Some years ago, I found myself beside a cornfield in southern England full of bristling, ripening, swishing, swaying barley. It was vivid, vibrant, beautiful – from that moment on, cereals have held me spellbound.

Many years before that, I began to develop a fascination with the Anglo-Saxon period – that portion of English history running from the early 5th century AD to the Norman Conquest in 1066 – and above all with its archaeology. That fascination, first articulated through the medium of fancy dress, later yielded a doctoral thesis about the archaeology of Anglo-Saxon farming, which remains a major research interest of mine to this very day.

In this blog, join me on my jolly jaunts through Anglo-Saxon archaeology and my further forays into the wonderful world of wheat, barley, rye, oat and their cereal cousins through the ages, within and beyond the beautiful English countryside.

By corn, do I mean maize?

No. I mean corn in a broader sense, and much the earlier sense in British English. The Oxford Dictionaries website gives the definition “the chief cereal crop of a district”, to which I would add a single letter: “the chief cereal crops of a district”, which may or may not include maize.

Why do I use the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’?

Although it is imperfect (and sometimes controversial), ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is a standard term in UK academia to denote the archaeology, history, culture and language of England between the early 5th century AD and the Norman Conquest. Just ask this department at the University of Cambridge.

Who am I?

My name is Mark. In 2014 I completed a doctorate on the archaeology of Anglo-Saxon farming at Oxford University, then worked in administration and software development before returning in 2017 to Oxford, where I currently research archaeobotany and medieval English agriculture, as part of a project called FeedSax.

Does some of this blog seem eerily familiar?

It may well do. In 2012, I started a blog about agricultural archaeology called Farming Unearthed. The website you’re now looking at is the direct successor to that blog, and followers of that earlier blog will now find that they are following The Corn Lore instead. I have also migrated several posts from the old site to this new one. Anything dating from 2012 to 2018 comes from Farming Unearthed, and may be quite different in tone and content.



10 Replies on “About

  1. So, about these corn dryers then. Having grown up in New Zealand I didn’t get dragged around all those Roman ruins, so the idea of corn driers is fairly new to me and as such I’m about to ask what is possibly a dumb question, but “What about the malt?!” I’m currently researching a small booklet on medieval brewing practices, about which we know far too little, and even less for the Anglo-Saxon period, which is how I came upon these malt driers. I’ve now read a few reports on them, and it’s all about drying the grain before storage or grinding, in places were the weather is rarely co-operative. yet the spread of corn dryers seems to be much much wider than that, without explanation. Why is no-one point out that these things are absolutely prefect, if not essential to malting grain for brewing? Because they are! I’ve done some malting myself, and these are fantastic! I want one! Given how important ale was, culturally, to the anglo-saxons and the medieval English I’m very surprised that people aren’t all over this topic. Is “malt” a dirty word or something? So please, please when you are looking at those grain deposits, check for halted germination of the grains, a sure sign of deliberate malting! You might also want to talk to Merryn and Graham Dineley http://merryn.dineley.com/ about ancient brewing.

  2. Hi Belinda, thanks for visiting Farming Unearthed, and thanks for your insightful comments. You’re right that malting is seldom discussed – indeed, the ovens themselves are seldom discussed. In a recent short paper, I’ve proposed calling them ‘grain ovens’ to allow for functions other than drying (McKerracher 2014), and gratifyingly I’ve since heard the term used in work on Roman Britain. But malting hasn’t been entirely overlooked: interestingly, Peter Reynolds’ experimental replica Roman ‘corn-dryer’ at Butser Ancient Farm proved to be far more effective for malting than for drying grain (Reynolds 1981 pp.36-43). For an Anglo-Saxon example where there are signs of malting (germinated barley grain), see the excavation report for Higham Ferrers (Hardy et al 2007, pp.48-54); it’s also featured in my paper. Hope that’s of interest!

    McKerracher, M. (2014). ‘Landscapes of production in Mid Saxon England: the monumental grain ovens’, Medieval Settlement Research 29, pp.82-85.
    Reynolds, P.J. (1981). ‘New approaches to familiar problems’, in Jones, M. and Dimbleby, G. eds. ‘The Environment of Man’ (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports), pp.19-49.
    Hardy, A., Charles, B.M. and Williams, R.J. (2007). Death and taxes: the archaeology of a Middle Saxon estate centre at Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire (Oxford: Oxford Archaeology).

