Agricultural surplus and how to store it, or the seventh-century bloke (and woman) and their shed

In her recent blog, Marion Diamond wrote about the importance of potatoes:

In it, she makes a very important point about storing surplus food. Under European conditions, potatoes don’t store very well. They sprout if kept cool and dry and rot if kept cool and wet. In the Andes where they were first grown, potatoes were freeze-dried by simply exposing them to the sub-zero and very dry air of the Andean Altiplano. In that form, they store pretty much as well as wheat or rice.

I am reminded of an astonishing photo from about, I think, the 1960s, of a farm family somewhere in Ecuador, up on the Altiplano. They had two rooms. They lived in one, but the other was full to the rafters with ‘stuff’, including food.

In seventh-century Britain, grains of various kinds were the main food staple – oats, barley and wheat – and they all store well if kept dry and away from vermin. But there’s the rub. How easy was this to achieve?

Earlier in the year, I spent some time in Laos and was impressed by the village rice-storage systems. They build rooms on stilts for the rice and attach inverted metal cups to the stilts to keep the vermin out.

So what was the system in seventh-century Britain? The famous ‘grubenhauser’ or ‘sunken-floored buildings’ have been suggested as possible grain storage sites. Evidence of all manner of uses, including as weaving sheds, has been found when excavating these structures. Multiple examples of such buildings, all of them shed-sized, have been found on most early Anglo-Saxon sites and they have given rise to considerable debate about what they actually were. Given the British fondness for sheds, which will be confirmed by looking around any modern farm or village, and many towns, too, I don’t actually see the problem. They were for doing stuff in and storing stuff in, clearly!

But surely under normal conditions anywhere in the British Isles, the sunken floor would have been subject to damp, even if rats and mice were kept out in some way, and would therefore not have been a lot of use for putting grain in. Unless, of course, the sunken floor was precisely to allow for a ground level timber floor that was dry. Archaeologists have thought of this, too, obviously, and generally rejected the idea (except in a very few instances – I think). But that still leaves the vermin problem.

In later years, grain was stored in barns with raised timber floors. This gets rid of the damp problem, but not the vermin problem. Cats seem to have been the main answer to that one, but is there any evidence that cats were used to protect grain stores in the seventh century?

Despite poring through large volumes of archaeological reports I have so far failed to come across any sensible answers to this basic problem of farming life. How and where did seventh-century inhabitants of Britain store food?

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14 Responses to Agricultural surplus and how to store it, or the seventh-century bloke (and woman) and their shed

  1. I’ve always thought–with no particular evidence, just one of those ‘common sense’ assumptions that often turn out to be utterly wrong–that the Roman army (who lived on grain) would have brought cats to Britain (if they weren’t here already). And given how many Roman ways survived, I don’t see why cats as mousers didn’t, too. After all, they feed themselves…

  2. Also, I meant to add: don’t potatoes keep pretty well in the ground? (Another assumption that I expect is about to bite the dust…)

  3. Sally says:

    Hi Nicola
    I think you might well be right on both counts, but I just have not encountered much on cats and Anglo-Saxons. As to potatoes, yes, they keep quite well in the ground, but for months, not years. You can’t store them like that against crop failure. I am also trying to recall whether they kept OK in what we used to call ‘clamps’, sort of earth storage places where we put root vegetables with layers of earth and straw, but again, that only worked for months, not years.
    Meanwhile, what news on your book? When can we buy it!

    • Hild should be available in the US (from Farrar, Straus and Giroux) next autumn. No word yet on other English-language territories. When I know I’ll post the news on my blog. The waiting drives me crazy…

  4. Sally, this isn’t 7C Anglo-Saxon England, but I remember visiting a historical village in Ireland which was supposed to be fairly authentic. One of the buildings was a sort of granary where the freshly harvested grain (wheat? Barley? Oats?) was dried out over a slow fire for quite a while. Presumably this prevented fungus – and maybe would prevent germination as well.

    • Coming to this many months late via Heavenfield, the same question about germination cropped up in something I read along time ago about Pictish souterrains, underground stone-lined crescent-shaped chambers favoured by those north of the Forth-Clyde line for storing surplus in the third and fourth centuries. (So, proto-Pictish, really.) The question arose because the chambers usually seem to have gone on for longer than their lining, so some parts of them were bare earth. The piece I read (which may have been either of G. W. Barclay, “Newmill and the Souterrains of Southern Pictland” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 110 (Edinburgh 1980), pp. 200-207, or S. Piggott, “The Archaeological Background” in The Problem of the Picts, ed. F. T. Wainwright (Edinburgh 1955), pp. 54-65) suggested that, yes, you would get germination around the edges, but since there was no light and little water to be going on with, that would be about as far as it would get, a mess of white roots into the walls of the souterrain and everything inside of that nicely protected by that same root network soaking up what moisture there was. So, you’d expect to lose a small layer of the crop to keep the rest dry. I don’t see why this shouldn’t work for Grubenhäuser too as long as they didn’t actually flood. Perhaps worth a thought?

      • Sally says:

        Interesting thought Jonathan. Thank you. The clamps (basically shallow pits where layers of earth covered the food), that we used for storage when I was a child were only for root vegetables, not grain, but some basic principle seems to be a recurring theme here. Might be a good case for experimental archaeology!

  5. Sally says:

    Thanks Marion. There are all sorts of references to drying grain, but I am not sure that anybody knows how it was really done in practice. The Irish example sounds like a good possibility.

  6. Morgana Krinsley says:

    The common idea is that cats made it to the British Isles by the 7th century C. E. However, there is incontrovertable evidence at Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall that the Roman’s brought them: roof tiles with cat paw prints in them. When the tiles were laid out to dry, dogs, chickens, and cats walked across them leaving their prints. I would assume they brought them for vermin control, since that was their primary funtion in the past, outside of Egypt. For some reason, cat historians don’t seem to know about the tiles.

  7. Sally says:

    Great stuff Morgana! Thank you.

  8. Chris says:

    Couldn’t be used for potatoes. Those are a New World crop and thus wouldn’t have been available in the Anglo-Saxon period. Cats are fairly well-documented as having come to Britain via Roman ships.

  9. Sally says:

    Thanks Chris. yes, the discussion about potatoes was in response to the original blog from Marion that prompted this post (I did my MPhil on the Andean area in the sixteenth century). Potatoes (and tomatoes and sweet corn and chillies and chocolate) were all amongst the bounty that made its way back across the Atlantic following the Spanish conquest and have transformed world cuisine.

  10. Lisa says:

    Interesting article! I share your frustration in trying to figure out exactly those buildings were used for, and how their food was stored. The best we can do is just to choose one of the theories that scholars have postulated and go with it, I think.

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