Saturday, 1 December 2018

Environmental conference at Aarhus

I am in Aarhus, Denmark this week, participating in the annual conference of the Association for Environmental Archaeology. The AEA is a wonderful organisation, bringing researchers together to explore human interactions with past environments.

I am presenting a poster at the conference on plant remains from a Late Mesolithic lakeside platform. Derragh Island is located at the edge of Lough Kinale in central Ireland. The site contained habitation deposits and features, knapping debris and peat sediments, with evidence for several phases of use and abandonment. Exceptionally good waterlogged preservation was encountered. A wide variety of environmental analyses was undertaken, several of which have just been published by the Irish Quaternary Association (IQUA). Analyses included plant macro-remains, animal bone, wood charcoal, pollen, insects, peat stratigraphy, geomorphology and sediments. 

My poster is focused on the unusual discovery of a large cache of water-lily seeds. A wide range of plant species was recorded at Derragh, including hazelnut shell, yellow-water lily seeds and lesser celandine tubers. A very large deposit of water-lily seeds within a hollow may reflect processing of these seeds for consumption. Perhaps the seeds were being fermented before being dried, dehusked, winnowed, parched, ground and consumed. The poster explores the evidence from Derragh in the wider context of plant processing from Mesolithic Ireland and beyond.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Conference: The Role of Crops in Irish Farm History

I am a member of the Agricultural History Society of Ireland (AHSI), which is open to all with an interest in the history of agriculture and food in Ireland. We are a diverse group from many different backgrounds, including farmers, archaeologists, historians, agricultural advisers, palaeoecologists and social scientists. Our members range from established academics to students to the interested public. The AHSI organises regular conferences, as well as field-outings to places associated with farming and food.

The next AHSI conference will take place on 10 November at the Helen Roe Theatre, RSAI, 63 Merrion Square, Dublin 2. The topic is "The Role of Crops in Irish Farm History".  I will be speaking on my research into prehistoric cereals in Ireland, tracking the introduction of cereals into Ireland around 6000 years ago and exploring how agriculture changed over time.

Further information (including registration) is available here.

Session 1
10.00–10.10 Welcome remarks — Jim McAdam QUB (Acting Chairperson, AHSI)
10.10–10.45 Meriel McClatchie UCD Crops and Farming in Irish Pre-History
10.45–11.20 Jim Collins UCD Aspects of soil fertility in Irish farm history ( Provisional title)

11.20–11.40 Coffee / tea

11.40–12.15 John Hyland Teagasc CERERE: Back to the Future - Adding Value to Heritage Cereals
12.15-12.30 Sadhbh Gaston, an artist working on the same project as John will introduce her work which will be on display over lunch

12.30–13.45 Lunch (in house: tea/coffee and sandwiches will be available at the venue; incl. in registration fee)

13.45–14.30 AGM, Agricultural History Society of Ireland (in Helen Roe Theatre)

Session 2

14.30–15.10 Ethel White QUB Oats in Irish Agriculture
15.10–16.00 Jimmy Burke UCD Technological developments in some arable crops in Ireland
16.00 Wrap up. Jim McAdam

Monday, 27 August 2018

Flotation: introducing the wheelie-bin tank

During archaeological excavations, we often collect soil samples from different deposits to check if any plant remains are present. Plant macro-remains must be extracted from the soil sample before they are identified. The flotation technique is used to process bulk soil samples containing charred plant macro-remains. Differences in the density of organic and inorganic material mean that flotation is useful method for separating the two, because the specific gravity of water lies between that of organic and inorganic material. Flotation involves the placing of a soil sample into a container, then immersing the sample in water. When agitated, organic material (such as charred plant remains) is released from the soil matrix and floats to the surface, or is suspended in the water, whereas inorganic material sinks to the bottom of the container.

We often use mechanised flotation systems or flotation tanks for efficient processing of soil samples. This summer, I was thrilled to use a new type of system: the converted wheelie bin. This flotation system was created by team members of a Serbian excavation project over the past few years, and I was delighted to join the team in July 2018. We undertook excavations
 at the fortified centre of Gradiste Idjos, working with an international team from Serbia, the UK and beyond. You can find out more about the project here

One of my roles on the project this summer was to oversee flotation of soil samples using the wheelie-bin system. It is very simple, but very clever. Water is pumped into the base of the bin through an inlet. A fine mesh (1 mm) is suspended just below the surface of the water in the bin, and the soil sample is placed onto the mesh. As the soil is disaggregated in the flow of water, the organic material floats to the surface and is then caught by a smaller sieve (minimum 0,3 mm mesh) at a run-off point, cut into the top of the wheelie bin. The residue does not float, remaining on the 1 mm mesh. The wheelie bin proved to be an excellent innovation and could be moved around with little effort. I am very much looking forward to using it again next summer!

Further reading on flotation: McClatchie, M (2015) Archaeobotany and past landscapes. In (eds): Chavarría Arnau A, Reynolds A, Detecting and understanding historic landscapes, pp. 297–324. Mantova, SAP Società Archeologica.

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.