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[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #17: Barley

March 25, 2021
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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 is one of the most important cereal crops in modern Britain, and of these islands in the past since it’s arrival almost 6,000 years ago.

An image of Barley from a 19th century botanical text
Barley, from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany. Public domain, shared by CSvBibra

Barley

Hordeum vulgare L.

A cultivated plant, barley is the second most cultivated cereal crop in Britain, and nowadays is largely grown to feed livestock. Barley is able to thrive on less fertile soils than wheat, and can tolerate lower rainfall and higher salinity. It is one of the four most widely grown crops in the world (with wheat, rice and maize), and is the most widely grown, being cultivated from the Equator to c.70°N in Scandinavia, and was grown by Norse colonists in Greenland between the 10th and 14th centuries. The most widely grown form in Britain is one whose grains are arranged in two rows, one on each side of the stem, and which is thus known as two-rowed barley. The next most frequently grown has six rows of grains around the stem. Probably the two and six-row forms come from a single wild progenitor, the two-row wild barley Hordeum vulgare subsp. spontaneum Koch, found in south western Asia. This has tightly fitting hulls on the grains. An early development was the loss of these hulls, producing two-row naked barley, Hordeum vulgare subsp. distichum convar. nudum. This has the advantage of being easier to thresh. Barley was one of the earliest domesticated crops in south west Asia, and one of the first crops to spread west into Europe. Hulled barley (having grain to which the palea is fused) and naked barley are both present in Britain from the Neolithic, and both are free-threshing, meaning that the grain is easy to separate from the ear. 

Barley has a short growing season, and can be sown in autumn as well as spring. The outer layers covering barley kernels are not palatable. The removal of these through mechanical means is known as pearling. Pearled and ground barley forms semolina and cous cous. Hulled barley is often soaked or parched to aid removing the chaff from the grain, which can then be achieved by beating or rubbing, sometimes called hummeling. Barley does not form gluten, so does not leaven to produce a good loaf of bread, but it does make good griddle cakes. It is the preferred cereal for malting for addition to beer, especially the two-row barleys, which have more uniform grains. 

In upland Scotland, there was a shift from naked barley to hulled barley and other cereals during the Iron Age, while in some parts of southern England in the Iron Age, for example the Danebury environs in Hampshire, there seems to have been a change from spelt and barley grown together in autumn as a maslin crop, to barley and spelt sown separately as monocrops, barley in spring and spelt in autumn. As a monocrop, barley is traditionally sown in spring. Drage is the early medieval term in southern England for a combination of barley and oats grown and harvested together, while beremancorn is a mixture of barley and wheat sown together in autumn. 

The protein matter within barley grains dissolves in boiling water, giving the drink barley water. According to Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (1931), this has been used to dilute cow’s milk for young infants, as it prevents the formation of hard masses of curds in the stomach. Barley malt (derived from toasting and grinding sprouted barley) has often been the basis for brewing beers, such as the ealu (ale) of medieval England. Barley broth was eaten in the Scottish Highlands during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Barley can be used in the drenching stage of leather tanning as an acidic solution to aid in the initial cleaning of the hide before tanning proper. 

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #16: Barbel

March 18, 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 is our first fish.

A picture of a barbel
Barbel (Barbus barbus). Image by Neil Philips from ukwildlife.org.uk CC-BY 2.0

Barbel

Barbus barbus (Linnaeus, 1758)

A freshwater fish in the carp family, the largest and most diverse of all vertebrate families. Adult barbels are usually 40-60 cms long, but can grow up to 100cms. The species is named for the four long feelers around its mouth. It is found in flowing water, especially where the bottom sediment is sandy or stony. It is an indigenous species that most likely colonised post-glacial Britain via the former land bridge to Europe. They were mainly distributed in eastern England, but there have been introductions to western England in more recent times. They are more active in twilight than during the  day, and eat molluscs, crustaceans, worms and insect larvae. It is one of the dominant species of ninth-century Coppergate in York, and its decline in representation there may be an indicator of a decline in water quality. 