    1. Thanks William! Yes, this stems from a typo in the publisher’s database – now corrected, but apparently it takes a while to filter through into retail catalogues. Hopefully it will be correct by the time the book comes out…

  3. Hi Mark, I’m working on an assemblage of fired clay from a site in Cambs. There are several unusual flat slabs or crude ’tiles’, 19-27mm thick, which are pierced with widely-spaced and randomly placed small tapering holes (5-8mm diameter max at the ?top, 2mm at the ?bottom). They are reminiscent of post-medieval malting tiles, but with much less piercing. The surfaces are also reduced/vitrified, which is not something you see in the post-med examples. The tiles were dumped in pits which have produced a fair quantity of carbonised cereal grains, the majority of which are unidentified, but with wheat outnumbering barley in the identified component. There are other fragments in the bulk samples, such as egg shells and small bones, and the environmentalist has suggested that it is domestic waste. I’m just wondering if any of the grain driers you’ve looked at have had anything like this associated with them. I can’t find any parallels so far, so any insights you might have would be really helpful!

  4. Some Thoughts on Cerealisation and Other Themes
    William S.Cooter

    I have spent the last couple of months reading through the text of Farming Transformed in Anglo-Saxon England: Agriculture in the Long Eighth Century and also looking up nuggets from items in the references. This book assembles a considerable body of important information dealing with what is clearly an important period of socio-ecological change in Anglo-Saxon England. There were changes at the “grassroots” level, but there were also major formative influences related to “kingdom formation” (as emphasized in the nice treatment in and around p. 121). The selection of the two major study areas draped to the west and to the east around the archaeological sacrifice zone of the greater London conurbation is a quite reasonable test bed that allows the exploration of local level agrarian matters while also walking into themes of critical importance in the evolution of several of the major Anglo-Saxon heptarchic “kingdoms.”

    Ideally, one might hope enough information could be assembled solely from a restricted number of regions in the areas flanking London to verify explanatory historical trajectories for the long eighth century. In practice, the archaeological bits have many limitations and, as usual for the most the planet until modern times, other types of documentation for focused areas are fragmentary at best. To keep oneself honest, comparisons with other regions where there are apparent similarities in the “agrarian” underpinnings or in the societal superstructures are good ways to gain possible reciprocal enlightenment, or at least keep us honest. For the desired long eighth century time frame, comparisons for other regions within the UK are certainly worth pursuing, but comparisons with areas on the continent in northwest Europe could offer many attractions, especially for parts of Carolingian Europe and also for the subsequent “polycentric” Ottonian system summarized well in Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: The Middle Rhine Valley, 400-1000 (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Primarily, these continental regions have written records that can make all the difference in the world in figuring out what was happening in history. In the process, one would wind up with the “long eighth century” tacked on to a good part of the central middle ages. The problem focus would be the same, but to take advantage of important materials, primarily classic documentary materials, for the continent, the long eighth century would need to grow by an additional century or so. I think such a comparative analysis framework would still serve the goals of “Farming Transformed” in this enlarged comparative study domain.

    For the UK portion of such a comparative endeavor, this would also facilitate selective “soundings” to pursue retrospective analyses of what was going on as Roman Britannia fell apart. On the continent, the emergence of the “Franks” in northern Gaul seems to reflect the development of provisioning systems for sizeable bodies of irregular military types headed by bling-laden warlords similar to the more organized systems that had once supported Roman legions in the frontier zones along the Limes Germanicus. Good ideas of how such systems along the Roman Frontiers would have worked are outlined in Adrian Goldworthy’s semi-popular masterpieces How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (Yale University Press, 2010) and Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World (Yale University Press, 2016). The provisioning systems along the frontiers, pushed back into the ordinary provinces and farmed out to war bands led by charismatic (and “long-haired”) leaders, that in northern Gaul transformed themselves into the Franks, are likely prototypes for the manorial systems under clerical control that provide the invaluable ninth century St-Germain-des-Prés Polyptyque materials. In the aftermath of Britannia, the ruins of the Roman provisioning systems for what had been a sizeable legionary presence may have survived as the prototypes for the multiple estate systems studied by scholars such as Glanville Jones (see Britons, Saxons, and Scandinavians: The Historical Geography of Glanville R. J. Jones, ed. by P.S. Barnwell and Brian K. Roberts (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2011).

