Curse of the Black Spelt

It was a cold, darkling evening in winter, and the Institute of Archaeology lay safely at anchor in Oxford harbour, sheltered in the lee of the Ashmolean. As the clock struck 7 bells, a visiting Captain – I mean, lecturer – took his stand upon the quarterdeck and delivered an engaging Powerpoint presentation. The subject: buried treasure, at the village of Lyminge in Kent… buried treasure of an Anglo-Saxon variety.

After the lecture, before the attendees departed for a swig of grog and some archaeological banter, a young midshipman – I mean, doctoral student – piped up about how interested he was in the agricultural aspects of the lecture. Not least the famous plough coulter – and not least the charred plant remains which, intriguingly, contained spelt.

A few e-mails and research proposals later, I found myself in the privileged position of having 10 environmental samples from the Middle Saxon monastic site of Lyminge, just waiting for me to shove them under a microscope and starting analysing, courtesy of Dr Gabor Thomas and his team at the University of Reading, to whom I’m very grateful for the opportunity. Before I start expounding on charred plant remains, I should say that the (ongoing) Lyminge Archaeological Project is one to watch – perhaps the most exciting Anglo-Saxon excavation project of the decade. And it also has an impeccable online presence, including a blog, a popular website, and an academic profile with downloadable reports. With a monastery, a coulter, and now a great hall of Beowulfian proportions… You can’t help feeling that the Lyminge crew will hit the headlines again before too long.

One small part of this epic tale is provided by the charred plant remains, recovered through the flotation and sieving of soil samples. Commendably, the Lyminge team take samples from virtually everywhere, and preservation conditions are good, so there’s (potentially) a huge botanical dataset here. My concern, however, was with the 10 samples which, according to a prior assessment by English Heritage’s environmental expert (Campbell 2012), were the richest source of charred plant remains from the Middle Saxon monastic phase at Lyminge.

What I didn’t know at the outset, of course, was just how rich these samples would prove to be – just how many tiny black grains I’d be confronted with. Little did I know, when I first sat down in the basement of the Institute of Archaeology with a microscope before me, that I’d be counting over 10,000 of the little blighters.  That I would see burnt cereals in my dreams.

So it was that I came under the curse of the black spelt.

At times I thought I might go mad – but then I remembered that I was already an archaeologist.

Eventually, though, slowly but surely, a picture began to emerge…

~ to be continued ~


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