Barbel roe are poisonous, and can cause stomach upset. It is possible that adult barbel flesh is also toxic during the spawning season.

Barbel on the Archaeological Fish Resource

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #15: Balm, Lemon

March 12, 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 is not a native species, but is a familiar plant commonly seen close to gardens, which is a personal favourite

A clump of lemon balm
Lemon Balm. Image by By Andrea_44 from Leamington, Ontario , Canada – Lemon Balm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54215765

Balm, Lemon

Melissa officinalis L.

Also known as balm, balm mint, and bee-balm

A cultivated herb prized for its sweet lemon-scented leaves, which has naturalised on roadsides in southern England in particular. It is a member of the mint family, and native to southern Europe. Beekeepers sometimes plant lemon balm close to hives as its abundance of small white flowers from June to August is a rich source of nectar. 

Its dried leaves can be used as a substitute for lemon juice to flavour jams and jellies, and tea made by steeping the leaves in boiling water is used in herbal medicine for its calming effect. It was formerly used in the preparation of Eau des carmes, a predecessor of Eau de Cologne, and is used to flavour the liqueurs Benedictine and Chartreuse.

Lemon balm nutlets are known from a Romano- British context at Glebe Farm near Barton-upon-Humber, and from a Medieval context at Park Street, Birmingham.

Melissa officinalis on the Digital Plant Atlas

Now Published: Archaeomalacology Newsletter Issue 35

March 7, 2021

The new issue of the Archaeo+Malacology Newsletter is now available. It includes advice about curating a reference collection from Fleur Dijsktra et al., a write up of the non-marine molluscs from the Buckner Ranch site in Texas by Kenneth Brown, a review of a new book about an important mesolithic marine shell assemblage in northern Spain, and news about our next meeting https://archaeomalacology.files.wordpress.com/2021/03/amwg-newsletter-issue-35-february-2021.pdf

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #14: Badger

March 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. Today we start the letter B

Skull of a badger
Skull of Meles meles. Photo by Klaus Rassinger und Gerhard Cammerer, Museum Wiesbaden. CC BY-SA 3.0

European Badger

Meles meles (Linnaeus, 1758)

Also known as brock, bawson, pate, grey and badget

An omnivorous mammal in the same family as stoats and weasels, badgers have a barrel-shaped body with short legs and a short, blunt tail. They have a coat of coarse hairs which are greyish-white with a black band at the tip, giving the animal a grey appearance from a distance. The fur on the  legs and underside is black, and the badger has a white head with a black stripe over each ear and eye. The black fur from the belly is the preferred source of bristles for shaving brushes. They are found throughout these islands, and are nocturnal. They live in an underground home or sett, which consists of several chambers and tunnels. Setts have several entrances, and there are a number of small latrine pits dug close by. Badger sows give birth to one to five cubs in February. 

Badger meat has not commonly been consumed in Britain, although according to the December 1949 issue of Southern Electricity, ‘the house journal of the Southern Electricity Board’, an annual badger feast was held on Christmas Eve at “Round the Cow Inn” (presumably the Cow Inn, now a private house) in Ilchester in Somerset, where a badger carcass was roast over an open fire, and in exchange for a small charity donation, visitors could baste the badger and eat a portion when it is cooked. A later article in the same issue states that badgers were part of past Christmas meals in England. 

Perforated and decorated badger teeth beads are known from the late glacial site of Kendrick’s Cave near Llandudno. A badger mandible from a Norman context and a metapodia from an late medieval/ post-medieval barbican well at Norwich Castle were interpreted as evidence of its exploitation for fur, possibly arriving at the site attached to pelts.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #13: Avens, Wood

February 18, 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 we reach the end of letter A, with an attractive and useful woodland wildflower.

