About the project

The 'agricultural revolution' of early modern Britain is well known: farming practices were rationalized, intensified and technologized and, perhaps most infamously, this process saw the rapid enclosure of most of England’s remaining open field systems. Less well known but equally significant is the transformation in arable farming that occurred several centuries earlier, which witnessed the creation of those same open field systems, and fed a sharply rising population – a population which had reached unprecedented levels by the 13th century.

Painting of a plough team at work

This early medieval agrarian revolution entailed nothing less than the cerealisation of England, in a pattern which also affected much of Europe: the expansion of cereal cultivation was the bedrock of demographic and economic growth. How, when and why this transformation occurred are some of the most abiding questions in British agricultural history, but more than a century of landscape-historical study has failed to produce a consensus.

Manuscript illustration of medieval ploughmen

We need a new approach.

Feeding Anglo-Saxon England (FeedSax) addresses these longstanding conundrums by combining bioarchaeological data with evidence from settlement archaeology. Funded by the European Research Council and based at the Universities of Oxford and Leicester, the project will run for four years (2017-2021). The research team, led by Professor Helena Hamerow from the University of Oxford, is applying a suite of science-based techniques such as stable isotope analysis and functional weed ecology to preserved seeds, animal bones and pollen, to generate the first direct evidence for how crops were grown in this transformative period of history.

FeedSax publicity photograph
  1. Archaeobotanical analysis: analysis of crop stable isotopes and arable weed seeds, primarily from ten case study sites, will be used to reconstruct methods of cereal cultivation.

    Photograph of archaeobotanist working at a microscope
  2. Analysis of botanical and settlement data: a dataset including over 4000 archaeobotanical samples from around 300 sites, along with settlement data and plans from published and unpublished excavation reports, will be used to address geographical variation across the whole of England.

    Photograph of a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon hall
  3. Radiocarbon dating: an extensive programme of AMS dating (of seeds and bone) will be combined with Bayesian analysis to give the required precision when tracing the spread of innovations such as the mouldboard plough and crop rotation.

    Photograph of some charred plant remains
  4. Analysis of animal bones: analysis of pathologies in cattle limb bones will elucidate the spread of the mouldboard plough, while analysis of stable isotopes in sheep will establish whether they were grazed mostly on arable.

    Photograph of an animal bone
  5. Pollen analysis: a database of existing pollen records for early medieval England will be compiled and new pollen cores will be taken, to generate the first detailed palaeoecological models of land-use change for this period.

    Photograph of coring being undertaken in a copse Image of pollen grain