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Anglo-Saxon malthouse discovered at Sedgeford dig

Archaeologists at Sedgeford have discovered a 1,200-year-old Anglo-Saxon malthouse buried for hundreds of years by soil washed down from surrounding higher ground.

It is the first time that a complete start-to-finish malting process from that period has been discovered in Great Britain.

The presence on the site of a mass of Ipswich Ware pottery made between 720-850AD, effectively dates the period during which the malthouse was operative.

It was a sophisticated production line which showed the settlement on the Heacham River, was not as primitive as is popularly supposed.

"Actually, they were technologically quite advanced," said Dr John Jolleys , research director of the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research project (SHARP), which has been active on the site for over 20 years.

The settlement was Christian and it is believed the malt house was not something organised by the local inhabitants but was part of a much wider integrated system.

"I think here we are seeing the hand of the church. The church is the super state and it had access to all the latest technology and engineering skills anywhere in Europe," said Dr Jolleys.

He described the find as unique. It adds lustre to the importance of the site which is already considered to be one of the more important archaeological excavations in the country.

"We first dug here because we had a geo-physics survey taken in 2006-7 which suggested ovens or kilns or furnaces on the site," said Dr Jolleys.

An initial excavation in 2013 revealed one kiln and part of a second, a steeping pit for soaking barley and a clay-floored building with wattle and daub walls for sprouting the grain.

"We knew it was important by 2014 but it has taken us extra time to excavate to expose more and to realise just how important it is.

It was a bit like looking at a jigsaw before all the pieces were in place. You don't see the picture until all the pieces fall into place."

The technology of malting employed on the site is very similar to that done today by traditional maltsters said Dr Jolleys.

The barley was steeped in a pit of water, probably in a sack, starting a germination process which continued when spread out on the clay floor until the starch in the grain has mostly changed into sugar, called maltose, before being stopped by heat from a kiln.

The malt was then distributed to local brewers who made the beer.

Dr Jollys said: "I think the beer was drunk quite quickly. It was safe to drink but wouldn't have lasted long. It was probably drunk every day, low strength stuff, probably two to four per cent alcohol."

To make it stronger for special feast days it was brewed for longer.

It is already apparent that there is more than one malt house complex on the site so there may be more exciting discoveries to be made.

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