Hazel Nuts: Britain’s first farmed food? Part 2

My interest in hazel nuts began on my first dig, back in 1963 when I was a volunteer excavator on an Iron Age hillfort in Bedfordshire, about half an hour’s drive from my parents’ house. I’d just passed my driving test and was keen to be independent, albeit in my father’s car. The next dig I went on, the following summer was a mere fifteen minutes from home and by now I’d acquired a battered Austin A40 which I drove far too fast. It was always breaking down. But again, the site, an Iron Age settlement beside the Icknield Way that survived, like so many others , into Roman times, produced hazel nut shells in profusion. They intrigued me far more than any other finds, simply because I could still see them growing on bushes around the edges of the woods near our house. In my experience most archaeologists find different links, different pathways, that fire their imagination and lead them directly to the past. Often they’re the main reason they decide to join the profession. For some it’s pottery; for others, flints or even animal bones; but for me it was those little nuts. So I owe a lifetime of great pleasure and satisfaction to them. These three blog posts are my way of saying thank you to the genus Corylus.

There were hazel nuts on my first big professional dig, at the huge gravel quarry at Mucking,  near Thurrock overlooking the Thames estuary in Essex. But nobody seemed to get excited about them; everyone seemed far more interested in tiny grain impressions on pottery. Then I repeatedly found nuts on my own excavations at Fengate, in Peterborough and also at the Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Etton, just north of Peterborough. At Etton the nuts had been placed within small pits that had carefully been filled-in as part of religious offerings. They appeared to have been part of feasts that also involved pork.

In 1976 I read a paper by the great archaeological theorist, David Clarke.1  It was all about Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and the food they ate and in it he speculated that hazel nuts were far more important than anyone had realised. Unfortunately, he couldn’t produce any statistics from Britain – which was a shame. But it was an excellent paper, nonetheless, and it set me thinking. As some might have gathered from my previous post, when my mind starts working it can be a very slow process – and I’m not even slightly ashamed of that. I like things to turn over, as it were, on the back burner. And that was what was happening in this instance.

Nearly twenty years later, we bought two fields in the south Lincolnshire Fens, where in 1994 we built a house and established a small sheep farm, garden, woods and orchard. The woods included about 400 hazel bushes which were inter-planted with oak standards to draw them up and help produce good long, straight rods and poles. These hazels were meant to be coppiced, to provide the garden with pea sticks and bean poles and, more importantly, to give Flag Fen a reliable supply of coppice rods to use in hurdles, fences and wattle-and-daub walls. Sadly the entire project is now being threatened by Muntjac deer – damn them.

While the woodland hazel bushes and oak trees were establishing themselves, Maisie and I decided we’d also like some hazel nuts to eat. So we planted a double row of cobnuts  in what we rather grandly refer to as the Nut Walk. Beneath it, the ground is covered by snowdrops, aconites and squills and, though I say so myself, looks gorgeous in springtime. When we planted the Nut Walk, in the late 1990s money was tight, so we could only afford three or four ‘proper’ (i.e. grafted) cobnut bushes. Cobnuts belong to a different species of the genus Corylus: C. maxima. Anyhow, I planted the rest of the Nut Walk with seedling plants that I found close by the bought-in nuts, hoping they’d be good fruiters. But the chances are that they’re far from ‘pure’ cobnut, as hazel is wind-pollinated and the wood with its hundreds of wild (i.e. avellana) hazels, is just a short distance away. And I was right, because, yes, the seedlings I planted are very productive, but the nuts they produce aren’t anything like as huge as the ‘pure’ cobnuts. But I don’t really care: it’s the taste that counts and they’re delicious.

I planted the final bush of the Walk back (I think) in 1999 and by now I would imagine the blood-line of the hazels was more avellana than maxima – which by luck was actually what I wanted. But do bear in mind that the figures for nut production produced here may be a little (5-10%?) generous. Although, having said that, I can see no earthly reason why Neolithic or even Mesolithic growers would not have selected for size and taste – they weren’t stupid. Which brings me onto another important point (and not a Digression).

I’d selected seedlings I could see growing around my bushes. But nobody thinks Mesolithic people could have done that, because seeing a small plant manifestly growing out of a semi-rotten nut, is something only a farmer could do. To lift and transplant that seedling, the Mesolithic person would be crossing the revered academic line between food-gatherers and food-producers. And that line may only be crossed by fully qualified, authentic Neolithic farmers. Of course this is absolute bollox. By the same token we were told until very recently that Mesolithic people didn’t coppice willow and hazel to produce long, straight rods and poles. I think that belief was a spin-off of the food producer/gatherer business. Well, we now know they did – and right back to early post glacial times. The thing is, they weren’t stupid. They used their eyes and observed what was going on around them. If a tree was struck by lightning or broke in half in a gale, then long, straight shoots grew at the place where the trunk snapped off. It didn’t take an Einstein to realise that if you did the breaking yourself, then the next summer you could help yourself to rods and withies for house roofs, baskets and fish traps.