    An open-ended approach to the idea of a long eighth century temporal focus involving select regions in the UK combined with document-rich areas on the continent would seem a very feasible follow-on path for the bioarchaeological approaches in Farming Transformed. Instead, the heir apparent is clearly a project called FeedSax (Feeding Anglo-Saxon England: The Bioarchaeology of an Agricutural Revolution http://feedsax.arch.ox.ac.uk). While this seems a worthy endeavor, similar in many respects to a previous very productive initiative in Ireland (the Early Medieval Archaeology Project or EMAP), FeedSax seems to be very tightly bound to the concept of cerealisation.

    Since I am nearly 70 years old, I honestly do not remember seeing the term ceralisation/cerealization back in my academic career days some thirty years ago. There in fact seem to be variants in play on what the term entails. Most commonly, at least in English-speaking countries, there are some typical definitions geared to high school/grammar school and undergraduate college texts. Typical renditions are found in world history texts such as Valerie Hansen and Ken Curtis, Voyages in World History, 2nd edition, Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013. Tutorial modules can also be found on the Internet as with this American item with tutorial materials dealing with the topic of “cerealization” at http://modern-history.biz/1133607829histo1_/61804-cerealization.html . Here we learn that cerealization is … “a collective term for many agricultural practices that allowed Europeans between 1000 and 1300 to cultivate most of the land in Europe. The agricultural innovations from 1000 to 1300 can be summed up in a single word: cerealization. Like the term industrialization, the word cerealization indicates a broad transformation that profoundly affected everyone who experienced it. Before cerealization, much of the land in Europe was not cultivated regularly; afterward, much of it was.”

    Implementing cerealization, we are told, involved crop rotations (preferably three-field), lots of wheat, clover, turnips, loads of livestock (with horses steadily replacing oxen), heavy plows with lots of iron, and other things that paved the way for massive population growth, open-field villages, towns, and the dawn of the civilization of the high middle ages. These concepts seem virtually identical with the ideas in such classics as Lynn Townsend White Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford University Press, 1962). FeedSax, then, takes on the task of applying bioarchaeological tools to supplement the work of three or more generations of historians following in the footsteps of Frederic William Maitland and at least two generations of human geographers trying to account for the emergence of England’s open field landscapes quite apparent by Norman times.

    My quibbles with FeedSax are that it would likely pull in things very much beyond the logic of a long eight century. Its focus exclusively on Anglo-Saxon England would also make it hard to fold in comparisons with similar phenomena on the European continent. In addition, while it leverages one common definition of what is meant by cerealisation, it thereby eliminates other, more flexible ideas on what cerealisation can imply. For instance, cerealisation figures very prominently in an interesting collection of essays from the Austrian social historian, Michael Mitterauer, Why Europe? The Medieval Origins of Its Special Path, trans. by Gerald Chapple University of Chicago Press, 2010). This volume includes chapters with the following titles: Rye and Oats: The Agrarian Revolution of the Early Middle Ages; Manor and Hide: The Manorial Roots of European Social Structures; The Conjugal Family and Bilateral Kinship; Social Flexibility through Looser Ties of Descent; The Feudal System and the Estates: A Special Path of Feudalism; and The Crusades and Protocolonialism: The Roots of European Expansionism. Mitterauer focuses primarily on developments in temperate Europe, where the cultivation of crops such as rye and oats go far back in time for Germanic, Slavic, and other groups. Seemingly primitive forms of swidden burn-beating making heavy use of rye survived in parts of what are now Finland, Sweden, and Norway into the nineteen century. Such practices were highighted by J. G. D. Clark in his Prehistoric Europe: The Economic Basis (Metheun, 1952) as possible examples of the practices of the neolithic Danubian Peasants (an idea now disputed by scholars such as Amy Bogaard). Such swiddening techniques involving the heavy use of rye were widespread in North America in the spread of pioneer frontiersmen as documented in Terry G. Jordan and Matti Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier: An Ethnic and Ecological Interpretation (John Hopkins University Press, 1989). In Europe, rye was a useful initial crop in medieval assarting operations, where good yields could be had on land still full of the roots from trees and shrubs cleared with axes and simple hoes.

