Expert Guide: Archaeobotanical Evidence for Diet in the Saxon Period

What did people eat in Anglo-Saxon times? Operation Nightingale soldiers got the chance to find out yesterday.  Ruth Pelling, Senior Archaeobotanist for English Heritage visited the site and discussed archaeobotanical evidence for diet in the Saxon period. Excitingly, Ruth has also very kindly provided an introduction to this topic for our blog readers:

 

The lack of detailed historical evidence for diet in the early and mid-Saxon period is such that we must rely on archaeological evidence for dietary reconstruction. 

Plant remains on archaeological sites are generally preserved by charring (being burnt), in waterlogged deposits and as calcium phosphate mineralised remains, particularly characteristic of cess pits or sewage deposits and some middens (domestic waste deposits). The relatively robust cereal grain, associated processing by products (tough chaff parts and weed seeds), pulses and occasionally fruit stones and nut shell, tend to characterise charred deposits.

Mineralised remains can provide direct evidence for diet (digested seeds and seed testa including contaminating weed seeds and medicinal species) while waterlogged deposits can preserve evidence for the fleshy, leafy parts of plants which would not normally survive included discarded food waste and vegetation growing within or around the sampled feature. 

 

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Evidence for the diet in the early Saxon period remains scarce, although charred remains consistently include bread wheat, barley, with some oats and rye, occasional pulses and wild fruit and nuts.

By the mid- to Late Saxon period the rise in urban environments such as Hamwic (Southampton), London, York and Winchester and associated build up of urban waste has resulted in a comprehensive list of plant remains used in daily life. Field or broad beans, peas and cereal bran, consistently present in cess pits, were evidently prominent in the diet. A range of fruits (plum, sloe, apple, blackberry, raspberry, wild strawberry) and nuts (particularly hazelnut), and occasionally spices and flavourings such as mustard seeds, linseed or cultivated poppy, are recognised on both rural and urban sites.

The population of major mid- and late Saxon settlements such as Hamwic and London enjoyed a much more diverse diet including grape, fig, cumin, fennel, coriander, dill, watercress, lovage, cress, medlar fruit, mulberry and possibly lentils, quince and gooseberries as well as medicinal species including cannabis.

 

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