Sunday, 15 January 2017

#Spelt Ancient and Modern in #Scotland

What did the local tribes of north east Scotland eat that General Gnaeus Julius Agricola might have wanted?

My studies of Roman Scotland continue and for my current novel I’m interested in anything that might shed light on the natural resources which General Agricola might have wanted to acquire from northern Britannia to add to the massive stocks of the Roman Empire.

Every day, I pop in a Google search for some particular thing which leads on to other interesting snippets. Occasionally that happens when I read a newspaper article, though that doesn’t happen so often. Yesterday, was one of those moments when I’d covered the main news section of my local newspaper The Press and Journal and I flicked to the next, the farming section, which yesterday was substantial. Normally, I admit to not reading that section but the word spelt jumped out at me.
Wikimedia Commons

Spelt? The only time I’ve seen that word used has been in an archaeological setting. I know it as the name of a cereal crop that was grown by Late Iron Age/Celtic farmers of 2000 years ago.

The Press and Journal article is about that ancient grain!

Quote from the article written by Erika Hay - “An ancient grain grown in Scotland up to 9,000 years ago has made a reappearance on an Aberdeenshire farm.”

The spelt crop was grown by a farmer, John Sorrie, near Inverurie which is only about 5 miles from where I live. If I had known that he was growing that in 2016, I’d have been knocking on his door and asking to take some photographs. John Sorrie’s field of spelt was the only spelt grown in Scotland in 2016, him having sourced the seed from outwith the UK.

So, why did he choose to grow this crop? Spelt is a genetic precursor to wheat but it has some 16% protein and is high in water-soluble gluten, which makes it easier to digest that modern wheats. It grows well in harsher situations and is very drought resistant. The seed is protected by a hard outer husk which makes it naturally resistant to insect damage, so sprays were kept to a minimum.

The fact that the seed has a very hard shell is possibly why the type of wheat went out of favour with farmers because threshing is more difficult and more time consuming. Mr. Sorrie built a special machine to gently rub the seed against a mesh to knock off the husk. He particularly chose the only commercial water-powered mill at Golspie, Sutherland, for the milling process to grind his spelt into wholemeal flour. This method of milling between granite wheels powered by water does not pulverise the grains so more of the nutritional factor remains at the end of the process. Since the yield is high and there is virtually no waste Mr. Sorrie has enough ground spelt to last for a couple of years selling to a niche market in local outlets like his farm shop called ‘The Greengrocer’ in Inverurie.

Come autumn of 2017, he plans to use his own stored grain to sow a new crop for harvesting in 2018.

Wikimedia Commons
I believe that General Gnaeus Julius Agricola (the farmer) would have been very interested in every scrap of grain that could have been extracted from Aberdeenshire during his short occupation of the area back in approximately AD 84. Who he would have used to farm the spelt is an interesting question, though, since Tacitus (if he is to be believed) claims that after the battle he named as Mon Graupius the surviving tribesmen had fled to the mountains of the Caledons.

Tacitus wrote that Agricola was in the north east of Britannia 'late in the campaign season' . That sounds maybe too late to harvest the crop of that year, but would Agricola have used his own troops to till the fields, and sow new spelt seed? Would the troops have lingered long enough to scythe down the crop when it harvested the following summer? After which the husks would have needed to be separated by hand and the resulting seed ground between quern stones, probably made of granite as have been found in the area?

Or would any native tribesmen (later named as Taexali by Ptolemy around AD 130-150) have been encouraged to return to their farms under some sort of treaty arranged with Agricola and Rome?

I think we will never know those answers since we DO know that Agricola was recalled to Rome either in late AD 84 or, probably more likely, early AD 85. His troops were most likely withdrawn around the same time, or fairly soon after.

My quest is still to discover all other resources from north east Britannia which would have been lucrative enough for the Roman Empire to acquire.

I've used photos from Wikimedia Commons for the Spelt since I can't use those in The Press and Journal but if I go to the farm shop in Inverurie, tomorrow, I can find out if  Triticum Spelta is the correct type of seed.,_Spelt_(1).jpg


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