Weevils, beer, and a happy new year

Happy New Year, all you agricultural archaeology fans! If you’re new to Farming Unearthed, I’d like to extend a warm welcome, and invite you to browse some of my earlier postings. If you’re a more regular visitor, thank you for your continued interest!

2013 will, I hope, prove to be an exciting year for Farming Unearthed. There’s the “Ploughing Ahead” colloquium coming up soon, with registration opening any minute now… And then later on, with any luck, I’ll be completing and submitting my doctoral thesis on Anglo-Saxon agriculture — with some of my more interesting findings (if any) discussed here. Thirdly, I understand that 2013 should witness the long-awaited publication of an authoritative book on Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming by Ros Faith and Debby Banham.

But that’s all in the future. Right now, I’ve been excited to receive the latest edition of Environmental Archaeology – which is perhaps the nearest thing in existence to a “farming unearthed” journal. In reality, of course, it’s the official organ of the Association for Environmental Archaeology, and this latest issue seems to be particularly agricultural in its coverage.

So what’s in store? Well, pig enthusiasts who remember my last post about research on the Dudley Castle swine will be interested by another isotopic investigation of the porky species (and other fauna) – this time focusing on two Late Bronze Age midden sites in South Wales and Wiltshire respectively (Madgwick et al. 2012). Any such addition to the available isotopic dataset is welcome, and there are also some intriguing conclusions: e.g. the wide range of porcine nitrogen values suggests, contrary to expectations, that “varied strategies were employed in order to meet the challenges of raising large numbers of pigs.” More specifically, Madgwick et al. argue that, while most pigs were probably largely herbivorous, others seem to have consumed animal proteins, “either in the form of meat or excreta” (p.136).

Meanwhile, the Dudley Castle beasts themselves are back, and again subjected to both isotopic and tradition zooarchaeological investigations – this time it’s the medieval and post-medieval cattle (Fisher & Thomas 2012). Remarkably, the isotope values here “revealed a broad consistency… over a 500-year span” – despite an increase in the size of the cattle, and a lower age of slaughter, becoming evident in the 14th century (perhaps reflecting some post-Black Death reorganization) (p.162).

Both of these studies – and much else in the volume – will surely repay closer reading in due course. But I’d like to flag up one article in particular: David Smith and Harry Kenward’s study of insect-infested grain in Roman Britain (Smith & Kenward 2012).  Apart from the rather playful title (always a plus), what has this article to do with Farming Unearthed? After all, surely insect-infestation is about the loss, not the production, of agricultural goods?

Well, yes, sometimes weevil-riddled grain was ‘lost’, i.e. burned or buried to prevent the spread of infestation (pp.145-6). But that’s not the whole story: I found it very instructive to read about the uses of infested grain, which could be eaten (hence we find the granary weevil preserved in cess pits); fed to livestock (grain pests identified in “stabling material”); or used in brewing (pests identified amongst spelt-malting remains). The latter was the most surprising to me; it seems that “relatively large numbers of isects are tolerated in malt because they do not appreciably taint the flavour of the beer” (p.148).

More generally, I wonder what we can learn about the history of grain storage from the changing occurrence of grain pests in the archaeological record: their arrival in Britain in the Roman period, their demise in the Early Saxon period, and revival in the Late Saxon period (p.141)?

So, a lot to mull over in this issue. And at the very least, reading about weevil beer – not to mention pigs eating “meat or excreta” – could serve as an antidote to the luxurious dietary excesses of the Christmas season.

Happy 2013,



Fisher, A. & Thomas, R. (2012). “Isotopic and zooarchaeological investigation of later medieval and post-medieval cattle husbandry at Dudley Castle, West Midlands”, Environmental Archaeology 17(2), pp.151-167.

Madgwick, R., Mulville, J. & Stevens, R.E. (2012). “Diversity in foddering strategy and herd management in late Bronze Age Britain: An isotopic investigation of pigs and other fauna from two midden sites”, Environmental Archaeology 17(2), pp.126-140.

Smith, D. & Kenward, H. (2012). “‘Well, Sextus, what can we do with this?’ The disposal and use of insect-infested grain in Roman Britain”, Environmental Archaeology 17(2), pp.141-150.

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