Geum urbanum in flower
Geum urbanum. Public domain image, source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geum_urbanum_bgiu.jpg

Avens, Wood

Geum urbanum L.

Also known as Herb Bennet and the Blessed Herb.

A herbaceous plant of hedgerows and woodlands. It bears yellow flowers from June-August which give way to seeds with hooked prickles that catch on clothing and animal fur. Its roots have been used to flavour ale, as a spice, and to make tea. They have a cloves-like scent, and contain eugenol. They have been used to produce antiseptic and anti-bacterial extracts, while dried they have been hung with clothing to repel moths. In the 15th-16th centuries wood avens was hung in houses to keep the devil away. The name herb bennet is derived from a shortening of benedictus, indicating the supposed powers against evil spirits.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #12: Aurochs

February 16, 2021
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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 another animal, and another relatively recent extinction, albeit one that became extinct in Britain a long time before it became globally extinct.

Part of an aurochs skull showing large horns on a museum wall
Aurochs (Bos primigenius) skull on display in Manchester Museum. Photo by Matt Law, CC BY-SA 4.0

Aurochs
Bos primigenius (Bojanus, 1827)

The wild ancestor of domestic cattle, the aurochs (plural aurochsen) was widely distributed across Europe, North Africa, and Asia into China, but was not present in Ireland. Aurochsen were large cattle, with bulls standing up to 1.8m in height at the shoulder, and cows 1.5m. Bulls would have weighed around 1000kg. They were thought to graze on grass, but also to browse trees, and may have moved seasonally between woodland and river valley marshland. As competition with humans for the fertile low-lying land they had favoured increased with the wider adoption of agriculture, they may have been forced into more marginal woodlands. Their extinction in Britain appears to have happened during the second millennium BC, with the latest known finds of aurochs bones occurring at Charterhouse Warren Farm in the Mendip Hills and at Porlock Weir, both in Somerset. The last known aurochs in the world died in the Jaktorów Forest in central Poland in AD 1627. Direct evidence of their hunting is occasionally found, for example from Mesolithic deposits at Flixton School House Farm, on the edges of the former Lake Flixton in Yorkshire. A Bronze Age aurochs burial is known from Holloway Lake, Harmondsworth, where a dismembered aurochs was interred with six barbed and tanged arrowheads.

They would have been hunted for food, but other use could be made of the carcass. A scraper made from an aurochs metapodial was found at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr in Yorkshire. Drinking cups made of aurochs horns were among the finds at the early medieval Sutton Hoo ship burial. Aurochs bone scoops are known from Neolithic and early Bronze Age contexts at Lower Mill Farm, Stanwell, London, and from Stonehenge, West Kennet, and Windmill Hill. These may have been used for skinning animal hides. Hunting aurochsen would have been a dangerous activity. An aurochs find from a pit in Hillingdon gives some clue how this might have been achieved: four barbed and tanged arrowheads were found in the area of the ribs and pelvis, and two more amongst the lower leg bones, suggesting that the animal had been stalked from behind and wounded and succumbed to exhaustion.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #11: Auk, Great

February 11, 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 the first animal, and a relatively recent extinction.

Auk, Great

Pinguinnus impennis (Linnaeus, 1758)

Also known as garefowl

Illustration of a great auk from Thomas Bewick's History of British Birds, showing a tall black and white bird on a  small rock in the sea
Great Auk illustration by Thomas Bewick in A History of British Birds, 1804. Public Domain

An extinct oceanic bird, roughly the size of a goose, and most closely related to the razorbill. It was flightless, and by no means agile on land, although its muscular wings made it powerful underwater. It spent most of its life at sea, only coming onto land to breed. By 1844 it was thought to be globally extinct, the last pair being killed in Iceland that year to be mounted and sold to collectors, although there is an unconfirmed record of a pair on Belfast Lough in 1845. It is the only bird that has become extinct in Europe in the last 500 years. The most recent historic records came from the remote island of St Kilda. Great auk bones are present at over 60 archaeological sites in Britain, such as in Mesolithic middens on the Scottish island of Oronsay, where it was one of the most frequently recovered bird species. The earliest find to date is a great auk humerus, found at the c. 500, 000 year old site of Boxgrove in West Sussex.

