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Early Medieval Malting Trench

In 2013 SHARP excavations started at the malting site, which are still ongoing. The site is located in a natural gully in the landscape and through excavation and research we have shown that it is of international significance. It is the best-preserved Middle Anglo-Saxon malting complex. We currently have the only example of a malthouse with all three malting processes within a single building dating to this period. Over the years the excavations have revealed at least five kilns, although we suspect there may be even more malthouses on the site. The current evidence suggests each was in use individually and we suspect there is 150 years of malting represented on the site. Two ditches to either side of the malting complex probably provided some safety from flood and hill wash, but may have also provided a constant supply of water for the site. 

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Discovery

The truth is that we were really looking for something else. In 2011 work was done on the metalworking assemblage from the Anglo-Saxon settlement site which showed that there may have been ironmaking somewhere locally as we found the debris from iron smelting. So, we started to wonder where this might be.

 

The results from a geophysical survey carried out in 2007 was examined and showed several very strong signals to the south-east of the settlement. In 2013 a trench was put over these magnetic signals. When we removed the soil initially we didn’t find anything, but when we went a lot deeper found the source of the signals. We hoped they would be smelting furnaces for producing iron but what we have found was definitely not related to metalworking, but something quite different.

 

However that initial year did confirm that we had something rather spectacular and well preserved. We believe this excellent preservation was because it is located in a dip in the valley, which has filled up quickly after the site was abandoned.

Early Years (2013 - 2017)

The first trenches in 2013 were small and focused on two of the signals. The first feature to be revealed was what we thought at the time was an oven, but we now call it kiln 1. Interpretation of the kiln began with high temperature processes like metalworking and pottery quickly ruled out. The focus then started on agricultural processes, particularly bread making or grain drying given the amount of burnt grain recovered. We also discovered the first edges of the clay surface.

In 2014 the trench was extended to include kiln 2, which was excavated in this year, and the remaining clay surface associated with kiln 1 was uncovered. The most exciting (and confusing) part of the trench was a large semi-circular pit with an in-situ wattle and daub wall inside which was found and connected to the clay surface associated with kiln 1. This pit was clay lined and filled with water every time it rained. More and more burnt grain was recovered from contexts all over the site and there was evidence of burning and daub debris found within a ditch next to kiln 1. 

The trench was extended again in 2015 to reveal more features further up the gully. Excavations continued on kiln 2 and began on some of the other features across the site. In 2016 a new extension was opened to the west and our excavation pace changed. The volunteers focused on exploring some of the less substantial features on the extension, looking for evidence of plough soils and buildings, while others continued to excavate ditches, the clay lined pit, and kilns. The continued confusion over what the site represented slowed the speed of the work on the site while we worked out what we had, but over these years even more burnt grain was recovered.

Malting

After lots of debates and discussions in the early years it was Neil Faulkner, SHARP's founder director, that finally cracked the mystery. Out of season he visited a historical malthouse still in use today, and during discussions with the staff there he developed a hypothesis for the site. This meant that when we returned to the excavation in the summer, we started looking for the three main steps of the mating process and other supporting evidence.

The Malting Process

Malting is the process required to produce malt, which is one of the ingredients required for producing beer.

  • The first step is to wet the grain so that it absorbs water. The grain is placed in a water tank, called a steeping tank (or cistern), and then exposed to the air so that it can absorb oxygen as well. This process is required to kick start the germination process.

  • The next step is germination which occurs on a germination floor where the grain is heaped and raked to keep it at the right temperature. During this stage the grains start to grow little rootlets and shoots and the starch in the grain is released. It is this starch that is required for beer making.  

  • The final step is to dry the germinated grain ‘malt’ to stop the germination process, otherwise the grains would start to turn into a plant and the useful starch would all be used up. The drying temperature needs to be a consistent low heat, too hot and it risks the grain burning which would produce a terrible beer.

 

We have no evidence for the beer making process at Sedgeford. It’s likely that the dry malt was transported and stored in the household, where the beer-making would have taken place. This would be far simpler to transport than beer itself and the malt would have lasted much longer than any beer produced (hops in modern beers help preserve the beer for longer, but these weren't introduced in the later Medieval period).

