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The Anglo-Saxon Agricultural Revolution in Norfolk Conference - 14 November 2020

An on-line conference was held by SHARP on 14th November to mark the first 25 years of the project. If you missed the live event, you can watch the video of all the lectures here

The conference explored the rapid evolution of change during the ‘long 8th century’. Recent discoveries at Sedgeford were set into the wider context of Norfolk, East Anglia, Anglo-Saxon society in general and the North Sea as a highway for trade and cultural exchange.

Around 250 attendees had signed up to hear our 9 speakers and the day was rounded off with a plenary session to consider what had been learnt from the day.

Ellie Blakelock opened proceedings, describing the complex in Trench 23, where of at least four malthouses have been uncovered. Malthouse-1 is now almost completely excavated and all the features of a traditional malthouse have been identified: - a clay-lined steeping pit for wetting the grain to start germination, a suspension hook for sacks holding the grain, a germination floor, a kiln with a raised drying floor above. The post-holes supporting this upper floor have been discovered and excavated.

Following on, Hannah Caroe looked into the malting process, fermentation and the making of ale and beer. Detached sprouts of grain were found in the enviro samples and confirmed the processing of grain for malting. Apart from wheat in Malthouse-1, rye was predominant elsewhere. Rye beer remains popular in Europe and is now being produced by a well-known brewer from Southwold. Hannah also looked at other seeds extracted during enviro analysis: black bindweed (also known as ‘wild hops’) may have been used for adding flavour and corncockle (although often regarded as toxic) could have added strength and head to the brew. Malt was used in the domestic home in the production of weaker beer for everyday consumption, whilst stronger brews were produced for the Church and the elite in specialist brewhouses (possibly on monastic sites). The incidental finding of the seeds of stinking mayweed was strong evidence that the mouldboard plough was in use and that heavier soils were being cultivated.

Neil Faulkner began by discussing Ipswich ware, which was made solely in Ipswich and used to transport goods produced in or traded through the emporium. It was re-used on receipt either for domestic purposes, or for onward movement of products from the recipient site. Neil pointed to the importance of Sedgeford in this process, demonstrated by the high number of Ipswich sherds found on the settlement site. He produced evidence of a Romano-British canal which had been brought back into use in the middle Anglo-Saxon period, grid planning of the settlement and over a much wider area of the landscape - divisions, some of which survive to the present day as field boundaries. The process of render and collection of agricultural surplus, for the use of the elite, the Church and the warrior class was the driving force behind the economy but there was also a process of redistribution to the ordinary people for feasting. Organisation and authority were essential for the system to function and it promoted the loyalty that bound Anglo-Saxon society together. Neil mentioned the appearance of a coinage, in the form of silver sceattas, but noted that these had too high a value to be of any use in day-to-day transactions. How do you get change for a chicken, when the only money available was equivalent to a £20 note today?

Rik Hoggett and Gareth Davies, old friends from the early years of SHARP looked at how archaeology had changed over the 25 years of SHARP’s existence and considered evidence from a number of sites in Norfolk. Rik emphasised that IT had made possible digital mapping and made archive reports, including some of the grey (commercial) literature much easier to access. Norfolk had encouraged responsible metal detecting and this had led on to the introduction of a national Portable Antiquities Scheme. The Winfarthing pendant was one of a number of local, detected finds. Sites discussed included: - Bawsey close to Kings Lynn; Staunch Meadow, Brandon with its timber church and gold bible plaque inscribed with the image of St John the Evangelist; Great Ryburgh and its Christian cemetery; the Burnhams, with evidence for a waterfront; Wormegay, with suggestions of rectilinear planning; West Walton, on the 5m contour line close by the coast and the Fen edge, with salterns and briquettage for salt extraction from sea water.