Because the bird only came ashore to breed, it is assumed that people caught and killed them during the brief period of time they were on land. According to Martin Martin writing of them on St Kilda in 1698, this period was only 6 weeks, from mid-May to late-June in the modern calendar. In addition to St Kilda, it is thought that they bred on Holm of Papa Westray, and also on the Calf of Man.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #10: Aspen

February 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. 

Red aspen leaves in autumn
Aspen in the autumn by Arnstein Rønning. CC BY-SA 3.0

A fast growing poplar tree within the willow family which grows up to 40m tall, distributed across Britain. Short-rotation coppicing would have favoured aspen. Aspen has been used in wattle-and-daub infill. There is no certain archaeological evidence for aspen, as neither the wood nor buds/ bud scales can be distinguished from that of other poplars or even most willows.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #9: Ash

February 4, 2021
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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. 

Ash keys on a branch
Ash keys. Image by Pleple2000. CC BY-SA 3.0

Ash

Fraxinus excelsior L.

A deciduous tree growing up to 30m with greyish bark and long leaves consisting of around nine oval leaflets arranged in opposite pairs. It is a hardy tree and can survive on exposed hills. It grows on calcareous and neutral soils. Ash was commonly planted in hedgerows in the English Midlands during the eighteenth century.

Ash grown for timber must be fast-grown, as slow-grown ash has large pores in its annual rings and produces brittle wood. Ash timber is white, and sometimes pale brown at its centre. It has a remarkably straight grain, is heavy and tough yet supple, and does not splinter when struck – as such it is ideal for the handles of tools and implements. In the Iliad, Homer tells us that Achilles’s spear was made of ash. A naturally mummified man who died around 3400 and 3100BC found in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991 close to the border between Austria and Italy, known affectionately as Ötzi, carried a flint dagger with a handle made of ash. It also makes good oars, skis, cart frames and shafts, wheel rims, barrel-hoops and furniture. Historically, it has been coppiced to produce tough and springy wood. 

Ash keys, the single winged seeds which appear in late summer, can be pickled in vinegar and salt, while in Central Europe, ash leaves have been used in place of hops in beer. Ash sap can be tapped to make ash wine. Ash wood burns well, even when green, and as a relatively dense wood is a fairly long lasting source of heat. Ash bast is easily removed from the tree in long strips, and ash bark can be used in the drenching stage of leather tanning as an acidic solution to aid in the initial cleaning of the hide before tanning proper. 

Ash leaves are also a source of fodder for livestock. Ash leaves for this purpose would be collected during the summer and then bundled and dried on dried on a trellis to be stored ready for winter. According to Peter Reynold’s excellent Shire book Ancient Farming, goats and older breeds of sheep such as Soays prefer leaf fodder to hay.

Ash trees were honoured in Norse mythology, and Norse weapon handles and arrows are often ash. The Norse word for ash, ask, occurs in place-names such as Askrigg (ash ridge) in North Yorkshire. Ronald Hutton notes that there are more superstitions about ash trees recorded in British folklore than any other species. 

Ash wood is one of the tree species in Britain whose wood is ring porous, that is to say that the early wood growth has recognisably larger pores than growth later in the year. This feature is visible in a cross section (termed the transverse section) of the wood under a microscope from about x20 magnification. Because ash grows slowly, the latewood vessels can be especially close to the earlywood vessels, and may be overlooked.

Ash seeds. Small squares are 1mm. Photo by Matt Law. CC BY-SA

Ash seeds on the Digital Plant Atlas

Ash leaf buds on WikiArc

Ash wood on Microscopic Wood Anatomy