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[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #40: Birthwort

January 28, 2022

In 2022, I am continuing to blog 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.

European birthwort flowers. Four slender yellow flowers
European birthwort flowers. Image by Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria  CC BY 2.0

Birthwort

Aristolochia clematitis L.

Also known as Dutchman’s pipe.


A toxic plant, but one which historically has been used by herbalists for its supposed pain-relieving properties, its name is a reference to its use for this in childbirth (the genus name Aristolochia derives from the Greek for best delivery). It is rare in Britain, but may be found around old buildings and along country roads in southern and eastern England. Its greenish yellow flowers, which appear from June to August, are insect traps, long tubes with downward pointing hairs on the inside so that insects can enter but are unable to crawl out. Once the flower is pollinated, however, it droops downwards and the hairs wither, allowing the insect to escape.

Aristolochia clematis on the Digital Plant Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #39: Bird’s Foot Trefoil

January 24, 2022

In 2022, I am continuing to blog 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.

Lotus corniculatus flowers
Lotus corniculatus. Image by Wilson44691 – Own work (CC0)

Bird’s Foot Trefoil

Lotus corniculatus

Also known as bacon-and-eggs

A common flower of roadside verges, meadows and grassy banks. In early summer it produces bright yellow flowers like those of a pea, to which it is related, in groups of five. Red streaks on the petals guide bees to the nectar. These give way to seed pods spread like the toes of a crow’s foot, hence the plant’s name. It is sometimes grown as a forage plant for farm animals.


In their Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, Allen and Hatfield note only one record of its medicinal use, as an eyewash on South Uist in the Western Isles.

Lotus corniculatus in the Digital Plant Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #38: Birch

January 17, 2022

In 2022, I am continuing to blog 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.

Birch

Betula spp.

A birch tree in a park
Silver birch. Image by Willow (CC BY 2.5)

A deciduous tree easily recognised by its white bark and long purplish-brown twigs. It is a hardy genus, whose range extends further north than any other tree species. Three species are found in Britain. The most frequently seen is the silver birch (also known as warty birch) Betula pendula. Less common is hairy birch (Betula pubescens), which has hairy twigs. Dwarf birch (Betula nana) is shrubby, and grows in northern Scotland.

Birch bark is specifically used as a tanning agent in the production of ‘Russian leather’. It is between 2 – 18% tannin content. Cooking birch bark in low-oxygen conditions gives rise to birch tar, a useful adhesive. This has some antiquity, and evidence from Königsaue in Germany, Capitello in Italy, and within sediment that was dredged from the North Sea for an artificial beach in the Netherlands, shows that Neanderthals were using birch tar to make composite tools as far back as 300 – 200 thousand years ago. In the excellent book Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes points out that understanding the fact that birch bark can be transmuted in this way demonstrates the cognitive skills of Neanderthals. In London, early Romano-British jars made in the North Kent Shelly Ware fabric have been found with birch bark pitch on the rim and shoulder. Birch leaves are a source of vitamin C. Birch bark has also been used as tinder. 

Birch timber is uniform brown, and not especially durable outdoors, but it is hard and has been used for turned items such as cotton reels and tool handles. More recently, it has been used as pulp for paper, or firewood, and the twigs have been used in garden brooms. The timber is still used in toys, wheels and parts of barrels. Birch branches have also been commonly used in wattlewood, and birch wattles were found in the Roman site of Vindolanda. Well seasoned birch wood does not taint food with odour or taste. 

A tonic wine may be made from birch sap, while birch bark was used in Ireland to treat eczema.
The Old English birce is an element of several place names, such as Birkenhead and Birchanger in Essex.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #37: Bindweed, Black

January 6, 2022
Black bindweed growing on bare earth
Black bindweed (Fallopia convulvulus). Image by Aung – public domain

Bindweed, Black

Fallopia convolvulus (L.) A. Love 1970

Also known as bear-bind, bind-corn, climbing buckwheat, wild buckwheat, corn-bind, devil’s tether and ivy bindweed

Black bindweed is a common segetal (a weed found amongst crop plants) which flourishes in fields and gardens in lowlands. Unlike other plants known as bindweed, to which it is not closely related, it twines in a clockwise direction. It has shining black berries, which are poisonous to humans and livestock, although the seeds they contain are edible. Black bindweed seeds are present in Neolithic contexts at Cwmifor, Carmarthenshire, where it may have been gathered as a foodstuff, and at Medieval sites in Dublin. Black bindweed was a constituent of the barley gruel that was the last meal of the Iron Age Danish individual preserved in a peat bog and now known as Tollund Man.

Fallopia convolvulus on the Digital Plant Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #36: Bindweed

January 3, 2022

In 2022, I am continuing to blog 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 field bindweed flower
Field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis). Photo by Galia ^ – CC BY-SA 3.0

Bindweed

Convolvulaceae

Two species of bindweed, field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) and the hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) are very persistent weeds of arable fields and gardens. They are distinguished by arrow-shaped leaves, and twine anti-clockwise around the stems of other plants. Hedge bindweed was also known as hedge bells, on account of the large bell-shaped flowers. The roots of hedge bindweed are strongly purgative.  A related species, sea bindweed (Calystegia soldanella), which has also been known as sea-bells and sea withwind, is found scrabbling across dunes. This has been used to prevent scurvy and as a purgative.

