Arable agriculture, cultivation and crop processing

During the Iron Age, emmer and spelt wheat were important crops, the latter becoming more prevalent during the Romano-British period (Greig 1984; Jones 1996; van der Veen 1992). Bread wheat and club wheat also became more significant during the Roman period. Barley was important in northern Britain, and oats and rye were also harvested, though it is unclear if these were deliberately cultivated. Flax, peas, beans, brome, vetch and fat hen were either cultivated or tolerated, and the latter two may have provided leafy greens and animal fodder. Other plants and trees were used for food, fodder, medicines, and to provide fibres.

Some earlier authors claimed that after the Roman conquest of northern Britain the limited local indigenous cultivation was abandoned, and grain was imported from the south (e.g. Branigan 1984: 30; Seaward 1976: 22-23). Such assertions are now untenable in view of the evidence for arable production identified from across northern Britain (Haselgrove 1984; Huntley and Stallibrass 1995; Topping, Halliday and Welfare 1989; van der Veen 1992). Taphonomic factors are also important. In the past cereal remains were used to try and identify ‘producer’ or ‘consumer’ sites (e.g. Jones 1996), but this is a potentially flawed approach. Significant charred grain-rich deposits on excavated sites might represent large-scale production and/or consumption episodes such as feasting, rather than the relative contribution of cereals to everyday diets (van der Veen and Jones 2006, 2007). It is also feasible that some apparent dumps of plant remains were deliberate placed deposits.

Although evidence for arable cultivation in South Yorkshire during the Iron Age and Romano-British period is hampered by poor preservation, it was clearly taking place. Much of the evidence up to 2008 was outlined by Chadwick (2008: chapter 4, appendix A). Pollen and insect studies (see above) demonstrates cultivation by the later Bronze Age, expanding in significance during the Iron Age (Smith 2002; Smith and Howard 2004). The evidence of saddle and rotary beehive querns and four-post possible granary structures for the physical processing of cereals and other plants has been outlined above. Spelt, emmer and hulled barley were recovered from Sutton Common in the 1980s and 1990s investigations (Boardman and Charles 1997: 248-9). Fat hen and brome were also present. The 2001-2003 excavations of postpipes and postholes associated with the four-post structures contained charred grain, whole spikelets and detached spikelet forks of barley, spelt and emmer, originally from a cleaned crop (Hall and Kenward 2007: 126; Van de Noort 2007b: 133). Some pit and ditch fills also contained charred spelt, emmer and barley grains and spikelets (Hall and Kenward 2007: 129-30). There was some cereal pollen in soil samples (Geary 2007: 64), but although there was a transition from a partially wooded to an open landscape during the occupation of the site, there was little direct evidence for cultivation in the immediate vicinity of Sutton Common. No cereal remains at all were identified from Croft Road, Finningley Quarry (Alldritt 2006a).

At Balby Carr, grains and spikelets of hulled wheat, emmer or spelt, barley and a small fragment of possible oat have been recovered, though the latter could be a wild species (Alldritt 2006b; Hall et al. 2005; Wyles and Challinor 2016). Pollen analysis detected a small but consistent record of cereal cultivation, though in the wider area rather than the immediate vicinity of the settlement (Greig 2007: 35). Large quantities of barley and emmer or spelt on the Firstpoint site represented the dehusking of hulled grain stored as semi-cleaned grain or in spikelet form (Wyles and Challinor 2016: 15), and a late Iron Age radiocarbon date of 197–44 BC was obtained from hazelnut shells associated with a dump of charred grain. This is further clear evidence for arable agriculture nearby, with cereals being brought to the Balby Carr settlement and processed, stored and consumed (Daniel 2016: 21).

