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[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

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #8: Arrowhead

February 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. 

 Inflorescence of the waterplant Sagittaria sagittifolia.
Arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia). Photo by Christian Fischer (CC BY-SA 3.0) Source

Arrowhead

Sagittaria sagittifolia L.

An aquatic plant in the water-plantain family found growing in the mud of slow-moving (‘lentic’) rivers with notably arrow-shaped leaves growing above the water (hence its common name) and white flowers with three petals from June to August. Its egg-shaped tubers, which are 2-3 cms long, are edible, and it is a cultivated crop in China. Although they may be eaten raw, ethnographic evidence from Eurasia and the Americas (where there are related species) suggests they are more usually roasted in hot ashes. They have a high starch content. From the wild, it can be obtained easily by fishing up from the mud, where they are connected to the plant by long stolons. Charred tubers have been found at the site of Całowanie in Poland.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #7: Apple

January 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. 

An apple tree with blossom in front of a fjord
Malus sylvestris in Norway. Photo by
Per Arvid Åsen (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Apple

Malus spp. 

Crab apple: M.sylvestris (L.) Mill. 1768

Orchard apple: M. domestica Borkh., 1803.

A genus within the rose family, and the most important fruit crop in temperate regions of the world. Apple bark is initially greenish-grey and smooth but it matures to become rugged and flaky. The wild apple in Britain (also known as crab apple) fruit is unpalatable to modern tastes, but can be fermented or made into a jelly. 

The central Asian wild apple Malus sieversii is the progenitor of domestic apples, although genetic analysis of cultivars grown globally shows that European crab apples have made a significant contribution, and are closely related to modern domestic apples. Through selective breeding, thousands of varieties of cultivars have been developed that bear little relation to the native apples. The Romans developed distinct varieties of dessert apples, which were introduced into Britain, and were known to have at least 22 varieties of apple. Cato the Elder (239-149 BCE) wrote an essay on grafting apple trees. 

Carbonised apple seeds are known from Neolithic sites. Apple seeds occur as finds in archaeological sediment samples, as very rarely does dried apple flesh. Seeds also occur within faecal coprolites and in cesspits. Apple seeds are known from a Late Neolithic deposit at Clifton Quarry, Worcestershire and at Walshford-Dishforth near Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire. Whole fruits of crab apple are known from Neolithic pit fills on the Caythorpe pipeline, East Yorkshire and it may be the case they were dried to be stored for winter.

Apple orchards were initially features of the monastic landscape,  but became more widespread with the advent of the feudal system in the Norman period. Pearmains and costards were the most popular varieties of the late medieval period, when costard-mongers (a term which eventually became corrupted to coster-monger) sold apples on London streets. 

Cider is the fermented juice of apples. Yeast which naturally occurs on the skin of apples ferments and turns the sugars in apples into alcohol when the fruit is crushed. 

Apple wood burns well, and is noted for its pleasant smell, which has led to its use smoking meats, fish and cheese. The bark, especially the bark of the roots, contains quercetin, the primary component of quercitron, a yellow dye. 


The genus name Malus comes from the Latin word malus, meaning ‘bad’, a reference to the biblical story of Eve and the forbidden fruit.

Malus sylvestris at the Digital Plant Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #6: Angelica, Wild

January 26, 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 species, another plant, is a native herb.

An eighteenth century drawing of the parts of wild angelica
Angelica sylvestris. From Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany. Source: www.biolib.de (Public Domain)

Angelica, Wild

Angelica sylvestris L.

Also called holy ghost, apparently for its ‘angel-like properties’ 

A tall plant in the carrot family with hollow purplish stems, found in fens, meadows and woods on non-acidic moist soils. It bears umbels of minute white flowers in late summer. It has aromatic flowers. Stalks of the closely related garden angelica are candied by soaking in a sugar solution to make cake decorations, but the leaves, stalks and seeds are edible (although stalks can be very tough). Angelica is a source of vitamin C.

Angelica silvestris on the Digital Plant Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #5: Alkanet, Green

January 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 plant is a dye plant.