Convolvulus arvensis on the Digital Seed Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #35: Bilberry

December 31, 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.

Some bilberries (small blue berries) on a bush.
Bilberries in Finland – Image by Anneli Salo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bilberry

Vaccinium myrtillus L.

Also known as whortleberry, wimberry, wineberry, bloomberry, blaeberry, whorts, black-worts, and European blueberry

A low shrub growing 20-50cm high found on moorlands and mountains amongst heather. It has green-pink bell shaped flowers which appear from April, and round blue-black berries that appear from July. The berries can be used to make jam and fermented liquor.Richard Mabey writes that in Yorkshire, they have been made into pies called ‘mucky-mouth pies’ which featured in funeral teas. Bilberry seeds are known from medieval Shrewsbury Abbey, and Abbey Walk in Selby, as well as  Roman contexts at Ribchester (although in this context they might have arrived in heathland material used as bedding).

The bark contains quercetin, the primary component of quercitron, a yellow dye, while the berries are a source of blue dye (described in the sixteenth century as Plo Tornisal).

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #34: Bib

December 27, 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.

A bib
Bib. Image by  Georges Jansoone (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bib

Trisopterus luscus (Linnaeus, 1758)

Also known as pouting, pout whiting or pout.

A shallow water marine fish in the cod family that usually grows to around 30cms length. Bib are coppery coloured, and live 3-4 years. It is common around the British coast. It is a scavenger, and forages on the sea floor, taking marine worms, shellfish, shrimp, crabs and dead fish. They are frequently caught by trawlers, and by anglers on rocky shore, and although they are not commercially exploited, they are a saleable by catch. It is known from medieval sites in Britain and Ireland, and was among the species recorded at the Mesolithic site of Goldcliff on the coast of south Wales.

Bib on the Archaeological Fish Resource

Call for Contributions: Archaeo+Malacology Newsletter Issue 37 (deadline 31st January 2022)

December 19, 2021

Contributions are invited for Issue 37 of the Archaeo + Malacology Group Newsletter, to be circulated in February 2022. Past issues can be seen at https://archaeomalacology.wordpress.com/archaeomalacology-newsletters/


The Archaeo + Malacology Newsletter warmly invites contributions related to archaeomalacology in its widest sense. We are looking for short reports, new publications or works in progress, field or laboratory activities, or any archaeomalacological related news, developments, conferences, events, opportunities, jobs, awards, grants/funding or workshops. We also welcome member notes and photos! Please include image credit and short description.


Please email submissions and questions to amwg.icaz@gmail.com. Annual deadlines are 31 January for circulation in February, and 31 July for circulation in August.
Website: https://archaeomalacology.wordpress.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/250778365036844/
Twitter: @archaeomalacol

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #33: Betony

November 9, 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 purple spike of betony flowers
Betony. Image by Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria (CC BY 2.0)

Betony

Betonica officinalis L.

Also known as bishopwort

Valued by herbalists for a range of uses, including reducing fevers, stomach pains, and liver complaints, Betony was recorded by Pliny the Elder as a cure for drunkenness and hangovers used by barbarian peoples.  Among its virtues, the sixteenth century herbalist Gerard noted that “it maketh a man to pisse well”. Betony is common in woods and poor grassland in England and Wales, but less common in Scotland. It is also sometimes found in the ruins of abbeys, where it had been planted as a charm. 

It has square stems, and bears maroon flowers from June to August. The leaves, which have rounded teeth along their edges, may be dried and used as a tea, or historically were crushed and used as snuff.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species]#32: Beetle, Blister

November 4, 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.

Beetle, Blister

A green blister beetle on a leaf
Blister beetle, Lytta vesicatoria. Image by Franco christophe (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lytta vesicatoria (LInnaeus, 1758)

Also known as cantharides


A metallic green beetle, the source of an irritant cantharidium, also known as ‘Spanish fly’, that has been used medicinally, as a treatment for smallpox, and also an aphrodisiac and poison. The irritant is emitted by the beetles if they are disturbed and, true to the insect’s name, it can cause blistering. When used medicinally, it is produced by grinding the beetle. Tiny fragments of the beetle have been reported archaeologically from a hut used by an expedition to the islands of Novaya Zemlya off of northern Russia in 1596, and also a container of ground up Lytta cuticles intermixed with those of the chafer Cetonia aurata was found in the wreck of a Dutch East Indies ship.

Adult beetles primarily feed on the leaves of various trees and shrubs, especially ash, honeysuckle, and willow. The larvae attach themselves to solitary bees visiting flowers, which then transport them to their nests where they eat nest debris before moulting and appearing in another larval form which will eat the bee larvae and their food. It is not a native species in the UK, and is largely found in southern Britain.