Little is known about early medieval crop husbandry, agricultural practices and plant exploitation within the region as until recently, early medieval settlement remains have been largely unknown, and the main dated site was the fort at Dundurn (Alcock et al 1984). Recently, sites have been identified and investigated, including upland settlements such as Lair, Glen Shee (Strachan et al 2020), Bertha Park (Engl 2020), the enclosure at Upper Gothens, Meikleour (Barclay 2001) and a corn-drying kiln at Kinross High School (Cachart 2008; Hastie 2008). Other sites, such as the Black Spout monumental roundhouse (Strachan 2013) and Shanzie souterrain (Coleman and Hunter 2002), have revealed evidence that suggests these late Iron Age sites were re-used during the early medieval period.
Unfortunately, sampling for macroplant/archaeobotanical remains has not always been systematically carried out at all of these. Where remains have been recovered, however, they have provided tantalising information on early medieval crop processing, agricultural practices and use of wild plants.
- Analysis of large macroplant remains at Dundurn fort (Dickson and Brough 1989) recovered rare organic remains from midden deposits, dating between 550 and 650 AD. The deposits contained fragments of bracken, moss and wood chippings which were likely used as flooring or bedding. Occasional cereal grains of barley (both naked and hulled variety being present) and oat were recorded, along with hazelnuts and raspberry seeds. Of note, was the recovery of a conglomerate of wild cherry stones, which were thought to have come from human coprolite material suggesting that excrement had been present in the midden deposits. Dickson and Brough (1989) suggest that the plant assemblage show that the local environment was less wooded than today, with meadow and riverside environments being exploited for wild nuts and fruits.
- Although only two samples were assessed for macroplant remains from the recent excavations at Lair (Strachan et al 2020), both were found to include small amounts of charred oat and barley grains (Ramsay 2020). The recovery of this small quantity of charred cereal grains together with a fragment of a rotary quern indicates firstly that some crop processing or food preparation was undertaken at the site. It also suggests that there is potential for further macroplant remains to be recovered from this early medieval site.
- The charred plant assemblage from Bertha Park contained a mix of grains of six-row and two-row barley, glume wheat (emmer/spelt) and oat (Robertson 2020). Robertson suggests that the two-row barley may have been specifically grown for use in brewing as it has a high sugar content. Emmer/Spelt wheat are more commonly recovered from prehistoric sites. However, its presence at Bertha Park indicates that the cultivation of glume wheat continued into the early medieval period on a small scale (Robertson 2020).
- The early medieval kiln (dated from 430–620 AD) uncovered at Kinross High School (Cachart 2008) contained a rich assemblage of carbonised cereal grains with both hulled barley and oats present. These were interpreted as being the remnants of a ‘maslin’ or ‘mixed crop’ for bread making (Hastie 2008). High concentration of weed seeds were recovered from the possible collapsed dome of the kiln and it is likely that the seeds originated from turfs used to construct the upper section of the kiln (Hastie 2008). No other known corn-drying kilns have been found that date to this early period and its presence indicates that grain was being grown and processed at the site at this time. A second kiln, dating to the later medieval period, was also uncovered at the site (see later medieval section). Interestingly both kilns were very similar in construction demonstrating that there had been little advancement in grain-drying technology on the site between these periods (Cachart 2008).
Evidence of early medieval settlement is being identified more frequently in Perth and Kinross. Investigations of these sites in the future will provide increasing information on settlement during this period. It will also add to our understanding of transition between the self-sufficient later prehistoric/early medieval periods to the trade and surplus of the later medieval period. The evidence recovered from the investigations at both Bertha Park (Engl 2020) and Kinross High School (Cathcart 2008) indicates that macroplant remains from these sites can provide a wealth of information on crop husbandry, agricultural practices and day-to-day activities from this period. To gain a full understanding of the agricultural economy at the time it is crucial that sampling and analysis for macroplant remains, from these sites, is undertaken routinely as part of environmental investigations. Sampling of well-preserved early medieval deposits and features should be a priority.
Sampling of any charred or waterlogged material from in
–situ early medieval settlement remains/sites , should be a priority, with samples targeting deposits offering potential for the preservation of early medieval archaeobotanical/macroplant remains.