Working in Cambridgeshire, we are used to finding charred crop processing waste in samples from Roman sites, but the scale at which we have found it at our site in Over is unprecedented.
A huge black spread of material appeared as layers in most of the features. The 'black stuff' was comprised of spelt wheat chaff; thousands of glume bases along with a smaller amount of spelt wheat grains and brome/chess seeds. Spelt is a hulled wheat in which the grain is tightly enclosed in a spikelet. In order to release the grain the spikelets were parched and pounded resulting in huge amounts of fine chaff which proved excellent as tinder for fires. The vast spread of this cereal processing waste at Over has to indicate a process in which vast amounts of chaff was being burnt. Several of the spelt grains have germinated and there are even whole spikelets surviving where the grain has sprouted while still enclosed in the outer chaff. In the analysis stage we will count the individual grains and determine what proportion of them are germinated. We will then be able to say whether this is an indication of the spelt being used for the brewing of beer or whether it is simply a case that stored grain has got wet and started sprouting.
Several of the spikelets, instead of containing two grains, only have a single grain. This unusual phenomenon has been noted by other archaeobotanists recently and it has been suggested that this indicates that the crop has been subjected to some kind of environmental stress such as bad weather. It just so happens that Rachel Fosberry at OAE had been growing some spelt in a pot, and was devastated to find that something (probably a rabbit) had eaten the entire crop. Several months later she discovered that the spelt had recovered and it has now produced several ears of grain that are much smaller in size than normal and, although they are not yet ripe, she thinks that the spikelets are going to be single-grain. A convenient example of experimental archaeobotany. She is also experimenting with controlled germination of spelt grain that she procured from Germany (where it is known as 'Dinkle') to measure the lengths of the coleoptiles (sprouts) for comparison.