CORDIS - EU research results

Feeding Anglo-Saxon England: The Bioarchaeology of an Agricultural Revolution

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - FeedSax (Feeding Anglo-Saxon England: The Bioarchaeology of an Agricultural Revolution)

Reporting period: 2020-09-01 to 2022-02-28

By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, England’s population was again comparable to that of Roman Britain and included sizeable urban centres. By 1200, England was more densely populated than ever before. Such population growth was also seen in much of Europe. It drove the expansion of towns and markets as well as the rise of lordship, and was fed by an expansion of cereal farming which, in many places, involved on a fundamental reorganization of the countryside and communities. The social, economic and demographic consequences of this reorganization were so far-reaching, it has been described as an ‘agricultural revolution’. At the heart of this project is the question, how and when was this revolution achieved? FeedSax will effect a breakthrough in understanding this critical period in Europe’s agricultural history by generating the first direct evidence for the conditions in which crops were grown, from the remains of plants and animals from archaeological sites.

The timing and causes of this ‘cerealisation’ of Europe have long been debated, with arguments focusing on the origins of open fields. Such fields were communally cultivated, requiring collective decision-making (especially re crop rotation) and pooling costly resources such as mouldboard ploughs and teams of oxen. Communal management of fields meant that peasant households had to live close together, giving rise to the 'nucleated' villages that remain a feature of much of the English landscape. Fields thus created communities. The spread of open fields laid the foundations of the modern countryside in many regions and was one of the transformative changes of the Middle Ages, yet theories about when and how this kind of farming emerged and spread are based on limited evidence. FeedSax breaks new ground by by deploying scientific methods along with the study of archaeological remains of farms to resolve this problem. The fact that the surpluses generated by cereal farming gave rise in England to local landowners (lords) and growing wealth inequalities, and that this 'agricultural revolution' took place against a backdrop of climatic warming (the 'Medieval Climate Anomaly'), gives the project contemporary relevance.

The overall aim is to generate direct evidence for the conditions in which medieval crops were grown by means of the following:
i. Analysis of the molecular composition of preserved (charred) cereal grains. This enables us to establish if crops were grown in rotation; whether fertility was boosted by manuring; and the types of soils in which crops were grown.
ii. The weeds that grew amongst the crops are also being used as indicators of whether crops were being manured; sowing times; etc.
iii. Cattle that pulled the heavy plough associated with the expansion of cultivation onto heavier, more productive soils, were more likely to develop certain pathologies that leave visible traces on their skeletons. Cattle bones are being systematically examined for such pathologies.
iv. Pollen analysis is revealing the extent to which pasture was replaced by arable fields.
The team has analysed medieval crop and weed samples from England and the Rhineland. Animal bones from English sites have also been studied. Pollen data from existing cores has been analysed and new samples and cores obtained. A database of archaeobotanical samples from medieval England is being assembled.
We have attained the following objectives:
1. Established the physiological and charring offsets in stable isotope ratios for oat and rye, key medieval crops. This allowed us to test for the presence of crop rotation and identify a shift from light, dry soils to heavier, more fertile soils at two case study sites. The results are the subject of a paper recently accepted by an international peer-reviewed journal.
2. Undertaken botanical surveys of cereal fields and meadows at England's 'last open field village', Laxton, and the organic farm at High Grove. This helped establish the weed composition of arable and meadow habitats relevant to an open field system, and interpret the medieval weed data. We can now trace the way cereal farming became less intensive over time, involving less labour and manure per unit of land.
3. Objectives 1 & 2 have enabled us to to generate the first direct evidence for key elements of open field farming – extensification, crop rotation and use of the mouldboard plough:
a. Extensification: Stable isotope and weed analyses for sites in the Rhineland --heartland of the Carolingian 'agricultural revolution' -- enabled us to identify an overall trend towards increasingly low-input farming from prehistory to the Middle Ages, with a slight reversion to more intensive methods following the collapse of the Western Empire. We identified systematic crop rotation at one early medieval settlement and its absence at another. A study of weeds from English sites, together with crop stable isotope evidence, has demonstrated that low-input farming was already established in the 8th-9th centuries.
b. Crop rotation: stable isotope and weed analysis has established that some farmers practiced autumn and spring sowing in the 8th & 9th centuries. The town of Stafford produced evidence for systematic rotation by the 10th century, potentially indicating communal management of arable.
c. Use of the mouldboard plough: Analysis of animal bones indicates an increase in pathologies associated with use of the heavy plough beginning in the 8th/9th centuries.
4. Analysis of pollen data has established that the landscape around several case study sites remained not only open from the late Roman through the early medieval period, but predominantly arable.
Key results that have moved our understanding beyond the current state of the art' are:
1. Evidence for use of the heavy plough increased in the Middle Saxon period, i.e. 8th-9th centuries, reaching a peak during the 10th & 11th centuries.
2. The landscapes in the immediate vicinity of several case study sites remained largely arable/meadow in the post-Roman centuries; some reversion to pasture had been anticipated.
3. The first direct evidence for crop rotation, as well as for autumn/spring sowing
4. Establishment of the stable isotope ratios for oat and rye, important northern European crops.
5. The project has situated the 'extensification' of medieval farming within a much longer chronological span, i.e. from the Neolithic onwards. This study centred on the Rhineland, heartland of the medieval agricultural revolution.

By the end of the project, we will have:
1. A national database of archaeobotanical remains from medieval England. This will allow us to investigate geographical and chronological patterns in crop preferences
2. Stable isotope and weed analysis of 8 English case study sites. This will allow conclusions to be drawn about regional variability in medieval farming and the timing of the spread of open fields. Did change come suddenly (i.e. a 'revolution') or did the spread of the mouldboard plough, low-input farming, and crop rotation occur gradually (i.e. evolution)?
3. To complete our survey of the animal bone data and to analyse dietary isotopes in sheep collagen, to identify animals reared in an open field system, from those that were not.

These results will be published in a series of papers as well as a monograph. The proceedings from an international conference, held at the start of Yr 4, will also be published.
FeedSax logo, colour