Overblijvende ossentong Pentaglottis sempervirens closeup

Green alkanet, image by Wikimedia user Rasbak, CC BY-SA 3.0

Alkanet, Green 

Pentaglottis sempervirens (L.) Tausch ex L.H.Bailey
A hairy-leaved plant of roadsides and woodland margins bearing bright blue flowers with an attractive white centre. It grows where soils are moist and not acidic. It is an introduced species, most likely deliberately so during the medieval period as its roots are a source of red dye. The name alkanet, which is applied to a number of plants that yield red dyes in Europe and Asia is ultimately derived from the Arabic al-ḥinnā, referring to henna plants.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #4: Alexanders

January 19, 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 post is an edible, introduced species, with an unusual, highly aromatic Angelica-like flavour.

Alexanders growing next to the New Cut, Bristol, January 2021
Alexanders in January 2021, Bristol. Photo by Matt Law (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Alexanders

Smyrnium olusatrum L.

Also known as alisanders, horse parsley, stanmarch, or black lovage. 

A bushy herbaceous plant within the same family as parsley and carrots, which grows up to 1.2m tall. It is common in hedgebanks and on waste ground, especially by the sea, and bears umbels of yellow-green flowers from April to June. Its leaves are glossy and toothed and are arranged in groups of three at the end of the leaf stalk. 

It is a native of the circum-Mediterranean region, and was introduced to Britain by the Romans as a pot herb. Its young stems and leaves have an angelica-like flavour, and can be eaten raw in salads. The flower-buds can be pickled. The roots may be used as an alternative to parsnip. Young stems may also be cooked in boiling water for not more than ten minutes, and served with butter. Older stems are likely to be extremely tough. The seeds may also be eaten, and are strongly aromatic.

Smyrnium olusatrum fruitlets at the Digital Plant Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #3: Alder

January 15, 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.

Common alder tree in winter, Bristol, UK. Photo by Matt Law (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Alder

Alnus glutinosa (L.) Gaertn.

Also known as Black alder or European alder, and formerly as aller.

A common waterside tree in Britain and Ireland, recognisable by its black, fissured bark and broad hairless green leaves, alder is part of the birch family. The horizontal fissures are corky in texture and known as lenticels. The male flowers are yellow to red catkins that appear in August and open to release pollen the following spring. The female flowers are egg-shaped cones that start green and turn purple and eventually brown. In winter and early spring, the leaf buds are purplish and held on short stalks. 

Its timber is a yellowish colour and turns orange and eventually red on felling. It is soft, weak and perishable when dry, but it is water-resistant once dried and does not split when nails are driven into it. It has traditionally been used in the manufacture of the soles of shoes and clogs, for broom handles, for water-front revetments, for piles in boggy ground, and for water-pipes. It can be used dry for turnery, for example to manufacture platters. Alder roundwood was used for structural posts in wetlands in prehistory, for example it was among the species used in the Sweet Track that was built across Somerset wetlands around 3200BC. Both Vitruvius and Pliny enthusiastically describe alder’s durability in wet or boggy conditions. Pliny also described the tuber, the protuberance or burl that forms on the trunk of alder, as having an interesting grain and being useful for veneers. Four alder wood shoe soles are known from Luguvalium, Roman Carlisle. Alder shields are known onwards from the Bronze Age, for example there were several examples at the Iron Age cemetery site of Garton Station, East Yorkshire.  A Bronze Age child burial at Barrow Hills, Oxfordshire, was in an alder coffin into which six red deer antlers had been placed, along with a cattle skull and a bone from a pig trotter.  An alder wood club of Neolithic date was recovered from the Thames foreshore at Chelsea. 

Blocks of alder wood are used in glassmaking to manufacture moulds, as the wood produces such a soft carbon layer in contact with molten glass that very little of the pattern of the grain is transferred.

Charcoal from alder wood was valued in the manufacture of gunpowder because it gives rise to particular mix of carbon, sulphur and potassium nitrate , and alder coppices in the New Forest, the Lake District and near Waltham Abbey supplied local gunpowder factories. Alder twigs are suitable for use as fodder for livestock.

