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[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #55: Borage

June 29, 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. An index of species covered so far can be found here.

Borage. Image by Paasikivi (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Borage

Borago officinalis

Also known as starflower

With bright blue flowers in early summer, this tall, hairy annual is a distinctive plant of hedgerows and roadside verges, especially in southern England. It is native to the Mediterranean region and western Asia, and occurs as an escapee from cultivation. The young leaves are edible, with a slight cucumber taste, and can be infused to make a drink. The flowers can be used to impart flavour to claret cups, a punch-like drink popular in the late nineteenth century, or candied for confectionery, and is used as an ingredient in the gin-based drink Pimm’s No 1. It has been used as an aphrodisiac and treatment for depression. On this latter use, Richard Mabey quotes John Evelyn: ‘the sprigs… are of known virtue to revive the hypochondriac and cheer the hard student’.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #54: Boletus

June 6, 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.

Boletus edulis -three light brown toadstools in a forest
Boletus edulis – photo by Tocekas (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Boletus

There are some 50 species of Boletus, most of which grow in woodland, sending up fruiting bodies (the toadstools) in late summer. They are recognisable by having a spongy mass of pores in place of the gills on the underside of the cap. Many are edible, most notably the cep (Boletus edulis), but others are poisonous.  The poisonous species are distinguished by having red or purple stems or pores.The late archaeological scientist Don Brothwell notes edible Boletus species as a favourite in his autobiography, describing them as ‘fleshy, tasty, and sometimes growing to enormous size’. Ceps are common in woodland, especially beechwoods, from August to November, and have a smooth, dry brown cap with yellow to brown pores. They have a mild, nutty flavour. Richard Mabey warns that they are popular with insects, so the cap is best sliced open before cooking to check for infestation. They are a source of vitamin D and fibre, and can be dried, or powdered and preserved in oil. Ceps are also known as porcini (singular porcino), penny buns, and steinpilz, and were known to the Romans as suillus (confusingly, they referred to the southern European and north African species Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea) as boletus).

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #53: Bog-Myrtle

June 1, 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.

Myrica gale, showing immature fruit. Photo by Sten Porse (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bog-myrtle

Myrica gale

Also known as sweet gale, candle-berries, bog sally, black sallow

A deciduous shrub found on acidic soils of wet moors and heaths. It has a reddish-brown stem, with fragrant glands that appear as yellow dots, and narrow diamond-shaped leaves. In late spring, it bears male and female catkins, the male are orange and the female reddish. It has been used to scent candles, indeed the wax produced by glands on the shoots of the plant can be extracted by boiling the shoots and scraping the waxy scum off the surface of the pan, which can then be used to make candles. It also yields a yellow dye. It has been used in place of hops as a flavouring in beer, and can be steeped in wine to impart a tang to it. It has insect-repelling properties and has been used to keep mosquitos and fleas away. Medicinally, it was used in the Western Isles, Highlands and other areas to kill  intestinal worms. Richard Mabey states that its leaves make a good stuffing for chicken. Bog-myrtle from Osborne on the Isle of Wight is a traditional component of royal wedding bouquets since the wedding of Princess Victoria, eldest daughter of Victoria and Albert, in 1858..

Bog-myrtle wood is known from Runnymede, and from Tinney’s in Somerset. Seeds were found in late medieval deposits at Long Causeway, Peterborough and Lincoln; and the leaves, twigs and buds are known from various sites in Anglo-Scandinavian York and Doncaster.

Myrica gale on the Digital Plant Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #52: Bogbean

May 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.

Pink and white star shaped bogbean flowers
Bogbean flowers. Image by Arnstein Rønning – Own work (CC BY-3.0)

Bogbean

Menyanthes trifoliata L.

Also known as buckbean, marsh trefoil, water trefoil and marsh clover

A plant of wet bogs and ponds, with clover-like leaves and spikes of pink and white star-shaped flowers fringed with long hairs in early summer. 

The rhizomes are edible, and the leaves have been used in place of hops to give a bitter flavour to beer. Where it is abundant, it has been highly prized in herbal medicine. An infusion of its leaves has been recommended by herbalists as a cure for fever, and it has also been used to treat asthma, sores and stomach complaints. It has also been used as a herb tobacco.

Menyanthes on the Digital Plant Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #51: Bog Asphodel

May 18, 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.

Bog Asphodel

Narthecium ossifragum (L.) Huds.

Also known as Lancashire asphodel

Bog asphodel flowers.By Aroche – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1067016


A plant of wet upland heaths and moss, with brilliant golden flowers, forming a spike some 30cms tall above long strap-like leaves. It has previously been used to make a golden hair dye and a textiles dye, and as a substitute for saffron. It is reputed to be poisonous to cattle, sheep and goats, and it was once thought that foot rot in sheep that graze boggy land was due to them eating bog asphodel. This gave rise to the species name ossifragum, which translates as bone breaker.

Narthecium ossifragum on the Digital Plant Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #50: Boar, Wild

May 13, 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.

