Days of Beer and Iron

Ipswich, in Suffolk in eastern England, is a town brimming with archaeology. Anglo-Saxon evidence is particularly abundant, as Ipswich’s urban origins can be traced back to the 7th/8th century AD, when it was Gipeswic, one of a small number of specialist craft and trading centres (wics or emporia) that arose in Anglo-Saxon England at this time.

The fruitfulness of Ipswich’s archaeology is amply demonstrated by a fantastic new online resource: the Ipswich Urban Archaeological Database (UAD) – plus an extensive excavation archive available from the Archaeology Data Service.

So one might sympathise a little with the frustration recently expressed by a property developer who paid for archaeological investigations on the intended site of new sheltered accommodation in Ipswich, and saw few finds as a result of the work. The developer is quoted by the Ipswich Star as saying:

It’s cost me £400,000 and they’ve found diddly squat.

Property developer John Howard, quoted in the Ipswich Star

Of course, contrary to a widely-held belief, archaeological contractors are not paid to find stuff. They’re paid – by the developer, on the “polluter pays” principle – to investigate, record and protect the historic environment which would otherwise be damaged or destroyed by construction work. The historic environment, like the natural environment, is finite, irreplaceable, and valuable, and the planning process in England requires developers to pay for due mitigation work. Wessex Archaeology gives a good account of this situation.

Understandably, folks want finds, discovery, excitement. Few – if any – people would watch Indiana Jones and the Desk-Based Assessment (“it belongs in a filing cabinet!”). In places like Ipswich, too, folks might well expect finds. But if juicy finds aren’t forthcoming… well, tough. Commercial archaeology would hardly work on a payment-by-results basis. It’s a necessary, and highly professional, part of the planning process.

Happily, though, it’s all the more exciting when this “development-led” archaeology turns up something really fascinating, the sort of things that targeted research excavations rarely if ever uncover. Such is the case with the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon improvement scheme, an enormous infrastructure project in Cambridgeshire, where the accompanying archaeological works are being undertaken by MOLA Headland Infrastructure. Among other things, their archaeological programme has excavated a woolly mammoth, three Neolithic henges, a Roman trading centre, an Anglo-Saxon territorial boundary, and Saxon and medieval villages.

Their most recent press release, however, concerns Britain’s earliest physical evidence for beer-making. Archaeobotanist Lara Gonzalez Carretero has been painstakingly analysing nearly 9000 soil samples excavated for the recovery of tiny environmental remains such as seeds and cereal chaff. Fortunately, Lara is an expert in the charred remains of food and drink production and processing, such that she could identify the remains of bread and beer-production – including barley and oat grains – in what would appear, to the untrained eye, to be fragments of ugly grey foam. Her discovery is remarkable, and is well reported and illustrated on MOLA Headland’s blog. I do like a good scanning electron microscope image.

I’m guessing that the remains could represent the mashing process, in which maltose is extracted from grains, but future research from Lara and the team will be shedding further light on this.

It’s not surprising to learn that beer was being made in Iron Age Cambridgeshire. But this is a rare bit of pioneering new evidence, beginning to fill out the prehistory of British brewing. What we may never know, however, is whether people were using said beer to wash their hair

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