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

March 25, 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 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


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. 

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