Thursday, 26 June 2014

traditional floor malting & neolithic grain barns

The first malting floor that I saw was about 200 years old and made of local clay. It was at the Corrigal Farm Museum on Orkney, a late 19th Century farm with stables, two fine stone built barns, one for the animals and the other for processing and storing the grain. It has a threshing and malting floor, good dry storage and a grain dryer. We had visited Orkney in the summer of 1996 to see Skara Brae, the stone circles and other neolithic sites. The visit to the farm museum was a significant day in our understanding of traditional grain processing techniques - threshing, winnowing and making the malt. The curator at the time was Harry Flett, a man with plenty of experience of farming, malting and brewing. He talked to us about the traditional way that grain, usually bere barley, was turned into malt and how the grain barn worked. It gave us an insight into how the "first farmers" of the Neolithic would have processed the grain they grew - it is not just about grinding the grain into flour for bread or making some kind of gruel or porridge. Grain can also be malted.
Product Image
Corrigall Farm, Orkney - the grain barn, with drying kiln
Malt is the main ingredient for ale and beer. It is the source of sugars for fermentation. The brewer takes the malt, crushes it lightly, mixes it with hot water in the mash tun to make a sweet liquid, the wort. After the wort is boiled with herbs or hops, it can be fermented by the addition of some barm, the yeasty froth from the previous brew.

Harry Flett said he would make some bere malt in the barn for us, so that we could brew a traditional Orkney beer. He was as good as his word. Some time later, back in Manchester, we received an 18 kg sack of malt from him, in the post. This was the last batch of malt to be made in the Corrigall barn.

Graham used it to make an ale, adding a few ounces of dried meadowsweet flowers instead of hops. There was three times more draff or spent grain than you get from modern barley, but only half the potential sugars. This is because bere is an older strain of barley, much skinnier than the barley that is grown today.

threshing & winnowing
The earth and clay floor of the grain barn is ideal for threshing. A stone floor would break the flail and damage the grain. Working the flails requires skill, team work and care. The barn has two opposing doorways, so that you can winnow indoors in bad weather. Winnowing separates the grain from the chaff. The principle is simple. You throw the grain up into the air on a windy day. The grain falls to the ground. The fine chaff blows away.

Today, the whole job of threshing and winnowing is done by combine harvester, so a grain barn is not needed any more.

All a grain barn needs: opposite doorways for winnowing, a clay floor for threshing and malting, a malt shovel and a grain drying kiln. It is not possible to dry grain or malt on the floor of the barn.
The grain and malt bruiser is on the right of the kiln entrance.

making the malt
Harry told us that, traditionally, a sack of bere barley was left in a shallow stream for a few days. There is a convenient stream just behind the Corrigall Farm. Steeping is a specific process, as the grain awakens from dormancy it needs oxygen as well as fresh water. A shallow, fast flowing, tumbling brook is perfect.

The clay floor is used for malting. When the grain has been steeped for 3 or 4 days, it is then heaped onto the floor, where it can drain a little. It is then gradually spread out, as it warms up, into a layer a few inches deep as germination progresses. Making the malt requires skill, knowledge, time and patience. There are a few historical accounts of how the malt was traditionally made. John Firth, in his book Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish (1920), writes that every farmer was his own maltster. The bere would lay on the floor for several days, by which time it had begun to germinate, or "show twa taes". This refers to the rootlet and shoot. Next the grain was rubbed or trampled to remove them and to prevent further growth. It was then piled into a 'sweet heap', covered with sacks and straw insulation and left for a few days. This seems to be a particularly Orcadian tradition of making the malt, and the effect is that the heap heats up and the enzymes in the green malt begin to digest the starches. This makes a very characteristic aroma, and a sweet liquor begins to ooze from the heap. What green malt is not used immediately is dried gently in the kiln so that it can be stored for future use.

Traditional malting, then, involves mimicking the natural conditions in which grains grow. This is done by laying the steeped grain on a smooth, well maintained floor surface in a dark, well ventilated building, such as a barn, until the process of germination is visible. Then it is called 'malt' and it is dried, slowly and gently, in a grain drying kiln.

The kiln fire is not situated directly beneath the malt, rather it is set to one side. There is a flue which takes the warm air to the bowl shaped base of the kiln, and which will hopefully lose any sparks on the way. The bowl has a ledge, and a lattice of sticks is spread over this ledge and a central shaft, called a kiln lace. Straw is spread over this, and the damp green malt spread over that. It takes a long time for the malt to dry, and the fire must be tended with care. Towards the end, when the malt is dry the underlying wood and straw is very dry, and prone to ignition. If this occurs the kiln lace is withdrawn and the assembly falls to the bottom of the bowl, and hopefully extinguishes.

Many malt barns have been known to burn down.

left to right: the fire hole, the drying kiln, a mash paddle and malt shovel and the malt, grain or oats mill, used to bruise or lightly crush the malt.
The grain drying kiln at Corrigall is the best preserved on Orkney, but there are lots of other traditional grain barns that are still standing. The Scapa Flow Landscape Project has recorded some of them, and you can read more details of how to dry the malt, the oats and the grain here. 

