In a remote spot in the Transylvanian region of Romania, time has stood still. Small villages are scattered amongst the hills, and every morning at dawn the tinkle of cow bells is heard as the cows from each household gather in the village square to be taken up into the hills to pasture. It is mainly the older generation who are left to farm now, but they scrupulously weed and care for their crops, doing everything by hand as there are no tractors around here.
This was where I went in 2008. We chose this area of Europe because it is famous for growing einkorn – an ancientform of wheat believed to be one of the first domesticated cereals. Favoured for its long willowy stalks (not like the stubby bread wheat you see in UK fields, which barely reaches your knees), thestraw is used to weave beautiful straw hats and decorations. We were also interested in this region because, in the absence of mechanisation, cultivation is reasonably intensive. By and large, weeds are weeded, manure is applied (as much as one cow can produce) and the dreaded inorganic NPK fertiliser doesn’t get a look in.
This is one potential type of early farming – intensive, garden-type cultivation with relatively high inputs of manure and levels of weeding. However, just as would have been the case in the early Neolithic, different farmers would have invested different amounts of time in their land and would have had access to different amounts of manure and labour. By meeting present-day farmers and seeing the differences between their fields of cereals, it is possible to get a sense of the inherent variability that we can expect to encounter in the archaeological crops.