Preliminary Musings: Hazel Nuts: Britain’s first farmed food?

Prehistory and archaeology are subjects where traditions die hard and where orthodoxies can rule the roost for generations. It must be great to prick balloons, but having said that, I don’t think I’m a great believer in acting the iconoclast: in smashing revered images like my spiritual antecedents in Oliver Cromwell’s East Anglia. I don’t think I’d have been in the church, scraping the painted faces of saints on those wonderful rood screens in Norfolk, but I might just have been fetching cups of tea for the chaps with the knives. I think it’s because I like to under-mine, then step back and watch the edifice topple – if it’s going to. Although in my experience it often stands there stubbornly; doesn’t even wobble – and when that happens it’s best to creep off quietly, and wait until the fuss dies down.

I suspect that many academic orthodoxies – sacred cows, call them what you will – come into existence when people with little practical experience of the world are confronted by aspects of the past that they regard as complex and difficult, but which are no such thing, as they’d soon realise if they spent any time out in the wider world beyond the library and laboratory. For example, I can remember reading as a student, that trees could have been felled in the past by ‘ring-barking’ – i.e. by removing the bark in a ring right around the trunk. In theory this stops the sap rising and prevents the upper parts of the tree from receiving water and nutrients from the soil. So, in theory, the tree then dies. On paper, it works, but I can’t say I was ever that convinced. But I suppose it sort of made sense, until a few years later, when I found some sheep that had broken into a young orchard and had completely ring-barked several trees. I think it’s the sweet taste of the sap beneath the bark that they were after.

I can remember walking through the orchard over subsequent weeks and yes, I concede, a few branches did die, many leaves shrivelled and fell off Anyhow, before summer had ended all those trees had recovered – and the bark grew back. With older forest trees, the main trunk might die (and I deliberately emphasise the word ‘might’), but soon the living stump would send up a mass of sturdy shoots and before too long you’d have a perfectly coppiced ‘stool’, which would be something far harder to fell and remove than a simple standing tree, or standard, to give it its technical name. You still read in text-books that Europe’s forests were felled in such ways and I’m now quite certain that much of the literature on the clearance of Britain’s forest cover (such as it was), is plain wrong. And Maisie (who is far more knowledgeable on the subject than me) is currently writing a paper on that very subject.

And there are all sorts of other myths, like the setting of hedges. One of these days I plan to write an article on how hedges can come out of birds’ bottoms. Indeed, I mentioned this topic in some of my first blogs of 2012, but never got round to writing about it. Maybe that’s one for 2013. Right now, it’s nuts that are worrying me. And again, I plan to write a ‘proper’ paper on them one day, but to date haven’t found the time, or indeed, the inclination to go through all the hassle of getting a manuscript all tarted-up: ready for an academic journal and peer review. So I’ll do it far less formally, right here.

The thing is, I’ve other irons in the fire. I’m currently heavily involved writing a book for Penguin. So it’s out of bed at 5.30 every morning and downstairs to my laptop, but this time I’ll avoid putting tea-cosies on my head before returning to our bedroom. The new book was commissioned over two years ago, after the publication of The Making of the British Landscape and the very favourable reception that labour-of-love received. My then editor at Allen Lane (the publishing house behind the Penguin imprint) wanted something on the development of domestic, or family, life and it happened to be a subject that appealed to me. And for various reasons we were quite hard up (self-employment is like that!) and the advance money would be very welcome. So I said yes. Yes, please, even. Then Time Team asked me to be archaeological director on six episodes (which involves quite a lot of preliminary development work), and before I knew it I’d missed the deadline of May 2012. Now there was a time (when I was a callow youth) when I would try to bullshit publishers, but no longer. No, in my experience, it pays to be completely honest with them: cards on table.

Last December I persuaded my nice Editor to give me lunch in London and over plates of Italian food I came clean and explained that writing wasn’t going too well and that I’d probably fail to meet the May deadline. I blamed filming for television, but in my heart-of-hearts I knew there was more to it than that. So I suppose I wasn’t entirely, that’s to say one-hundred per cent, honest. But not far off it. And all of what I did say was completely true.