At Topham Farm, Sykehouse, probable six-row hulled barley grains were associated with the Structure 7 roundhouse, and no weeds or chaff were recovered. There was a single oat grain from the enigmatic Structure 5 (Richardson 2003: 26). At Redhouse Farm, Adwick-le-Street, an Iron Age and Romano-British enclosure (Enclosure E1) only produced two unidentified charred cereal grains, but six-row hulled barley, spelt, oat/rye and other indeterminate cereal grains were recovered from trackway ditches and Romano-British enclosures (Deighton 2002: 28). Fat hen was also noted, and a small pulse (Leguminosae). Weeds included species of arable or disturbed ground. Some of the deposits seemed to be cleaned grain, but others contained chaff and were the by-products of processing. At Billingley Drive, Thurnscoe, over 90% of the charred grain recovered was wheat, mostly unidentifiable but with some spelt and emmer, although a small number of rounded grains were from free-threshing bread wheat. There was also some six-row hulled barley (6%), and traces of oats and rye (Giorgi 2004: 64, 68). It was not clear if the oats were cultivated, or wild. Chaff was present in many samples, but especially those from a Romano-British phase oven or corn drier. There were also charred seeds of vetch or pea, and hazelnut shells. Wild species included weeds of disturbed ground with cleavers, an autumn germinating weed, indicating autumn sowing, probably of spelt. Other potential edible species were sorrel, brome and docks.

At High Street, Shafton, most of the cereal grains were derived from deposits within two excavated Romano-British ovens. Most of the cereal was probably emmer, with some spelt and six-row hulled barley. There were significant amounts of chaff, with glume bases from wheat and rachis internodes from barley (Young 2001). There were also many weeds of cultivated and/or disturbed land, in addition to brome, and legumes that might have been pea, Celtic bean or vetch. Fat hen was nearly as frequent as grain. The relatively large amounts of chaff and weed seeds suggested the enclosure could be a so-called ‘producer’ site, although no querns were excavated; and both emmer and spelt could have been imported and stored when only partly processed. Some pits and four-post structures were excavated on the site (Burgess 2001a). Excavations at Roebuck Hill, Jump, Barnsley recorded small quantities of emmer and spelt wheat, barley, oats and rye grains; and weeds of disturbed or cultivated ground (Schmidl, Jacques and Gardner 2007: 57-58). At Scawthorpe, excavation of a double-ditched trackway and an associated enclosure produced some barley grains and emmer chaff, brome, and a seed of pea or vetch (Akeret et al. 2004: 32-3). This lack of evidence from these sites might reflect a genuine absence of crop-processing practices at them in the past; or could be merely due to the acidic soil conditions.

More recent results include sites excavated as part of the FARRRS and i-Port developments near Doncaster. Five waterholes produced particularly useful palaeo-environmental evidence. Analyses of charred remains from early Romano-British features identified hulled wheat, emmer or spelt, and some barley; with some free-threshing wheat as grains but particularly as chaff (Daniel 2017: 33-4; Daniel, Harrison and Powell 2014b: 18-19). Weed seeds indicate grassland, field margins and arable environments, and include seeds of oat/brome, brassica, and vetch/wild pea, though the latter could also have been utilised for food. Waterlogged remains from the waterholes included some further cereal grains but also wild fruits such as apple and hazelnuts, and evidence for grazed grassland.

Research questions

  • What was the impact of climate change upon farming practices, especially in upland areas?
  • Can we chart more closely the processes of woodland clearance and agricultural intensification, their impact upon alluviation and colluviation, and variations between different areas? Did the scale, character and types of crops/stocks change (not necessarily in association with the conquest)?
  • Can any geoarchaeological or palaeo-environmental evidence be found that Iron Age and Romano-British communities spread midden material or manure onto land, or were animals grazed on stubble after harvests and over winters?
  • Is there any evidence for other forms of soil management practices such as marling or liming? Were there any identifiable changes during the Romano-British period?
  • Was there intensification or extensification of arable production during the later Iron Age and early Roman period?

Priorities and implementation

  • Possible locations where ard marks, plough marks or other physical traces of cultivation could be excavated in detail and sampled using micromorphology, pollen analysis and other techniques. These might include locales where colluvium, alluvium and/or peat might have formed above buried soils; or old ground surfaces underneath Roman roads or linear earthworks.
  • Geochemical analyses for phosphates and soil micromorphology might identify evidence for deliberate manuring, middening or other forms of soil improvement (q.v. Guttman 2005), but only after extensive sampling of enclosures, pens or infields and outfield areas. Modern agricultural chemicals might obviously have affected some of this evidence in lowland areas;
  • Future micromorphology analyses of pits on limestone areas may be able to investigate whether some pits were dug for practices such as liming.