In her recent blog, Marion Diamond wrote about the importance of potatoes: http://learnearnandreturn.wordpress.com/
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?