Alder bark produces a red dye and also a tanning agent, being around 16-20% tannin content. The fresh wood produces a pinky-fawn dye, the young shoots produce yellow, and the catkins green. 

Elsewhere in northern Eurasia, the Koryak or Kuriak of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east of Russia see alder as a special tree able to protect humans from evil spirits.

Alder is also valued as a growing tree for its ability to provide protection to river banks against erosion. In addition to common alder, other species are often planted, especially Italian alder (Alnus cordata), Grey alder (Alnus incana) and Green alder (Alnus veridis).

Top to bottom: Alnus veridis female cone; Alnus glutinosa female cones, leaf buds, and male catkins; Alnus veridis male catkin. Specimens collected Bristol, UK, January 2021. Small squares are 1mm. Photo by Matt Law (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Seeds of Alnus glutinosa, Alnus veridis and Alnus incana
Alder seeds. L- R Alnus glutinosa, Alnus veridis, Alnus incana. All specimens collected in Bristol, UK in January 2021. Small squares are 1mm. Photo by Matt Law (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Common alder leaf buds on WikiArc

Alnus glutinosa on Microscopic Wood Anatomy

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #2: Agrimony

January 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. The second species is a wildflower that gives us a yellow dye and which has medicinal uses.

Scientific illustration of Agrimony
Agrimonia eupatoria. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9178

Agrimony

Agrimonia eupatoria L.

Also known as lemmade, bunchflower, church steeples or sticklewort

A perennial plant which bears long spikes of small starry yellow flowers in summer and autumn. Found on roadsides and in hedgebanks throughout Britain and Ireland, avoiding acid soils and particularly shaded environments. Its pinnate leaves are apricot-scented, and are used to make a herbal tea which has been used by herbalists in the treatment of liver complaints. The plant is also a source of tannin, and the young tops have been used to produce a yellow dye. Archaeologically, the hooked structure surrounding the fruit, the hypanthia, are sometimes preserved along with seeds.

See Agrimonia eupatoria fruits and seeds on the Digital Seed Atlas (opens new tab)

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #1: Acacia, False

January 7, 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. The first species is a relatively recent addition to the British landscape

Acacia, False

Robinia pseudoacacia L. 

Also known as black locust, Honey locust or locust tree

False Acacia tree in winter. Photo by Matt Law CC BY-SA 4.0

A deciduous tree, native to North America, especially the southeastern United States, in the pea and bean family. It was introduced to Britain in the 17th century and was popularised as a rapidly growing source of timber in the 19th century. It is a ring-porous wood with narrow earlywood zone with large pores and a latewood zone with few, rather small pores. In its native North America, its small white flowers have been eaten as a sweet treat and used to make a tea, the young seed pods eaten as a vegetable, and the seeds themselves boiled and eaten. The bark, leaves and wood are toxic however.

Three seeds of Robinia pseudoacacia
Seeds of Robinia pseudoacacia. Small squares are 1mm. Photo by Matt Law. CC BY-SA 4.0

New Year, New Blogging Project

January 7, 2021

I miss blogging. Over the past few years, my blog output has declined to an unsteady trickle of announcements, and even then I haven’t shared some of the things I’m most happy with here. But blogging was attractive to me because it gave me an opportunity to shape ideas and think out loud or explore new technologies and apps before committing to use them for work (or otherwise). One of the things I think about most often is animals and plants in the landscape, and people’s relationships with them. This year then, I am resolving to openly learn more about human interactions with different species in the British landscape and compile my learning into an A-Z compendium, which I’m calling An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species. I’m aiming to post twice per week – we’ll see how this goes.

I should say, I’m taking a liberal definition of ‘British’ species – including some quite recent introductions, but which are features of the modern British landscape. I use ‘British’ here largely as a short hand for the island of Great Britain, although I will be making reference to some other islands in this archipelago (and indeed to the European mainland).

Comments in the form of feedback or more information about the species are especially welcome, even more so if they point me to references.