Scientists have only recently begun to understand the biochemistry of malting. Maltsters have known the techniques for thousands of years. Once known as the 'ubiquitous craft', there were maltsters in every town and village, large households and farms. Most farmers knew how to make their own malt. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the improved transport and communications, malting became more centralised and larger. For example, Thomas Fawcett & Sons Ltd of Chesterfield is built on the banks of the canal, and the later railway passes close by. Eventually small scale malting ceased except in the more remote rural communities like Orkney.

Below, a photo of the Kirbuster Farm Museum, with buildings ranging from early Medieval to Victorian. The grain barn has lost its' roof, but the grain drying kiln is mostly intact. The nearby clear, bubbling stream is not seen on this photograph.
Kirbuster Farm grain drying kiln see here

We can summarise the necessary features that a Grain Barn requires:-

... it must be close to a reliable source of fresh, running water
... a dark, well ventilated building
... a smooth, regularly repaired, well maintained floor made of beaten earth or clay 
... a way of drying the malt by gentle heating
... dry storage facilities
... people who have necessary skill and knowledge - a maltster

neolithic grain barns, malting floors and kiln fires
The "first farmers" of the British Isles began to grow and process grain about 6000 years ago. They lived in circular houses, such as the ones that have just been built at the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre. They also built structures that archaeologists call 'rectangular timber buildings'. These vary in size, from the huge hall at Balbridie, Fife, Scotland, to much smaller structures, such as the one dated to the early neolithic which was recently discovered at the Braes of Ha'Breck, on the island of Wyre, Orkney.

These two buildings were clearly involved in grain processing and storage. Thousands of carbonised grains of wheat and barley were found at both sites. Balbridie was completely destroyed by fire and Wyre was partly damaged. The timber building at Wyre appears to have been re floored, re built and used again after the fire. Current archaeological theory suggests that these buildings were deliberately burned down, perhaps as a kind of special memorial event for the community. It has even been interpreted as a 'ritual event', one that would have been spectacular and visible for miles around.

Most of the early neolithic rectangular timber buildings in Ireland were destroyed by fire. Between fifty and sixty rectangular timber structures have been identified so far in Ireland. Carbonised grain, spikelets, glumes and other indications of grain processing activity have been found in many of these excavations.

I suggest that it is far more likely that these buildings were destroyed or damaged by an accidental kiln fire, caused by the drying of the grain or the malt when it went very badly wrong. Fires at Maltings have been a common event throughout the years, even in the 20th century. The photo below was taken in the 1990s and shows the kiln fire at the Maltings in Newark.

kiln fire, Newark Maltings, 1990s, photograph thanks to Ivor Murrell, retired maltster.
There are so many rectangular timber buildings of Neolithic date that have burned down that it is not practical to name them all. In future posts, I shall be looking in more detail at the excavations of some of the more interesting ones. Sadly, as a rule, floor surfaces rarely remain in good condition in the archaeological record.

Lough Gur, Building A
There is one notable exception. At Lough Gur, a neolithic and bronze age site in Ireland, a timber building, rectangular in shape with a well preserved beaten earth floor was excavated in the late 1940s. The Lough Gur excavations were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Volume LIV, Section C, Number 2, 1951. I had to get special permission to access this volume from the stacks at John Rylands University Library, in the final months before the submission date for my Master's Thesis. It was well worth it. This building is a very good candidate for a grain barn, with facilities for winnowing, a threshing area, a malting floor and evidence of a hearth, or grain drying area. The image below is from one of my, as yet, unpublished papers.

Recent excavations at Kingsmead Quarry, Horton, Berkshire, England, have revealed the archaeological evidence of four Neolithic buildings as well as a rich female beaker burial, dated to the Bronze Age, which I discussed in an earlier post. Two of the buildings were rectangular and carbonised grain was found at one of them. This shows that grain was either being stored or processed there in the early neolithic, around 6000 years ago. There is an unusual feature that seems to be associated with this particular "neolithic house".

a neolithic building was excavated at Horton - what is that pile of fire reddened stones on the left?
We were curious about this pile of reddened stones in the corner, behind the house. We could find no mention of them in the online reports. They look rather like bricks, but appear to be a part of the neolithic feature, contemporary with the "house". We find this feature very puzzling. Graham managed to make a larger image of these stones.

is this the remains of a trough, with fire cracked stones?
Given the early neolithic date of some recently discovered burnt mound troughs, with fire cracked stones, in Northumberland, England, at a site called Bradford Kaims, it must be considered a possibility that this little rectangular timber building had a trough at the back of it. Not every neolithic building was a house. Some of them were used as barns - something that would have been very useful for those 'first farmers' of Neolithic Britain.


further reading
The Craft of the Maltster
a paper that should be published very soon, the result of my presentation at the Food in Archaeology Conference, Exeter University, April 2010.

John Firth, Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish
originally published in the 1920s, re published in 1974

and finally,

here is a page from Firth, with a ground plan of traditional Orkney farm buildings, showing the grain drying kiln, flue and more.

... breaking news!
6000 year old "house" discovered in Yorkshire, England