Tim Pestell, drawing on years of experience as an archaeologist and curator of Norwich Castle Museum, noted the importance of water communications to East Anglia, along rivers, the coast and across the North Sea, making the point that the sea was a highway, not a barrier. The ability of simple log-boats to navigate inland waterways, where one individual could propel a boat and carry up to 150Kg of cargo demonstrated the fact that water transport was much easier than carrying goods overland. Early connections were shown through the finds of 6th century brachteates (gold pendants), originating in Scandinavia and found at a number of Norfolk coastal and riverine sites, notably Binham. Coinage was also discussed; clusters of sceattas being associated with trading centres. Although of too high a value to be used as a domestic monetary system, they must have been used both as a store of wealth and as bullion by which large-scale trade was facilitated.

Matty Holmes and Debby Banham considered animal husbandry and the role of cereals and beer respectively.

Matty noted that cattle, sheep and a smaller number of pigs were reared by the Anglo-Saxons and that after 600AD an increasing age at culling showed that production for meat was declining and that animal by-products were becoming more important. For cattle - the production of leather, horn, bone, dairy products and the use for traction. For sheep wool (as shown by a higher proportion of wethers in the flocks) and milk. Both Matty and Debby quoted the work of Sam Leggett, whose stable-isotope studies have demonstrated that the Anglo-Saxon diet was largely derived from plant matter and that meat was most probably held over for feasting. Matty noted the interdependency of farms, moving surplus to estate centres and thence onward to trading wics - sites where products derived from bone, horn, hides etc were manufactured. In return, the elite provided support against external aggression and redistributed these products back to the community once more.

Debby used personal experience to show the physical effort required to operate a rotary quern as well as its low productive output. Increasing agricultural surpluses would have exceeded the capacity even of those slaves whose duty it was to operate the querns and that the watermill (as excavated during the 1970s at Tamworth) was the technological solution. The popularity of bread wheat and white bread was driven through the Church and itself brought about another technological revolution, the mouldboard plough. This heavier plough required oxen, working long furrows in open fields, to haul it but increased arable production in comparison to what could be achieved ploughing with an ard. Beer was both a drink for the everyday and for feasting. Indeed, most surviving literature and the Bayeux Tapestry put the emphasis on alcohol consumption at feasts rather than food. Beer, it was apparent was one of the major commodities which held society together.

Our concluding speaker was Professor John Blair, who re-emphasised the point made earlier by Tim Pestell that water transport, in particular the North Sea was of major importance. To underline the point, John divided Britain into three zones - a North Sea zone, a Thames and English Channel zone and an Irish Sea and Atlantic zone. Trade across the North Sea was important, from Scandinavia and the Baltic and in particular Frisian and, after 734, Frankish trade between Dorestad and Ipswich. During the 8th century Mercia was the political powerhouse, East Anglia the breadbasket and generally under the hegemon of its more powerful Mercian neighbour, King Offa always being ready to apply brute force to enforce his will.

Many sites, including that in Sedgeford show evidence of grid-planning using the short perch (15 feet) and also planning over a wider landscape. Charters from the Anglo-Saxon period are not found from a large part of eastern England, especially Norfolk and Lincolnshire. John felt that the simple answer of destruction by Danish raiders was incorrect and argued that Charters were unnecessary since, as many individuals were free, they were able to transact land and dispense property according to legal process - Charters therefore, were not essential. Norfolk had many free (and literate individuals), fewer serfs, but a high number of slaves - probably a custom reflecting its close connections across the sea.

In conclusion, with tongue in cheek, John emphasised that the independent spirit and different nature of eastern England lives on into the 21st century, pointing out the high level of support for Brexit across the region.

The thanks of SHARP go to all our speakers and attendees, to Neil Faulkner, Ellie Blakelock and Gary Rossin for putting the programme together. To David Wood and Gary for making sure that the IT worked and that there was a back-up in case of power interruption and to Brian Fraser for fielding the Q & A.

Particular thanks also go to Jeffrey Bonas and the West Norfolk History Society for sponsoring the day and for their longstanding and generous support which has enabled us to commission scientific analyses that have been an essential part of our research.

A recording of the conference will be posted on You Tube and Rik Hoggett is going to produce a book of the proceedings.

We have a 6-week excavation season planned for summer 2021 and we look forward to seeing you on-site as a volunteer, on one of our courses, or as a visitor.

John Jolleys. November 2020.


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