Evidence of Roman beer production in Bedfordshire

Earlier this year, CA reported excavations at a 2.3ha site called “Field 44” near Tempsford, central Bedfordshire, where archaeologists from the Museum of London Archeology (MOLA) and the Archaeological Unit of Cambridge have found the remains of two Iron Age rotundas and a Roman farmhouse (CA 385). These excavations, carried out on behalf of the National Highways as part of the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet improvement project, also uncovered a structure identified as a 3rd or 4th century malt kiln or maize dryer. Now, post-excavation analysis has yielded further traces of Roman beer production at the site.

PHOTO: © MOLA.

Field 44’s marshy soil and oxygen-poor soil have helped preserve a range of ancient organic materials. Samples collected during the excavations, including the remains of ancient plants, invertebrates and pollen, were analyzed offsite by archaeobotanists, who identified the organic matter found inside the kiln as grains of charred spelled (above). These grains seem to have been able to germinate before being dried, suggesting that the occupants of the site were involved in the production of beer – the grains are only left to germinate in large quantities if the objective is to produce malt, the first step in the brewing process.

However, Field 44 provided little evidence of the type of infrastructure that would have been needed for brewing. Nevertheless, as Dr Steve Sherlock, head of archeology for the road project, told CA in issue 385, the site appears to have functioned as a “central hub” and “distribution point” in a complex agricultural landscape. Indeed, as the project’s scientific advisor, Dr Rachel Ballantyne, explained: “It is possible that only malt was produced here, which was then transported to be brewed elsewhere. This raises interesting questions about how the people living on this farm might have interacted with nearby communities as part of a larger trade network.

The site’s anaerobic conditions have also preserved a variety of 2,000-year-old wooden artifacts, including an Iron Age stepladder and an acacia board, made of braided twigs and flexible branches.

For more information, see the A428 Archaeological Portal (www.mola.org.uk/A428), the Highways to the Past podcast (https://highwaystothepast.buzzsprout.com), Twitter (@A428Cat) and Facebook ( @A428BlackCat ).

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