Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Gordon Hillman: a pioneer in archaeobotany

Gordon Hillman, photographed by his daughter
It was with great sadness that the archaeobotany community learned of the passing of Gordon Hillman earlier this month. Gordon was a pioneer in archaeobotany. He was a leading expert in the identification of ancient remains, and I was lucky enough to spend time in front of the microscope with Gordon learning about cereal identifications. I still use my notes from those sessions today.

But Gordon did much more than this. He undertook extensive fieldwork in south-east Europe and south-west Asia in particular, learning about traditional farming and food production processes, and applying this knowledge to better understand archaeobotanical assemblages and transitions to agriculture. In recent years, he focused on plant foraging in prehistoric Britain, often processing and tasting plants himself to see if they were edible (he appeared to have a strong stomach), again contributing much to our understanding about plant gathering and food production. His wide-ranging experiences, expertise and knowledge meant that a conversation with Gordon often helped people to think differently and learn more deeply about our ancestors and their interactions with plants.

See here for an obituary by fellow archaeobtanist Prof. Martin Jones.

See here for an obituary by Prof. Dorian Fuller -- who became lecturer in archaeobotany at University College London when Gordon retired -- and messages from the archaeobotany community around the world. You will see from the messages that Gordon had a positive impact on many of us. We were lucky to have had Gordon in our lives.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Climate change in the past: presenting research in Paris


I participated in a fascinating conference in Paris earlier this month. The International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences (Union Internationale des Sciences Préhistoriques et Protohistoriques – UISPP) was founded in Bern in 1931. This organisation focuses on scientific studies of prehistoric and protohistoric materials, including archaeology, anthropology, palaeontology, geology, zoology, archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, environmental sciences, physics, chemistry, geography, history, numismatics, epigraphy and mathematics. The 18th UISPP world congress took place in Paris from 3rd to 9th June 2018. It was an enormous conference, held at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, with parallel sessions on many different aspects of archaeological science, incorporating both practice and theory.

I presented research in a session entitled "Climatic variability and societal responses during the Metal Ages in Europe and the Mediterranean (3000-300 BC)". The co-authored paper was entitled "Agricultural strategies and climate change in later prehistoric northern Europe", and it detailed some of the results from an INSTAR-funded research project: “Settlement and Landscape in Later Prehistoric Ireland – Seeing beyond the site”. This project has brought together an inter-disciplinary team to contextualise the archaeology of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Ireland within its contemporary prehistoric landscape, focusing on farming strategies and broader landscape interactions. My role on the project is to explore archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological data.


Our "Seeing beyond the site" paper in Paris revealed results from collation and analysis of archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological data, focusing on south-east Ireland during the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age. We explored farming practices in the context of changing climates and environments, and within the broader context of northern Europe. Now we intend to write up the results for publication in a major journal -- one of my many tasks for this summer!

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Determining ancient land use: detailed level and large scale

From Carla Lancelotti's Twitter
Earlier this week, I spent a fascinating few days in Barcelona, participating in a research workshop on land use in early Europe. The workshop was part of the “LandCover6k: European Land-use at 6000BP” project and was organised by Nicki Whitehouse, Ferran Antolin and Marco Madella.

The working group for this project is investigating prehistoric human impacts on land cover (i.e. anthropogenic land cover change due to land use), and assessing if impacts were sufficiently large to have a major impact on regional climates.

Colleagues from around Europe came together to provide an overview of evidence from each of our regions. It was wonderful to hear how we each interpret our datasets, hearing from some of the leading scholars in each region. We focused on agricultural and land management evidence, showing exactly where we had data, site by site, and synthesizing and standardising our datasets, with the aim of produce a coherent picture of land use across Europe at the point of 6000 BP (4000 cal BC). 

For more information on this exciting project, see here.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Bitter sweet: a new documentary about ancient Irish apples

I was interviewed recently by a radio documentary maker -- Patricia Baker -- who has been recording a documentary on the history of apples in Ireland. The documentary has now been completed, and it will be broadcast on Newstalk 106-108 FM (in Ireland) on Bank Holiday Monday 07 May at 7am, and repeated on Saturday 12 May at 9pm.