Even now you can read in the best archaeological books that hazel nuts are commonly found because people coppiced hazel to use around the house and farm. But I’m afraid that’s plain wrong – and far too simple. So let’s start with that final nut bush I planted back in 1999. I started to do an experiment involving hazel nuts after we’d been enjoying their produce for about five years – in any quantity. In those days, too, our woodland was still too remote from other trees and grey squirrels had yet to traverse the vast open stretches of bare, arable land that surrounds our farm. So we had nuts in abundance. Then, in 2008, the squirrels arrived and for the last four years they’ve stolen our entire crop. But I’ve got plans to defeat them, that involve the spraying of a fine sulphur mist that coats the leaves and makes them unpalatable to browsing animals. Wall anyhow, it’s worth a try. Frankly, anything’s worth a try.

By September 2006 when I started the experiment, the last nut bush was now seven years old, and as you can see from the photo, it was about ten feet high. I had never coppiced it, because I was growing it for nuts. Coppicing makes the bush grow fast and straight. It also discourages flowering and nut formation, as the plant thinks its survival is being threatened by fire, or a man with an axe, rather than dryness or some natural hazard – so it puts all its survival efforts into growing. Then when the few flower buds do start to form, in late autumn, they’re all high up in the branches – and very hard to spot, or pick. I also photographed a coppiced hazel of about the same age deep in the wood, for comparison.

Nut bush, non-coppiced

Twink is lying next to the nut bush we planted in 1999. It has never been cut to the ground (coppiced) and the photo was taken on September 21st (the autumn equinox!). In the foreground are two heaps of the nuts we harvested from the bush on the day the picture was taken. The small heap (to the right) are rotten nuts found on the ground. They were discarded and are not part of the subsequent experiment into storage.

Coppiced hazel

A slightly older coppiced hazel bush growing in ash woodland. Note the long, straight growth of the hazel rods. Like all coppiced hazels this produced very few nuts – mostly high on the tallest branches.

Nuts lying on the ground

3. Close-up of nuts lying on the ground. A few have been opened by wood mice. This is nothing to the damage caused by grey squirrels.

Neolithic and Mesolithic people would have cut their coppiced hazel from plants growing in open woodland, where they’d have had enough light to grow healthily, but still had to struggle upwards to get more. Their fruiting bushes would have grown – or been transplanted to the very edges of the wood, or clearing. Here they didn’t need to strain upwards in search of sunlight which was abundant. But the ground would also have been quite well drained by all the larger trees behind them – so again, lush growth was made harder (hazels love wetter ground). The reduced growth favoured flower production, and being on the edges of the trees there would be plenty of air-borne pollen from the many coppiced bushes, in the heart of the wood. So I’m in absolutely no doubt that the coppiced hazels were not the ones that yielded the seemingly abundant supplies of nuts. As I said, it was more complex than that, and I’m in little doubt either that this sort of sophisticated resource management was taking place from earliest Mesolithic times – to judge from the quantities of nuts being produced at sites like Star Carr (8500 BC).2  In my view they must have effectively farmed the nuts, and if that upsets some of my academic colleagues, all I can say is, I’m sorry.

Now the nut bush I decided to conduct the experiment on, was still far from fully grown, but even so, it produced a large quantity of nuts (see photo). We picked them on September 21st, as soon as they began to fall in any numbers. That meant they’d be fully ripened. Rather to my surprise very few of the nuts we picked-up from the ground were rotten – which came as something of a surprise (the rotten nuts are the small heap in the photo). Now, it’s worth bearing in mind that the nuts from this small bush were more than enough to keep two keen nut-eaters content over winter. Of course, we don’t depend on nuts as a staple, but a few dozen well-tended bushes would provide a large family with an abundant supply of winter protein in even the leanest of years. I still can’t understand why this important source of nutrition has been overlooked by so many people, despite the late great David Clarke’s reminder.

In the next post I’ll describe the results of the year-long experiment into how well those nuts stored. I think you’ll find the results quite startling.

1 Clarke, D.L. 1976 ‘Mesolithic Europe: the economic basis.’ In G. de G. Sieveking, I.H. Longworth and K.E. Wilson (eds.), Problems in Economic and Social Archaeology, pp. 449-81 (Duckworth, London).

2  Conneller, C., Milner, N., Taylor, B. and Taylor, M. (2012) ‘Substantial settlement in the European Early Mesolithic: new research at Star Carr’, Antiquity, Vol. 86, pp. 1004-1020

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