A cast of thousands

In the last thrilling instalment, I introduced my tangential involvement with the Lyminge Archaeological Project, and described how I spent a substantial slice of life examining large quantities of charred plant remains. So, what did I find?

Well, the most striking thing about my assemblage is Sample 24 which, not to put too fine a point on it, is enormous. More professionally, I might say that it is both extraordinarily abundant, and unusually dense, for a Middle Saxon archaeobotanical sample – i.e. there are lots of charred items per litre of soil sieved.

This becomes particularly clear if we plot a graph of Middle Saxon charred samples by density (number of standardized items per litre soil), highlighting those from Lyminge. As you’ll see, only two samples in this dataset are more dense than Sample 24 (those two, incidentally, do not represent my own work, but will be studied more closely in my thesis – read it and find out!). We’ll encounter one of these two samples (one from Yarnton in Oxfordshire) again in a few moments.

msax-density-lymingeSo, what – if anything – does this tell us? Well, as a general rule, it’s been argued that relatively dense deposits probably represent material that was deposited quickly, maybe abruptly; it’s unlikely to represent a gradual accumulation of stuff, which would produce a sparser sample (e.g. van der Veen 2007, p.987, Table 6). But I’m not saying that this sample is homogeneous. On the contary, there are significant differences in the contents of its six constituent sub-samples, suggesting perhaps that several different bodies of material were deposited here at about the same time: something like a dump of assorted rubbish.

So, then: what kind of “rubbish”? Well, firstly, there’s a relatively high proportion of culm nodes and internodes – straw, in plain English.
And that’s where the very dense sample from Yarnton (mentioned above) comes back onto the stage: for straw is unusually well-represented in that sample, too. The Yarnton material was analysed by Chris Stevens, who suggests that this sample may represent the burning of sheaves (Stevens in Hey 2004, p.361). This is a more interesting suggestion than it might sound. It suggests, perhaps, that the people of Yarnton were storing cereals as sheaves: still with the straw, straight from the harvest, not even threshed.

Now, in a seminal paper on grain storage, Sigaut describes how grain stored in sheaves is relatively well-protected against deterioration, albeit at the cost of taking up more space than ‘cleaned’ grain (Sigaut 1988, 6). Sheaves themselves are typically stored either in barns, or in open-air ricks (or bykes, stacks, etc. – terminology and forms have subtle variations) – see Sigaut’s invaluable table on p.17.

The Yarnton sample comes from a pit, within a small fenced enclosure just to the south of a building with (hints of) a line of central internal posts. The Lyminge sample comes from a pit adjacent to a building with a clear line of central internal posts, identified by the excavator as an aisled barn – with a supposed threshing floor nearby.

If you’ll allow me to be a bit fanciful, then, might I suggest that both samples represent sheaves from their nearby barns? If the Lyminge sample really does represent burnt sheaves, then that might help to explain the lack of homogeneity between sub-samples: grain, chaff, straw and associated weeds might well cluster in different parts of the deposit, depending upon how the sheaves were bound up.

Just some thoughts, anyway. And there’s more to come…



Sigaut, F. (1988). “A Method for Identifying Grain Storage Techniques and its Application for European Agricultural History”, Tools & Tillage, 6(1), pp.3-32.

Stevens, C. (2004). “Yarnton. Charred plants remains,” in G. Hey, Yarnton: Saxon and Medieval Landscape and Settlement (Oxford Archaeology), pp.351-364.

van der Veen, M. (2007). “Formation processes of desiccated and carbonized plant remains – the identification of routine practice”, Journal of Archaeological Science 34, pp.968-990.

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