Friday, 10 May 2013

How do I investigate ancient food and farming? A brief introduction to archaeobotany

I am an archaeologist who is interested in the use of plants by people living hundreds and even thousands of years ago. The main focus of my research is archaeobotany, which is the study of preserved plant remains.

Bread wheat almost ready for harvest in Co. Waterford, Ireland
Tiny, fragmentary remains of cereal grains, cereal chaff, weed seeds, fruit stones, nutshell and other plant components are often discovered during archaeological excavations. Careful examination of these remains allows us to build up a detailed picture of the variety of plant foods being eaten in the past, as well as methods of food production.

People are often surprised to learn that these delicate remains can survive underground for thousands of years. Luckily for us, a variety of mechanisms can enable preservation, including charring (such as accidental burning during food preparation), waterlogging (when the remains are located in a consistently wet environment, such as peat bogs) and desiccation (when the remains are located in a consistently dry environment, such as at the Egyptian pyramids). This means that in certain conditions, ancient plant components can survive beneath the ground surface for thousands of years until they are unearthed by archaeologists.

Research by archaeobotanists has revealed that the earliest settlers in Ireland were eating gathered wild foods, such as nuts, fruits, roots, seeds and leafy greens. Farming arrived around 6000 years ago, and we then see different cereal crops become significant at different times, reflecting food choices and environmental constraints. Wild foods also continued to be an important resource in farming societies.

Farming is still one of the most important industries in modern-day Ireland, but it has undergone huge changes over its 6000-year history. This blog will examine evidence for different types of farming and food production at various locations and times in the past, with a focus on Ireland, but also looking at research elsewhere in Europe and beyond.