as are the leaves, which are used dried in herbal medicine. The plant contains arbutin, which is useful in the treatment of urinary problems (and is also a skin lightening agent, as it prevents the formation of melanin). Plant extracts are sold medicinally under the name uva-ursi.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #24: Bear

August 27, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here. 

Bear, Brown

Ursus arctos Linnaeus, 1758

The head of a brown bear
Brown bear (image by
Bernard-boehne
, CC BY_SA 3.0)

The date of their extinction is unknown, but bears in Britain probably died out shortly after the Roman period. The situation is confused by the likely importation of live bears and bear body parts from Europe during the medieval period, which possibly explain their presence in thirteenth century deposits at Coppergate. There is also something of a scarcity of documentary references to bears from the early medieval period. However, it is likely that a combination of habitat destruction, overhunting and deliberate extermination contributed to their decline. 

Beyond the early medieval period, bears were kept for the purpose of bear baiting, as is mentioned by Erasmus, who visited England in the time of Henry VIII.  Bears feature in Pleistocene cave deposits, and were the predominant species at Kent’s Cavern in Devon. A bear scapula was found in a Late Neolithic pit at Ratfyn in Wiltshire. Burnt bear phalanges were found in association with an Iron Age human burial at Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire, where they were interpreted as coming from a bear skin wrapping the body. Bears are also depicted in art, such as the Roman mosaic from the villa at Newton St Loe, close to Bath in Somerset, which dates to the fourth century AD.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species]#23: Bean

August 2, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here.  

A nineteenth century drawing of a bean plant in flower
Vicia faba in flower, from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany (Public Domain; source biolib.de)

Bean

Beans have a long history of cultivation in Britain. Historically, they were grown as a field crop to mix with cereals for feeding livestock, and more recently they have been grown as a break crop to replenish soils after successive harvests of cereals. This is due to the symbiotic relationship that legumes have with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots, which convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, effectively fertilising the soil. Three types of bean are grown as market garden crops. Of these, the hardiest are broad beans, which have edible fleshy seeds. Runner beans and French beans are both grown for their long edible pods. 

Field beans are the same species as broad beans (Vicia faba L.), also known as fava beans. There are several varieties grown, of which the most common are horse beans and the winter bean. An especially small variety, tic beans, has been grown to feed racing pigeons. Beans were a source of protein and substitute for meat among less wealthy people in medieval Britain.

In 2017, Durham University archaeologists Edward Treasure and Mike Church reviewed the archaeological evidence for horse bean, more usually known by archaeologists as Celtic bean, remains in Britain. They found that they are rare in Neolithic contexts, but become more frequent from the Middle Bronze Age (c.1500 BC), especially in southern Britain. Bronze Age sites where they occur include Lofts Farm, Heybridge in Essex, Frog Hall Farm, Fingringhoe,  also in Essex, and at Brean Down in Somerset. Charred Celtic bean was present at Silchester in Hampshire. It was also found in a Neolithic context at White Horse Stone on Salisbury Plain, but may have been intrusive as an iron nail was also found in the same context. There is a Middle Neolithic find of an impression of celtic bean on a pot sherd from Ogmore-by-Sea in the Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales, and a late Neolithic find of charred bean from Capel Eithin, Anglesey, although in this case there was a good deal of more recent plant material at the site, which casts doubt on the early date. Treasure and Church concluded that during the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, beans were probably an important crop, but that charred beans preserve less well than charred cereal grains, and so are under-represented in the archaeological evidence.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #22: Bat

July 28, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here.  Today’s entry covers a number of species of flying mammals in the Order Chiroptera.

A photo of a bat resting
By Parc naturel régional des Vosges du Nord – Photo taken on [http://www.parc-vosges-nord.fr/html/telechargement/photos.htm http://www.parc-vosges-nord.fr/html/telechargement/photos.htm%5D, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=246318

Bat 

Mammals of the order Chiroptera, which are unique among mammals for their ability to fly. Bats mostly hunt at dusk or dawn, preying on flying insects, although Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentoni (Kuhl, 1817)), which usually lives near water, may be seen during daylight. Bones of the whiskered bat (Myotis mystacinus (Kuhl, 1817)), Natterer’s bat (Myotis nattereri (Kuhl, 1817)) and common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus (Schreber, 1774)) were found within the Neolithic long barrow Hazleton North in Gloucestershire, while indeterminate bat bones were found in a 1st century AD context at Gorhambury, St. Albans. Bones of common long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus (Linnaeus, 1758)), whiskered bat, and Bechstein’s bat (Myotis bechsteini (Kuhl, 1817)) were recovered at the Pleistocene site of Boxgrove.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #21: Bass

July 21, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here.  Today’s entry is a sea fish which ventures into estuaries in spring and summer.

An image of a small silver fish
Dicentrarchus labrax. Photo by Citron CC BY-SA 3.0

Bass

Dicentrarchus labrax (Linnaeus, 1758)

Also known as sea dace, sea bass or European seabass

A silvery sea fish which also ventures into estuaries and sometimes freshwater, it is a predator of smaller fish, shrimps and crabs. They are slow growing, and mature around 30-40cms but can grow up to 100cms. In spring, young bass migrate inshore in schools, followed by older fish. The young (1-2 year old) fish are also found in estuaries in autumn, before migrating offshore for winter. It is a pelagic (surface-living) species, and may be caught by angling with a hook. The young fish feed on invertebrates such as crabs, polychaete worms and prawns, the adults also eat other fish. It is characterised by ctenoid scale forms, although the scales between the eyes are cycloid. Bass bones were among the finds at Norwich and Portchester Castles, and their vertebrae were present at the Mesolithic Site A at Goldcliff on the Welsh shore of the Severn Estuary.

European seabass on the Archaeological Fish Resource