Unusual Food Plants from Oakbank Crannog, Loch Tay, Scottish Highlands: Cloudberry, Opium Poppy and Spelt Wheat

By Miller, Jennifer J.; Dickson, James H. et al. | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Unusual Food Plants from Oakbank Crannog, Loch Tay, Scottish Highlands: Cloudberry, Opium Poppy and Spelt Wheat


Miller, Jennifer J., Dickson, James H., Dixon, T. Nicholas, Antiquity


The crannog at Oakhank

Oakbank crannog is situated near the east end of Loch Tay, Perthshire, Scotland [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], in shallow water off-shore from the village of Fearnan (NGR NN 72284425). Radiocarbon dates from structural timbers show the site was occupied for some 400 years spanning the transition period from the Late Bronze to Early Iron Age (Dixon 1984; Barber & Crone 1993). During this time at least six phases of construction can be identified. Oakbank is one of 18 crannogs in Loch Tay built on shallow alluvial fans deposited by rivers and burns, including the outlet of the River Toy to the east. The sites are adjacent to flat areas on the shore with considerable agricultural potential (Dixon 1982), with artefacts and environmental evidence suggesting they were the homes of peaceful, relatively wealthy farmers. Today the crannogs remain as boulder-capped mounds, five of which are small islands complete with trees and bushes. Thirteen are submerged, of which four just break the surface in summer if the water level is low. Oakbank is permanently submerged and is the only crannog site in the British Isles to have undergone intensive underwater excavation using modern archaeological techniques.

Oakbank crannog is over 1000 cu. m in volume and almost entirely organic under the boulder capping. The preservation of plant remains is excellent in the cold loch water, and substantial parts of the crannog remain clearly stratified and in situ. Some 2000 structural timbers from the free-standing pile structure have been uncovered, including uprights from the platform, house, partition walls and timber gangway. Many floor timbers are preserved complete with remains of discarded household waste and coverings of bracken (Pteridium aquilinum L.) and rushes (Juncus species). Among this material are artefacts including wooden dishes, tools and utensils. Evidence of a hearth comes from substantial deposits of charcoal, burnt bone and ash, but no coherent stone or clay structure has yet been found. The latest remaining reconstruction phase of Oakbank crannog is represented by a number of small alder stake points embedded 20 cm into the top of the organic mound. Two date as 2360[+ or -]60 BP (800-200 BC 2[Sigma], GU-1463) and 2405[+ or -]60 BP (770-380 BC 2[Sigma], GU-1464).The overlying boulders appear to post-date the latest extant occupation phase, although their relationship to underlying deposits is not yet clear. They may have served to consolidate further structures which have not survived. The Oakbank crannog structure is fully described by Dixon (1984; 1994) and Sands (1994).

Sampling

Samples for plant macrofossil analysis were taken either during the underwater excavations, led by TND, or purposely collected by TND and JJM. Eighteen samples of 200-ml volume analysed during this investigation disclosed 166 higher plant taxa in the form of waterlogged seeds and fruits, plant epidermis and wood fragments, but only scant evidence of carbonized material. All these remains were isolated and identified by JJM. Twelve species of mosses useful to man were identified by JHD. This comprehensive study has added over 100 new taxa to the lists from this site by Clapham & Scaife (1988) and Hansson (1988). Part of the total from this project includes 22 species of ecologically important grasses and sedges not usually rigorously identified in archaeological deposits.

Crops: barley (Hordeum vulgate L.), emmer (Triticum dicoccum Schubl.), spelt (T. spelta L.) and flax (Linum usitatissimum L.)

The earliest crop assemblages in the Near East included einkorn (Triticum monococcum) and emmer (T. dicoccum) as principal wheats. Emmer spread from there to become the primary wheat crop of Europe throughout the Neolithic and up to the early Bronze Age (e.g. Greig 1991; Hopf 1991; Wasylikowa et al. 1991; Zohary & Hopf 1993: 44). It was gradually replaced by spelt (and then the free-threshing wheats) in many places, but still lingers today as a relict in parts of Europe and southwest Asia, especially Iran, and India (Zohary & Hopf 1993: 44). …

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