Evidence from Site (2018 - 2023)

In 2018 the pace on site increased dramatically. As we re-looked at what we now call malthouse 1 we discovered that each stage was represented, confirming the hypothesis that we had a malting house. The semi-circular clay lined feature that contained grain, and caused us so much confusion, could be identified as a possible steeping tank. We had a clay surface large enough to be a germinating floor. Finally we had a kiln feature with lots of burnt grain that could have been used to dry the grain. We then found postholes which suggested that all three steps were within one building.

There has been continuing interpretation of the features within malthouse 1 over the years. We now know that the tank was not originally semi-circular but was more likely rectangular, as we have found traces of in-situ wattle and daub structures. There appears to be two phases in its use as there is a layer of burnt grain between two layers of clay. There may also have been two phases to malthouse 1, as under the white/grey clay of the germinating floor there were traces of a yellow clay and a post-hole suggesting an earlier building. The shape of kiln 1 has been a thing of much debate over the years due to an internal loop of dauby clay. Sections through this showed that there was ash and a small amount of burnt grain under this layer, but not under the main walls of the kiln, suggesting that the internal material was collapse. It has also shown that this kiln was not very well constructed and there was no clear daub base. 

Malthouse 2 is located further to the north with no apparent overlap of malthouse 1. This malthouse consists of a kiln with an associated white clay floor which showed traces of burning. The kiln was well constructed, with firm daub base and walls, and even evidence for repairs. The kiln is significantly deeper than kiln 1 and a step was cut into the subsoil to allow better access to rake the kiln out. We have found no evidence for another steeping tank, and it may be that they re-used the steeping tank associated with malthouse 1, perhaps as suggested by a post-hole cut through malthouse 1's floor.

Even further to the north there appears to be two more kilns so we likely have the remains of malthouse 3 and 4. Kiln 3 has been fully excavated and like kiln 2, was well constructed with a step cut where the raking area was. The kiln itself was a similar depth to kiln 1. There was a white/grey clay further to the north and examination of the sections within the kiln have allowed us to understand how the building collapsed, with most of the daub from the dome being pushed into the kiln (at some force) and the remaining material being pushed further north creating a spread of daub rubble. 

Malthouse 4 was identified in 2021 and in 2023 we removed the first quadrant of daub from inside this kiln which revealed another well-built kiln structure. It was much deeper than kiln 3 but not as deep as kiln 2 and the daub within the kiln were much bigger pieces than in either kiln 2 or 3. To the north of this kiln there was a deposit of daub, clay, and charcoal, with more burnt grain within this. We hypothesise this is the remains of the grain from the drying floor and is similar to a deposit found associated with kiln 3. Very little of the clay floor associated with kiln 4 has been uncovered.

 

The south of the trench still holds the most mysteries. In 2019 we started to look at what was a small area of burnt daub, but excavations quickly exposed a much larger feature of burnt daub and charcoal. The rough shape resembled a kiln but it was larger than the rest and there was no burnt grain from any of the deposits. Finally, in 2022 we found the elusive burnt grain from within the feature confirming it was indeed likely to be a malting kiln. There are several clay floors surrounding this kiln but at this stage we are unsure which is associated with the kiln and it appears we may also have multiple phases of activity (and perhaps more kilns) in this area.

  

The phasing of this part of the site is more complex. Kiln 5 is likely to be one of the very last kilns in use on the site as it is above a layer of hill wash that in turn has sealed another yellow clay floor. We believe this represents a malting house even earlier than malthouse 1 as the wall of the steeping tank was built on top of the yellow clay.

 

In addition to the series of malthouses in the gully, we have evidence for ditches on the eastern and western sides. The eastern ditch has been recut multiple times and at one point the ditch filled with burnt grain and daub. There are a series of stake holes within the ditch suggesting that it may have been timber lined on one side, perhaps to avoid erosion. On the western side there are two ditches; one had evidence to suggest it was recut and there are at least two burn episodes of burnt grain and charcoal within it, with the latest burning overflowing the ditch. The second ditch had been cut through this burning layer, suggesting a different phase of activity. We believe these ditches were dug to protect the site from flooding but it is possible that they may have also provided a source of water for the site.

Finds

This site is not the richest in terms of small finds, we rarely find any copper alloy objects with the exception of a few strap ends and pins. Many of the objects we do find are functional like nails, knives, and hooks. We do find bits of ironwork on the site which can tell us a lot about how the site functioned, such as a large iron hook that was found within the steeping tank. We think this was used to help lift grain in and out of the water.