    Mitterauer feels the Roman legions on their European frontiers were well aware of the good yields possible with little bother in extensive tillage from sowings of rye or oats, which provided a tolerable black bread as well as high quality fodder for horses and other draft animals. Mitterauer amply documents that cerealisation in temperate Europe utilized crops other than wheat. Provisioning systems along the Roman frontiers would likely have inspired the organization of bipartite estates under the Franks in northern Gaul, that then provided exemplars for the foundation of the types of extensive manorial systems documented in the St-Germain-des-Prés Polyptyque materials as described so well in Georges Duby’s The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, trans. Howard B. Clarke (Cornell University Press, 1978).

    Cerealization then modulates with additional dimensions Mitteraurer explores in other chapters. European kinship systems, which unlike family patterns for most of humankind involve curiously truncated nuclear family arrangements, have much to do with the barracks-like regime of early medieval bipartite estates, where an emerging peasantry lived, in the words of Duby, in an infinitely penurious lifestyle while shouldering the support of a conspicuously over-militarized feudal elite (an aspect of western cultures noted in Patricia Crone’s Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World, London: Oneworld Publications, 2003).

    My hope it that the format of FeedSax that Farming Transformed will now feed into can find some way to shed light on the types of more inclusive issues one finds in works by such scholars as Michael Mitteraurer as well as in my own efforts from some 30 years ago.

    William S. Cooter


    Barnwell, P.S. and Roberts, Brian K.,eds. Britons, Saxons, and Scandinavians: The Historical Geography of Glanville R. J. Jones (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2011)

    Clark, John Grahame Douglas. Prehistoric Europe: The Economic Basis (Metheun, 1952).

    Cooter, William S. Retrospective on Preindustrial Frontiers, Agrarian Ecology & Simulation Modeling (Raleigh, NC: Unpublished Copyright, 2016).

    Crone, Patricia. Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (London: Oneworld Publications, 2003).

    Duby, Georges. The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, trans. Howard B. Clarke (Cornell University Press ,1978).

    Goldworthy, Adrian. How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (Yale University Press, 2010).

    Goldworthy, Adrian. Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World (Yale University Press, 2016).

    Hansen, Valerie and Curtis, Ken. Voyages in World History, 2nd edition (Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013).

    Heather, Peter. Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe (London, Pan Macmillan Books, 2009).

    Innes, Matthew. State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: The Middle Rhine Valley, 400-1000 (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

    Jordan, Terry G. and Kaups, Matti. The American Backwoods Frontier: An Ethnic and Ecological Interpretation (John Hopkins University Press, 1989).

    Michael Mitterauer. Why Europe? The Medieval Origins of Its Special Path, trans. by Gerald Chapple (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

    Scott, James. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2010).

    White Jr., Lynn Townsend. Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford University Press, 1962).

    1. Many thanks, William, for your thoughts on “Farming Transformed”, and the wider issues now faced by the FeedSax project. I entirely agree that, whatever the results of FeedSax’s bioarchaeological endeavours, these will ultimately be most informative when interpreted within chronologically and geographically wider contexts. Indeed, in the archaeobotanical strand of the project, we will be undertaking a small comparative study using both prehistoric and medieval plant remains from an area in the Rhineland – which should also prevent our evolving methodology from becoming too rooted in English soil! There is no historian, sensu stricto, in the team, but towards the end of the project we’ll be holding a conference on the wider topic of early medieval European farming, open to historians, archaeologists and historical geographers working on other places and periods.
      Thanks again,

      1. I would reckoned in the envisioned conference on early medieval farming to involve David Rollason at Durham University, whose grounding in parts of the British Isles well to the north of the FeedSax core study areas would be worthwhile.

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