What did the Saxons eat?

How can archaeology help us find out what the Saxons in Norfolk ate?

Excavations at Bury Lane, Thetford (NHER 35808) of a number of Saxon pits revealed quite a lot about what the people in Saxon Thetford ate. Oat, wheat and barley grains and some charred hazelnut shells were found. A dump of butchered animal bone was also recorded. A study of the large number of cattle bones present indicates that immature and adult animals were being slaughtered for food at the site. A large deposit of domestic rubbish included cattle, sheep, goat, pig, chicken, goose, eel, herring and mussels. 

Photograph of the excavations at Bury Lane, Thetford by NAU Archaeology.

Excavations at Bury Lane, Thetford. NAU Archaeology.)

What did the Saxons in Norfolk eat? 

Butchered animal bones recovered from Saxon sites in Norfolk include fish, chicken, cattle, sheep, pigs, deer, wild boar, hare, pigeon, ducks and geese. Plant and shell remains include barley, rye, oats, wheat, carrots, turnips, onions, wild garlic, herbs, apples, pears, grapes and wild berries. One of the recipes below suggests using rabbit meat as an alternative for hare as it can be slightly easier to find in a modern butchers. Alternatively you could use lamb. Rabbits were generally thought to have been introduced to the UK in the Norman period although excavations at Lynford (NHER 35165) have recovered butchered rabbit bones dating to the Roman period.

Try these Saxon recipes:

Griddled trout with herbs

6 fresh, cleaned trout

6 sprigs rosemary or 1-2 tablespoons dried

75g soft butter

18 fresh mint leaves

leaves from 6 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried

6 fresh sage leaves or 1 scant teaspoon

1-2 teaspoons coarse sea salt

6-9 grinds black pepper

Put one sprig or a generous shake of rosemary down the middle of each fish. Chop all the other herbs and seasonings and mash them into the soft butter. Use this to coat the fish generously on each side. Griddle, barbeque or grill it for 4-5 minutes on each side or till the skin is well browned and the flesh is flaking off the bone. Baste now and then with the butter which runs off. Serve at once with lots of fresh bread and a salad or simple green vegetable.

Hare or rabbit stew with herbs and barley

2oz butter

2-3 lb of hare or rabbit joints

1 lb washed and trimmed leeks thickly sliced

4 cloves garlic

6 oz pot barley

30 fl oz water

3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar

2 bay leaves

15 roughly chopped sage leaves

Melt the butter in a heavy pan and fry the meat with the leeks and garlic until the vegetables are slightly softened and the meat lightly browned. Add the barley, water, vinegar, bay leaves and season. Bring the pot to the boil, cover it and simmer gently for 1-11/2 hours or until the meat is tender. Add the sage, adjust the seasoning and serve in bowls.

Summer fruit, honey and hazelnut crumble

1kg mixed soft summer fruits

honey to taste

75g toasted hazelnuts

75g wholemeal or wholewheat brown breadcrumbs

Put the fruits in a pan or a microwave dish with about 20cm water in the bottom and cook gently for 10-15 minutes (4-6 minutes in a microwave on high) or till the fruits are soft without being totally mushy. Sweeten to taste with honey. Drain off the excess juice and save to serve with the pudding. Chop the hazelnuts in a processor or liquidiser until they are almost as fine as the breadcrumbs and then mix the two together. Spoon the fruit into an ovenproof dish and cover with a thick layer of hazelnuts and breadcrumbs. Bake in a moderate oven (180 degrees C) for 20-30 minutes or till the top is slightly crunchy and browned. Serve with lots of cream or plain yogurt and the warmed fruit juices.

M. Dennis (NLA), 14 May 2007.


Further Reading

Berriedale-Johnson, M., 1987. The British Museum Cookbook (London, The British Museum Press).

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