The documentary is entitled "Bitter sweet" and will tell the story of an important collection of native Irish apples, based at Rosemount in UCD. Patricia interviewed many people for the documentary, learning about the different routes that can be taken in investigating the role of apples in our food history. 

I met with Patricia in the National Museum of Ireland, and we conducted the interview beside the exhibit of apple remains from Hiberno-Norse (Viking) Dublin. I explained how apple remains -- usually pips and endocarp (core) fragments -- can become preserved in the archaeological record. Possible remains of apples have been found as far back as the Mesolithic period in Ireland, and they appear throughout prehistory, with cultivated examples emerging in the historic period. Listen in to the documentary to find out more.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Beyond food: promoting equality in Irish universities

This blog usually concentrates on research into ancient food and farming, which is a primary focus in my work. But as a lecturer at University College Dublin, I play many roles beyond being a researcher. One of the roles that I most enjoy is Officer for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at UCD School of Archaeology.

UCD is committed to celebrating diversity within the university community and promoting an environment where equality of opportunity is created for all. My role as EDI Officer is to develop and promote EDI initiatives within the School, advocate for EDI values in decision making, policy and strategy development, and work closely with colleagues across UCD in promoting EDI.

On International Women's Day earlier this month (08 March), we launched a new banner that is now housed in the main corridor of UCD School of Archaeology, Newman Building. The banner will remind us every day of our commitment to equality within the School, which I hope will have a lasting impact on our culture and activities.

For more on my EDI work, see https://www.ucd.ie/archaeology/edi/.

Monday, 26 February 2018

A taste of prehistory: feasting and science in Belfast

I spent a very enjoyable evening on Friday (23 February 2018) at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was participating in a Northern Ireland Science Week event, where I was part of the team bringing archaeological science to the public. The event, "A taste of prehistory", invited people to feast on a three-course special dinner in the Museum, inspired by ingredients and objects from prehistoric Ireland. Before dinner, attendees heard the call of ancient musical horns played at feasts and explored the science behind investigating ancient foods.

I was equipped with a (replica) saddle quern stone, rubbing stone and grain, and I encouraged people to try their hand at grinding grain to make flour. Most people were surprised at how hard it can be to produce flour! The activity helped me explain how archaeobotany can provide exciting insights into what people ate in the past. I also brought along some archaeobotanical specimens, including Bronze Age emmer wheat and barley, and outlined the long history of these crops in Ireland.

As well as the quern stone, a great variety of other demonstrations took place on the evening, including willow weaving and eel fishing, stone tool and palaeoecological analyses, ceramic reconstructions and analyses, tracing the history of animals in Ireland, and more. The event sold out in advance and was a great success. Well done to Dr Greer Ramsey and the team at the Ulster Museum for organising a very enjoyable event. 

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ancient Irish grains

People who are interested in food often ask me what cereals were eaten in Ireland hundreds and thousands of years ago. One of my main research interests is archaeobotany, where we recover the fragmentary remains of food plants from archaeological excavations. Luckily for me as an archaeologist and archaeobotanist, if plant components are sealed beneath the ground in certain conditions, they can survive for thousands of years. If the plant components have become burnt (charred), for example, or kept in consistently wet conditions (waterlogged) or dry conditions (desiccated), then they can be preserved.

Bronze Age barley grain
Cereal grains are quite robust, so we often find them in soil samples taken from archaeological excavations. Based on my research and the work of colleagues, I will be presenting a talk entitled "Ancient Irish grains" to introduce archaeobotany and archaeological science to a wider audience. The talk will take place on Thursday 25 January at  a Slow Food Ireland event in Ballymaloe Cookery School, east Cork, Ireland. The event is being hosted by Darina Allen, who is well known for her fantastic work in exploring and promoting Irish food cultures. I am really looking forward to engaging with the Slow Food community and the Ballymaloe team, and hearing their perspectives as growers and food producers.

Further information on the event can be found here: http://slowfoodireland.com/event/ancient-irish-grains/.