Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Popular magazine focuses on early farming

My research features in the current edition (Winter 2016) of the popular RTE magazine, Ear to The Ground. The television show of the same name has been broadcast in Ireland for many years, exploring issues of interest to Irish farmers and their families. The magazine delves further into some of the issues raised during the television broadcasts, as well as highlighting farming news stories.

A researcher from the magazine was interested in finding out how and when farming arrived and spread across Ireland, eventually becoming a new way of life. Much of the article, entitled "Ireland's first farmers" (pages 120-122), is based upon an interview with me, where I explained my research findings.

An extract from the article:
The earliest farmers practised mixed farming. They cleared forests to graze their animals, chose sheltered locations and lived in isolated settlements, for the most part. We know this because these early farmers’ remains are occasionally discovered and excavated by archaeologists. Meriel McClatchie is an assistant professor at the UCD School of Archaeology and also the director of the Ancient Foods Research Group, which explores the foods eaten by our ancestors from as early as the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers; she explains how various excavations have helped to create a pretty good picture of the early farmers’ lifestyle.

"What we find on a lot of excavations of the early farmers is actual food remains, such as animal bones, which tell us the types of animals these people were eating; we’re finding bones that suggest they were raising cattle, sheep and pigs,” she says. “Then we find little tiny burnt seeds, which are the crops – what happens is if the crops come into contact with fire and become charred then they can survive in the ground for thousands of years – and we can reconstruct what the first farmers were eating: wheat, particularly, and barley, but it was an older type of wheat, emmer wheat, the earliest wheat. Oat and rye are much later introductions to Ireland – they only came in roughly 2,000 years ago. They were producing crops on a sustainable level for themselves.”

Another extract:
“What we see in Ireland from the very beginning of farming is that they were growing wheat and barley, they were raising animals but not just for meat; we know that they were producing dairy products as well. They were also making pottery vessels for the first time too. So we have built up a very nice picture of what people were eating and how they were farming,” says Meriel.

For more, you will have to buy the magazine! You can also read more about this topic in my recent collaborative paper in the academic journal, Antiquity.

McClatchie Meriel, Bogaard Amy, Colledge Sue, Whitehouse Nicki J., Schulting Rick J., Barratt Philip, McLaughlin T. Rowan (2016) Farming and foraging in Neolithic Ireland: an archaeobotanical perspective. Antiquity 90(350), 302–318.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Medieval exotica: the long history of almonds in Ireland

Almond (Wikimedia Commons)
At this time of year, I really enjoy baking and cooking special dishes for family and friends. Later today, I must assemble ingredients for a family trifle, which we will serve up on Christmas Day. Two of the ingredients I like to include are fruits and nuts. I haven't decided on whether to include fresh berry fruits (not very seasonal...) or dried fruits (nice when stewed first). I do know that I plan to include crushed almonds.

You might think that almonds were a recent introduction to Ireland, but they have a long history here. One of the earliest occurrences of almonds in Ireland is from medieval Cork. Two amphora-type jars were discovered in the 1920s during pipe-laying in Paul Street in the city centre (Power 1928). The jars are thought to date to the medieval period. Both vessels were filled with what was suspected to be fruit stones. The 'stones' were originally thought to be plum or damson, but later, excitingly, the material was identified as almonds. Almonds would have represented an exotic (and expensive) import, reflecting Cork's status as an important port of medieval Ireland. Sometimes we might think that people in the past ate very basic and 'functional' foods, but archaeobotany often highlights how the food customs of our ancestors can be rather exotic and definitely tasty.

Power, P. 1928. On a find of ancient jars in Cork city. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 33, 10-11.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Conference on Neolithic foods and farming, London

I am currently preparing a conference paper that I will present at a meeting in London next month. The conference is entitled Food and Farming Systems and is being organised by Jessica Smyth and Roz Gillis for the Neolithic Studies Group. The conference will take place at the British Museum on 28th November.

I am writing my paper with long-time collaborators from the Cultivating societies project: Amy Bogaard and Rick Schulting from University of Oxford, Sue Colledge from University College London, Nicki Whitehouse and Phil Barratt from University of Plymouth, and Rowan McLaughlin from Queen's University Belfast.

Our paper is entitled "Our daily bread? Plant foods in Neolithic Ireland". The Neolithic period in Ireland witnessed enormous changes in the types of foods being produced and the work involved in their production. Several new crops were introduced. Archaeobotanical studies indicate that emmer wheat became the dominant crop, with evidence also for barley (hulled and naked) and flax. Gathered resources were not abandoned when farming arrived into Ireland. On the contrary, there is substantial archaeobotanical evidence for a variety of nuts, fruits and greens.

Recent studies have shed much light on the timing and nature of these new ways of farming and living (McClatchie et al. 2014; Whitehouse et al. 2014; McClatchie et al. 2016), but the focus is often on ingredients rather than finished food products. Can we determine what foods were being made with these new crops? How can we assess the dietary and social importance of cereals? This paper will explore current archaeological evidence for plant foods in Neolithic Ireland and highlight potential avenues for future research.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Food and feasting at Tara

Image from Tara: the guidebook (Discovery Programme)
Tomorrow morning, I will lead a group of around 100 UCD School of Archaeology undergraduate students on a fieldtrip to the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath. Tara is one of the best known archaeological landscapes in Ireland, with extensive and hugely impressive monuments -- including burials, assembly places and settlements --  that reflect millennia of activity here.

