8.2.6 Food Production

The nature of sites investigated for this period are heavily biased toward elite settlements including forts and monasteries, and so we cannot yet form a complete picture of subsistence and food production in the early medieval period. Further discussion on long-term trends in land use during this period can be found in the Landscape and Environment chapter.

With regard to arable agriculture, barley is by far the dominant cereal on most sites analysed. Only at Newbridge, where two corn drying kilns were dated to the 11th to 12th centuries, was oat the dominant grain (Engl and Dunbar 2016). Consumption of wheat and oats increased in the Roman Iron Age, but wheat in particular became rarer thereafter, with the notable exception of Edinburgh Castle (Driscoll and Yeoman 1997, 198). Elsewhere, bread wheat is only a minority where it appears at all but can be seen from a wide array of sites, particularly in the fertile Lothian plain, where it is detected even at lower status settlements like Ratho (Smith 1996, 120).

Cereal was ground into flour using stone rotary querns. They are attested from a wide array of sites, notably from long cist cemeteries in the 5th to 7th centuries (SESARF 8.2.5 Territorial organisation), and thereafter at the kinds of rural settlements discussed above (SESARF 8.2.4 Rural and agrarian settlement).

Black and white photograph of a stone rotary quern in the ground.
Rotary quern found in the sunken-featured building at Ratho Quarry © HES

There is also now evidence for corn drying kilns dated to the early medieval period at Gogar Mains, among the earliest dated from Scotland (Will and James 2017), and two more from Newbridge were dated to the 11th to 12th centuries (Engl and Dunbar 2016). These structures come in a variety of forms, but together they represent an important marker of increased crop-processing capacity, likely for redistribution or feasting activity. Where preservation is good enough, they can reveal more specialised activity such as malting for beer. One high priority will be to align the study of these, and future kiln finds with ongoing work tracking their use across early medieval Britain and Ireland to detect wider patterns in the development of land capacity (eg Comeau and Barrow 2021).

Well-dated faunal assemblages are limited for the region, and again heavily biased toward high-status settlements. Crowdfunded community excavations at Coldingham Priory unearthed a substantial faunal assemblage, with a sample dating 7-9th century (Casswell et al 2019). The most extensive early medieval sequence comes from Castle Park, Dunbar, where the assemblage was 57% cattle, 31% sheep/goat, 9% pig, 2% horse and a negligible amount of deer (Perry 2000, 202, table 8). In addition, the long sequence of occupation showed that this ratio stayed remarkably stable throughout the early to later medieval period, suggesting a stable and sustainable regimen of food renders to this royal site through several changes of management from the Britons to the Northumbrians to the Scots.

At Edinburgh Castle, the assemblage was assessed as 28.2% cattle, 24.3% sheep/goat, 25.2% pig, 4.9% horse and 8.7% deer. A cattle-based economy is therefore attested on both sites, though hunting was of much greater significance here than at Dunbar. The evidence for the consumption of horse at both sites is notable and is worth comparing with faunal assemblages elsewhere to see whether this was more common or restricted to elite or proto-urban settlements.

Seabirds were also routinely consumed at Dunbar, where large colonies such as that at the Bass Rock were nearby. Importantly these include the Great Auk, a species of flightless bird which went extinct in Scotland in the nineteenth century and was attested here in the Iron Age and sub-Roman phases (Perry 2000, 202).

Aerial view of a large rock in the ocean. The coastline is visible in the background.
Aerial view of the Bass Rock with the East Lothian coastline beyond © HES

Marine resources were also exploited at Dunbar, with fish bones present at all phases of occupation, as well as shellfish such as periwinkle (likely for consumption) and limpet (possibly as bait). Molluscs were also exploited at Auldhame, where in addition to food waste, the appearance of dog-whelk suggests use for the preparation of purple dye (Crone and Hindmarch 2016, 123).

However, emerging evidence from stable isotope analysis, revealing minerals absorbed into bone, has shown only limited consumption of marine foods, even at coastal sites. Nine individuals tested from 6th century Cramond also show little to no marine component to their diet (Czére et al 2022). In the Scandinavian-controlled regions of northern and western Scotland, a “fish event horizon” has been detected from the 10th century onward in which stable isotope analysis joins other archaeological evidence for the ramping up of the production and consumption of marine resources (Barrett and Orton 2016). However, the population studied at Auldhame showed a mainly terrestrial diet for everyone tested from both the early to later medieval phases (Lamb et al 2012; Crone and Hindmarch 2016). The same was the case from the limited number of early to late medieval individuals sampled from the Isle of May monastery (Willows 2016, 321). Excavations at Dunbar show the potential to discern the chronology of marine exploitation in future studies. While fish bone was present at all phases of occupation, it is not until Phase 11 (8th to 9th centuries) that fish bones began to appear in any great quantities, and the real “fish event horizon” according to bulk finds of fish bone began in phase 13 shortly thereafter (Smith 2000, 199, table 6).

However, while there are still very few published studies of dietary intake according to stable isotope analysis in the SESARF region to date, there are several ongoing projects that will add to our understanding in the coming years. Changes in diet as seen through multivariable population-level isotope analyses are the subject of the ongoing ArchaeoFINS research project led by Dr Sam Leggett at the University of Edinburgh.