Spelt… wrongly?

Q: What do you call a spelt grain in an Anglo-Saxon pit?

A: Residual

OK, so it’s not going to win any prizes at the Edinburgh Festival. Indeed, it’s not even a joke – it almost makes a serious point. You see, it’s all about the shadow – the spectre, even – of residuality that hangs over spelt wheat when it ‘crops’ up in Anglo-Saxon deposits, as it does in the sub-assemblage that I’ve been studying from Lyminge.

Spelt is a variety of wheat – Triticum spelta in traditional botanical parlance. It’s well-known as the favoured cereal crop (or at least, the favoured wheat crop) of Roman Britain, as in much of the Roman world. Bread wheat, by contrast, is well-known as the favoured wheat crop of Anglo-Saxon England, and pretty much thereafter. I’ve simplified the scenario somewhat, but you get the gist of it. And the persistently puzzling question is this: when and how did the change between the two wheat varieties occur?

There seems to be an uneasy consensus that spelt wheat probably went out of fashion pretty rapidly after the formal end of Roman governance, early in the 5th century, with bread wheat metaphorically stepping into the breach. (There’s another popular theory, too, concerning the relationship between bread wheat and barley in this period… but I’ll talk about that at a later date.) So, if spelt wheat disappeared with Roman taxation, etc., then any archaeobotanical spelt remains found in an Anglo-Saxon context must just be the residue of old Roman or prehistoric activity, right?

Well, that’s the possibility that every archaeobotanist has to consider when they come across spelt from early medieval deposits. But in some cases, as with the material from Lyminge, the spelt seems to be just as well-preserved as the rest of the cereal remains. It doesn’t look particularly “roughed up”, as if it’s been kicking around for an extra couple of centuries. It seems to belong with the rest, and we’re not just talking about a negligible quantity of grains here. Of all the sites studied for my DPhil project, Lyminge is in the top 10 for numbers of charred spelt items – and that’s just from the few samples that I had time to study; there could be a lot more still to come. (Disclaimer: this doesn’t necessarily mean that spelt was proportionally more abundant than other cereals at Lyminge. In the great scheme of things, it’s actually a very minor occurrence, relative to oats, bread-type wheat, etc.)

So is this really Anglo-Saxon spelt and, if so, why does it matter? Well, let’s go back to that initial dichotomy between spelt and bread wheat. Biologists will tell you that they do, in fact, belong to the same species of wheat (Triticum aestivum). But there’s what you might call a functional difference: spelt is a ‘hulled wheat’ (aka a ‘glume wheat’), whereas bread wheat is a ‘free-threshing wheat’. When the harvested crops are threshed, hulled wheat grains remain encased in their tightly adhering spikelets, whereas the grains of free-threshing wheats fall free from the chaff immediately upon threshing. Here’s a simplified explanatory diagram which, so as not to breach anyone’s copyright, I’ve concocted from my own sketches…

Free-threshing wheatGlume wheatSo, back to the issue at the heart of this post: what is the real significance of spelt among Anglo-Saxon crop remains?

Ah. Well. There you have me. Nobody’s quite sure. It could of course have persisted as a crop – in which case, why is it so rare? It could have persisted merely as a self-seeding, so-called volunteer amongst the cereals (like bread-type wheat) which apparently replaced it – in which case, why do we occasionally find it in relatively large quantities, sometimes with plenty of chaff, suggesting that it’s actually been deliberately processed (not something you’d necessarily do with an unwanted contaminant!). There again, some of the stuff might really be residual Iron Age/Roman material, as so often assumed.

My feeling is that pockets of spelt-cultivation did survive into the Anglo-Saxon period – not everywhere, to be sure, but in certain locations – and that spelt remains might be more common in Anglo-Saxon archaeology than we have yet realized. We might be overlooking it, assigning spelt-rich samples at multi-period sites to the Iron Age or Roman periods largely because that’s where we expect to find them.

Naturally, I still need to think through this issue a lot more. At the very least, we need some more good, solid, radiocarbon dates before we can say anything with confidence.

So now it’s back to the thesis, and some more spelt-y theorizing…



There’s an extensive and sometimes complicated literature pertaining to the history of crop husbandry in Britain in the early medieval period, and indeed the whole first millennium AD. As a good starting point, with lots of key references, I’d recommend:

Moffett, L. (2011). “Food plants on archaeological sites: the nature of the archaeobotanical record”, in H. Hamerow, D. Hinton & S. Crawford (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology (O.U.P.), pp.346-360.

6 Replies on “Spelt… wrongly?

  1. I hadn’t realised spelt was such an English rarity! It’s relatively common on the few sites in Catalonia where this kind of analysis has been done, something like 1:4 with emmer wheat if I recall. Different culture, different climate, many differences, but still. Do we have any idea what the Romans liked about spelt so much, if the grain is that much harder to process?

    1. At the moment I’m wondering whether ‘shelf life’ might be a contributory factor. In spikelet form, spelt and emmer are apparently more resistant (than free-threshing wheat grains) to spoilage, and also less cumbersome than completely unthreshed sheaves – hence, perhaps, better for long-term storage and long-distance transportation such as would befit the Romano-British economy more than the ‘localised’ Early Saxon system…
      Then again, I always was a bit of a functionalist.

      1. Hello,
        I found your post really intriguing. My understaning of Spelt and it’s wheat cousing made a divergence based solely on crop yields. Thought Spelt has a higher protien content, easier digestability and similar ratio of dry to wet ingredient ratios it was abandoned for a higher yielding wheat. I look forward to more of your findings and will follow your fascinating posts. Thank-you for sharing what you are passionate about!

  2. If your samples come from what is effectively a barn within which grain is gathered from several farms that constitute an estate, how about the possibility that the wheat comes from German farmers, the spelt from a Welsh one? Weren’t there early Kentish laws that implied the continued presence of Welshmen in Kent? (Replace German and Welsh by A-S and British, according to the dictates of fashion.)

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