We will investigate several different monuments here, looking at their construction, how they were used, how they appear now, and how they might benefit from further investigation. Students will learn how to draw plans and profiles of monuments, and we will consider how best to present the extraordinary archaeology of Tara to the public.

During the fieldtrip, I am particularly looking forward to thinking in more detail about the role of food and feasting at Tara. Food can be an important element in many ceremonies, including burials, when food can be consumed by the living to commemorate the dead, and can be placed with the dead to accompany them on their journey. Food can also play a hugely important role in creating social bonds across society. The 'Banqueting Hall' at Tara may have been constructed during the prehistoric period as a place of assembly or passage, but it is during the early historic period that this is reputed to be a great banquet hall. Important feasts were said to be held here, including the festival of Samhain. Food is therefore central to many activities at Tara over the years, and I'm looking forward to investigating it all with the students tomorrow.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Heritage Week 2016: food in Iron Age Ireland

In Ireland, we have just finished celebrating Heritage Week 2016. Heritage Week in Ireland is coordinated by the Heritage Council and is a part of European Heritage Days -- an initiative of the Council of Europe and the European Union. The main aim of European Heritage Days are to promote awareness of our built natural and cultural heritage, and to promote Europe's common cultural heritage. We celebrate for a whole week in Ireland, with more than 1700 events organised throughout the country.

This year, I was again involved in the event organised by my research project, "Seeing Beyond the Site: Settlement and Landscape in Later Prehistoric Ireland". The project is funded through the INSTAR scheme, which is coordinated by the Heritage Council. For Heritage Week, the team hosted an event, Food and eating in Irish prehistory, in the Cork Public Museum to showcase research activities on our project.

We showed adults and children how archaeologists find out about life in Iron Age Ireland (700 BC--AD 400) through investigation of plant remains, pollen, animal bone, artefacts and archaeological sites. Staff from the Cork Butter Museum joined us to showcase traditional techniques for making butter. An artisan baker in Cork -- Declan Ryan from Arbutus Breads -- also created breads so that people could see (and taste) bread made from cereals that were typically grown in Iron Age Ireland. We had several hundred visitors, and it was a very enjoyable day.

Grinding grains on a prehistoric quern stone (image: UCC)
During the event, I introduced people to archaeobotany by showing them beautifully preserved examples of charred barley grains, dating to the later prehistoric period. We compared the ancient grains with modern barley grains to understand how the archaeological material had become preserved. We also looked at other types of cereals that were eaten in late prehistory, and then we learnt about the types of foods and drinks that would have been produced. Thanks to the National Museum of Ireland, our visitors were able to grind cereal grains on a real archaeological quern stone, possibly dating to the Bronze Age.

You can see more about my work on the day here, thanks for videos produced by University College Cork to promote the event.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Back from a major archaeobotany conference, Paris

I recently participated in a major archaeobotany conference in Paris. The conference was the 17th meeting of the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany. It was a great success. Around 250 researchers from 35 countries came together in the beautiful surroundings of the National Museum for Natural History to discuss the latest research and new approaches in archaeobotany, catch up with old friends and meet new people. The IWGP conference is always one of my favourites -- great research, a supportive atmosphere, but also plenty of constructive criticism!

I presented a poster at the conference, entitled Tracking the spread of oat in Atlantic Europe. Oat is a crop that I find very interesting. Oat was domesticated several thousand years after wheat and barley. We don't see firm evidence for domesticated oat in Ireland until the early medieval period, several centuries after it began to be farmed elsewhere in northern Europe. But when oat arrived into Ireland, it became very popular in a relatively short period. Documentary sources suggest that oat was a relatively low-status cereal -- perhaps an everyday food. Oat would have been used to make flatbreads and oatcakes, porridges, gruels, ales and other food products.
Admiring at fig tree at Versailles

After five day of lectures at the conference, we were delighted to have a day out for the conference fieldtrip. We visited the Potager du Roi (King's kitchen garden) at the Palace of Versailles, which was created in the 17th century to provide fruit and vegetables for the table of the court of Louis XIV. A student of landscape architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure du Paysage gave us a wonderful tour, introducing us to the plants and the complex social history of the garden. Innovative techniques were used to create micro-climates in the garden during the 17th century, thus enabling the growing of produce out of season. This would have been very impressive for visitors to the court of Louis XIV -- the king who appeared to control nature.

Thanks to our colleagues in Paris for a wonderful conference in 2016. Now we are all looking forward to the next IWGP conference in 2019, which will be held in Lecce, southern Italy. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

New job!

My new workplace!
I have just started a new job as Assistant Professor at UCD School of Archaeology in the Republic of Ireland. I am delighted to join the team at UCD School of Archaeology, where I will teach and develop research on later prehistoric Europe, environmental archaeology, experimental archaeology and more! UCD School of Archaeology is Ireland’s leading centre for archaeological education and research. At the School, we explore not only the archaeology and environments of Ireland and Britain, but also of northwest Europe, the Mediterranean, North America, and East and Southeast Asia.

Archaeobotany conference in Paris
At the moment, as well as preparing lectures and ongoing research, I am getting ready for a major archaeobotany conference in Paris. The conference is the 17th meeting of the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany and will take place in early July. This is a huge international conference that attracts leading archaeobotanists from around the world. It is a fantastic opportunity to catch up with colleagues and learn about the latest research. At the conference, I will present my research into early oat cultivation in Atlantic Europe. I will report back on how it all went after the conference.