 

The majority of the finds are bulk finds and comprise of bone, oyster shell, pottery, and oh so much daub. The pottery found at the site is almost exclusively Ipswich Ware which is how we know the site is Middle Anglo-Saxon in date (this was confirmed by radiocarbon dates from the kilns - Kilns 1 and 2 are 734-775AD and Kiln 3 772-819AD). However, as already hinted the largest proportion of material found at the site is daub. This comes down from the site to the finds hut in trays and occasionally by the wheelbarrow full. Within the daub assemblage we get some really nice pieces with finger marks, handprints (we have one from a small child), and with impressions from the wattle frame. While daub may not sound that interesting, it does provide you with one of those few opportunities to place your fingers exactly where someone else over a thousand years ago did, giving you the chance to touch history. The highlight of many a tour is the opportunity for volunteers and the public to form a real connection with a past person who made the kilns through fingermarks on the daub found.

 

The fact that the site is low in small finds and other bulk finds associated with general waste, indicates something about the nature of the activity taking place. It is a workplace and therefore they are not bringing and losing, or disposing of items on the site. There is limited evidence for food production on the site, with the exception of the occasional oyster shell suggesting they may return to the village for lunch, or perhaps at least take away their rubbish when they bring lunch, much like our very own lunchboxes.

In addition to the finds, SHARPs environmental team is kept very busy working through samples from the site. Over the years we have experimented with different methodologies and at the moment we are using grid squares to sample areas of particular interest. This has allowed for scientific research, such as a recent PhD at Oxford, to be undertaken on the material collected. Hannah’s work has shown that there are different degrees of germination of the grain across the site, and even slightly different ratios of the four main grains (rye, wheat, barley and oats). There is an unusually high concentration of rye grains found on the site which may indicate a Scandinavian influence.

SHARP References

Rossin, G. & Twest, M. V.. 2017. ‘Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project Interim Report 2007-2016’, Norfolk Archaeology (6).

 

Wolff, A. C.. 2017. ‘The Sedgeford Ovens: an Anglo-Saxon cereal processing case study’, unpublished MA dissertation, University of Cambridge.

 

Jolleys, J. Richardson, E. & Rossin, G.. 2019. ‘SHARP Interim Report Seasons 2014 to 2018.’ Internal SHARP Publication. [Read here]

Faulkner, N. & Blakelock, E. 2020. ‘The excavation of a Mid Anglo-Saxon malthouse at Sedgeford, Norfolk: An interim report’, in Hammerow, H. (ed) Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 22 (Archaeopress), pg68-95. [Read here]

 

Blakelock, E. 2021. ‘Brewing up history: unearthing evidence for middle Saxon malting at Sedgeford’, Current Archaeology (379). [Read here]

 

Faulkner, N. 2022. ‘An agro-social revolution in a Mid Anglo-Saxon village: making sense of the Sedgeford excavations’, in Hamerow, H. & McKerracher, M. New Perspectives on the Medieval ‘Agricultural Revolution’: Crop, Stock and Furrow (Liverpool University Press), pgs161-178. [Read here]

 

Caroe, H. F. M. 2022. ‘’For a quart of ale is a dish for a king’? Malting, brewing and beer in the Mid Anglo-Saxon period: a case study of Sedgeford’, unpublished PhD, University of Oxford. [Read here]

 

Caroe, H. F. M. 2022. ‘Malting, Brewing and Beer in Anglo-Saxon England. Mid Saxon Sedgeford:

A Case Study’, in Hamerow, H. & McKerracher, M. New Perspectives on the Medieval ‘Agricultural Revolution’: Crop, Stock and Furrow (Liverpool University Press), pgs179-198.

 

Blakelock, E. & Caroe, H. F. M. Forthcoming. ‘An Archaeological and Archaeobotanical investigation into the Anglo-Saxon Malting complex at Sedgeford’, in Hoggett, R. 2020 SHARP Conference Proceedings.

 

Faulkner, N. Forthcoming. ‘The Political Economy of Middle Anglo-Saxon England: a hypothetical model’, in Hoggett, R. 2020 SHARP Conference Proceedings.

SHARP Resources

Videos

Digital Photography of the site over the years

Blogs

Several of our blogs have been written on the site, but these are the links to the latest summaries