Anyhow, I’ve written it many times in print, but I’m no good at assembling text-books. I can’t survey the available literature, analyse the various trends, then come to a balanced consensus about what’s happening. I’m a lousy critic. I think it’s because I’m too partisan: I always take sides and follow causes. So although I’m hopeless when it comes to distilling a ‘balanced consensus’, I do think I’m quite good when it comes to telling stories, and following plots or arguments. And that was what was lacking with my new book for Penguin: there was no polemic; no argument – no plot. It was all description and (dare I say it?) lifeless description, at that. The words on the pages sat there, like fat diners in a greasy spoon. They didn’t leap off the paper with a life of their own – which is something I look for in a book. Like with good mustard or horseradish sauce, there should be a hint of fire, even of danger, on the page. But sadly it wasn’t there. So I put it all to one side, as lambing was rapidly approaching and I knew I’d soon have plenty to occupy my time. But that doesn’t mean I let my mind turn off. That simply didn’t happen: somewhere in my sub-conscious a part of me was going over, and over, and over again, what I’d been trying to say – because by now I was fairly convinced there was more than just description behind what I’d just written. There was an idea there, but it lay hidden behind prolonged paragraphs of wordy description.

I made another attempt to return to the manuscript after lambing, in the early summer, when I had a few weeks off from filming. But again, the words weren’t flowing, like they normally do. So I decided that some serious thought was needed. Somehow I had to define, to release, that idea from the back of my mind.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find it’s hopeless to confront oneself directly. It never works. You can’t give yourself a good talking-to and come up with a new guiding principle for life. These things only happen when the time’s ripe for them. More to the point, I find they can be encouraged when one knows one’s sub-conscious is already on the job. Then it’s usually best to deliberately turn away and think about something else entirely. A Zen trick, I’m told. Which is what I did. Every morning I’d get up bright and early, and work on a fictional story I’d actually begun about a year previously, which (surprise, surprise) was all about an archaeologist who was trying to release something from the back of his mind. I did it purely and simply as a mental exercise and as a bit of fun, but it worked in two ways. First, it helped me realise what it was that I wanted my Penguin book to be about; and second, it took me the best part of another year to discover that the story had the makings of a book, too. But more about that shortly.

So what is the Penguin book about? I don’t want to give too much away at this stage, but essentially it’s about the way ordinary people have changed Britain (and indeed other countries). It is painted with a very broad chronological brush and most of the action takes place in prehistory, starting with the earliest re-settlement of Britain in the early Mesolithic period, at, or shortly after, 9000 BC. Incidentally, the rapid rise in post-glacial temperatures took place around 9600 BC. I address many issues and themes, but one of the things that has always fascinated me has been the extent to which Mesolithic hunter-gatherers managed (in effect ‘farmed’) their available resources. We now have accumulating evidence that they controlled the environment where their prey gathered, to make hunting more straightforward, but I also wondered to what extent they manipulated the plants that were major sources of gathered, and stored, food. And of these, one of the most important has to be the common hazel nut, the seeds of the native woodland shrub Corylus avellana. It must have been a major source of protein. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to open a report of an excavation at a Mesolithic, Neolithic or Bronze Age settlement site, without finding reference to quantities of burnt hazel nut shells. So they must have been important, but why were they burning them? As a student I’d been assured that this was part of the process of getting them ready for storage. So far as I’ve been able to make out, this was yet another example of a widely accepted ‘factoid’.  But why burn them? As a boy I’d walked through the woods near our Hertfordshire home and had picked pocketfuls of hazel nuts, which I’d store in a shoe box in my secret den in a long-abandoned farm building. And they kept fine. Stayed fresh for weeks and weeks – and without any burning or heat treatment at all. So what was going on?

I pored over the literature, but could find very little of practical use, so decided there was nothing for it, but to do a small experiment myself. So that’s what I’ll be discussing in my next post – only this time I promise to get to the point rather quicker, and once there, I’ll stick to it. Meanwhile, blame Christmas. And so to my New Year’s Resolution: Make Digressions a Dream in Twenty Thirteen… Not exactly Wordsworth, but it’s the thought that counts.

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