Boar, Wild

Sus scrofa Linnaeus, 1758

A wild boar standing in grass
Wild boar. Image by Jerzy Strzelecki -CC BY_SA 4.0

The wild ancestor of domestic pigs, wild boars were present in Britain from 13 to 11 thousand years ago (although they were also present during a warm interglacial period c.60 thousand years ago), and in Ireland from around 9.2 thousand years ago, and alongside red deer and aurochs they were one of the three most common game species in the Mesolithic. Work by Umberto Albarella shows that the Mesolithic wild boar were somewhat smaller than modern boars, and also smaller than their Danish contemporaries. Boars became extinct in Britain and Ireland in the 13th or 14th century, although escapees from boar farms in southern England during the 1980s and 1990s established a new viable population, and attempts had been made at reintroductions for hunting between the 13th and 17th centuries. Various nouns of congregation are applied to boars: commonly they have been known as a sounder, herd, or singular of boars

As well as the animals being hunted for meat, boar bones were used as raw materials. Boar tusks were worked into points, and have been found in Neolithic contexts such as at West Kennet chambered tomb. Two boar tusks were among the items buried alongside a man in a Middle Neolithic grave at Liff’s Low in Derbyshire, and boar tusks were buried alongside a number of Early Bronze Age cremations at Bulford Stone in Wiltshire. 

Depictions of boars feature in Iron Age and Romano-British art, such as the bronze boar’s head escutcheon from near Caerwent in south Wales, and a boar figurine from the Gower.

Sus scrofa scans on Morphosource

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #49: Bluebell

April 19, 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.

An image of a bluebell
Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Image by MichaelMaggs – CC BY-SA 3.0

Bluebell

Hyacinthoides non-scripta (Linnaeus) Chouard ex Rothmaler

Also known as wild hyacinth, calverkeys, culverkeys, auld man’s bell, ring-o’-bells, jacinth and wood bells


Carpets of bluebells brighten the ground in many deciduous woods from late spring to early summer. The flower stalk, bearing a long curving line of nodding bell-shaped blossoms with a delicate hyacinth scent, emerges from the midst of very long, narrow leaves. During winter, the plant is invisible, surviving as a small white bulb below ground. These bulbs are poisonous, but Mrs Grieve notes that the gummy juice within all parts of the plant have been used as a glue by bookbinders, for setting feathers upon arrows,  and as a substitute for starch especially in demand when people wore stiff ruffs. The bulb has styptic and diuretic properties. 

The Spanish bluebell (H. hispanica) is also found in Britain. This has escaped from cultivation, and can be distinguished from the native bluebell by having wider leaves and a spike of bells which is not one-sided.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #48: Blewit

March 31, 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 blewit in Bulgaria
Lepista personata. Near Sofia, Bulgaria. Image by Paffka (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A group of edible fungi. Blewit, or ‘blue-leg’ Lepista personata has a bluish stalk and a pale cap, and is found in pastures from early autumn, often in large rings. Wood blewit, L. nudum, also known as amethyst, is bluish-white although the cap sometimes turns reddish-brown with age. They are found in woodland among dead leaves and will sometimes grow on garden compost heaps. The fabulously-named sordid blewit L. sordida is similar to a wood blewit, and also grows among organic debris.

Blewits are good for stewing, and Geoff Dann says that historically they have been used as a substitute for tripe. Eating blewits raw has been reported to cause stomach upset, so they should be cooked.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #47: Bleak

March 23, 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 bleak, a small silvery fish
Alburnus alburnus. Image by Piet Spaans (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Bleak

Alburnus alburnus (Linnaeus, 1758)

A lively fish, 12-15 cm in length, in the carp family found close to the surface in rivers. It is a very silvery fish, whose name originates from the Anglo-Saxon ‘bloec’ meaning shining, and its scales were once used to make pearl essence (known as essence d’orient because the technique was developed in China) to line artificial pearls. It is common in much of England, but absent from Ireland, Scotland and most of Wales. It is often abundant, and is a common prey of trout, perch, pike, kingfishers and grebes.

Alburnus alburnus pharyngeals on the Archaeological Fish Resource

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #46: Blackthorn

March 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. Thanks To Lisa Lodwick, who shared details of finds from Silchester for this post.

A blackthorn bush with sloes
Blackthorn bushes with sloes near Abergavenny. Photo by Matt Law CC BY-SA 3.0

Blackthorn

Prunus spinosa L.

Also known as sloe or slaigh

A shrubby tree in the Rose family with long spiny thorns which grows up to 4 metres tall, and is often found in hedgerows. In late spring, it has a bright display of white blossom, each flower of which has five petals. After pollination, a fruit, known as sloe, is formed holding a single hard woody seed (the endocarp) in a pulp surrounded by a blue-black outer skin, which is often covered in a white bloom. The binomial name translates from Latin to ‘spiny plum’.

Sloes mature from October, and are intensely bitter to modern palates, although were probably once eaten. Sloes can be used to make a jelly, or steeped in gin with sugar for several months to make sloe gin, which served mixed with bitter lemon makes a long pedlar. Once they have finished steeping in the gin, the sloes can then be steeped in sherry to give sweet but tangy sloe sherry.  Sloes have also been used to flavour beer.

Exceedingly well-preserved sloes which retained their purplish colour and preserved pulp were found within a calcium phosphate-based faecal concretion at 16-22 Coppergate, York. An endocarp which retained a pinkish colour was identified at 7-15 Spurriergate, York. Charred and uncharred blackthorn fruitstones and thorns were found at 41-49 Walmsgate, also in York. A charred sloe was recovered from a fill within a Romano-British well at Insula IX at Silchester in Hampshire. The endocarps are frequent finds in cesspits and other latrine deposits, where they form part of what James Greig termed the ‘medieval fruit salad’. 

In folk medicine, blackthorn was used to treat warts in southern England, and diarrhoea, as well as for coughs and fevers.

Blackthorn wood has black bark, and straight stems can be trimmed and polished to make walking sticks, while shorter stouter stems are used to make a shillelagh, an Irish cudgel attached to the wrist with leather. Archaeologically, blackthorn charcoal and wood cannot be distinguished from the wild plum Prunus domestica, and can be difficult to differentiate from other Prunus species.