Monday, 21 December 2015

Figs: a special type of food

Ficus carica, fig (image from Wikimedia Commons)

I like baking at any time of the year, but I particularly love Christmas baking. I really enjoy the long process of making a Christmas cake: starting the cake in November, then feeding the cake with whiskey or brandy every few days, and finally icing the cake a few days before Christmas. I also like it because it’s a social process that can involve helpers in the various tasks, which makes it even more enjoyable. This weekend, I started icing my Christmas cake. The cake contains many different types of fruits, including currants, sultanas, cherries and figs. When I was icing the cake, my eyes kept being drawn to the beautiful, tiny fig seeds in the cake sponge, and I started thinking about the long history of figs in Ireland and beyond.

Fig is one of the most important fruit-producing trees of the Mediterranean and Middle East regions (Kislev 2014). When ripe, a fig fruit can contain up to 1000 fertile nutlets, each containing a single seed. It is the seeds rather than the whole fruits that we usually find preserved at archaeological sites. Recent archaeological findings indicate that fig was one the first crops to be domesticated; this happened more than 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic period at sites such as Gilgal and Netiv Hagdud, Lower Jordan Valley, Israel (Kislev 2014). Unlike cereals and legumes, figs are not a seasonal crop, but can be enjoyed fresh throughout the year. This is because the fruit ripening is not uniform, which means that a small number of figs on a tree can ripen every day (Kislev 2014). As well as being eaten fresh, we also have archaeological evidence for the storage of dried figs.

Figs began to be imported into northern Europe at least from Roman times, but it is not until the medieval period (c. AD 1150–1550) that we see regular evidence for figs in Ireland. Figs could have been grown in warmer areas of Ireland on a small scale, but producing enough for a regular market supply would certainly have been a challenge. Instead, it is likely that much of the early evidence for figs in Ireland reflects imported foods. Medieval customs records tell us about the contents of cargoes coming into and leaving Irish ports, and we find that figs are sometimes listed amongst the imports, along with wines and other exotic foods.

Dried figs (image from Wikimedia Commons)
But the main evidence for figs in medieval Ireland is the extensive archaeobotanical record, in the form of tiny preserved fig seeds found during archaeological excavations. These preserved seeds have been discovered on many occasions in deposits from medieval Cork, Dublin, Waterford and elsewhere (McClatchie 2014). The fig seeds are most often found in human cess deposits (toilet waste). Ancient faeces are a favourite source of evidence for the archaeobotanist, giving us a very direct insight into the types of foods that were eaten in the past. Fig seeds can be swallowed whole when eating the fruit, and then passed through the human digestive tract, being voided in excrement. The seeds are fairly robust, which means that they can survive digestion and be found centuries later during the careful scientific work involved in an archaeological excavation.

Were figs available to everyone in medieval Ireland? Although figs appear to be amongst the cheapest of imported fruits, they would still have been well beyond the budget of most people. In 14th century England, for example, imported figs cost one and a half pence per pound in weight, which is equivalent to the daily wage of a labourer at the time (Greig 1982). Figs were therefore pretty expensive and probably restricted to certain social classes or occasions. But as well as providing a sweetness to dishes, figs were also well known for their laxative properties, and it is possible that figs were regarded more as a necessity than a luxury by some in medieval Ireland.

So when I tuck into my Christmas cake in a few days’ time, I will remember the long history of figs in Ireland, enjoy the wonderfully sweet taste that figs will bring to the cake, and also pat myself on the back for helping my digestive system!


Greig J (1982) Garderobes, sewers, cess-pits and latrines. Current Archaeology 85(2): 49-52.

Kislev ME (2014) Figs: origins and development. In (ed.): C Smith, Encyclopedia of global archaeology, pp. 2775-2777. New York, Springer.

McClatchie M (2014) Non-wood plant macro-remains. In (eds): MF Hurley, C Brett, Archaeological excavations at South Main Street 2003-2005, pp. 429-447. Cork, Cork City Council.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Revisiting agriculture in Iron Age Britain

Image result for gordon hillman ray mears
Prof. Gordon Hillman and Ray Mears (Image: Youtube)
One of my current research projects is investigating agriculture in Iron Age Britain, and it gives me an opportunity to work with a real hero in environmental archaeology -- Prof. Gordon Hillman, retired Professor of Archaeobotany at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. Gordon is known to many because of his work on television with Ray Mears, where they munched their way around Britain and beyond to see which wild plants were edible and useful, and examine scientific evidence for gathering of these plants in the past. Gordon is also one of the best known archaeobotanists in the world because of his innovative work investigating agricultural systems, crop processing, wild plant use and many other topics.

Spikelet fork of spelt wheat from Uley Bury
Gordon's in-depth knowledge of human-plant interactions and his original approaches to studying past agricultural practices have had a huge impact on how we undertake research in archaeological science. Over the decades, Gordon analysed many archaeobotanical assemblages, but some of these analyses are unpublished or incomplete. A research project has therefore been established to complete and publish some of this work. We have decided to focus on five sites from southern Britain that date to the Iron Age (Cefn Graeanog, Gwynedd; Dinorben, Conwy; Moel Hiraddug, Denbighshire; Pembrey Mountain, Carmarthenshire; Uley Bury, Gloucestershire). We anticipate that comparative analysis of the diverse plant remains assemblages from these sites will provide significant new insights into an important period of agricultural development in prehistoric Britain.

I am working closely with Dr Sue Colledge, who is another leading archaeobotanist at UCL, and together we are identifying and analysing the plant remains from the five chosen sites, and then writing up the results with Gordon. The research is being funded by the Association for Environmental Archaeology, and we are very grateful to the AEA for giving us an opportunity to undertake this important work. We hope to complete the project by early 2016 and publish a paper on the results soon after. Watch this space for further information.

Thursday, 8 October 2015


I am a member of the team who is currently organising a conference.

Looking back, moving forward: 70 years of Environmental Archaeology in Ireland
Date: Friday 19th February 2016
Location: National Botanic Gardens, Dublin
Organisers: Environmental Archaeology in Ireland (EAI)workgroup
Sponsor: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht

It is almost 70 years since the publication of Frank Mitchell’s seminal paper “Evidence of early agriculture” in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. In this paper, Mitchell outlined exciting new scientific approaches for investigating agriculture and environments in ancient Ireland. Since the publication of this paper, environmental archaeology in Ireland has grown and flourished. Environmental archaeologists now explore human-environment interactions through the scientific investigation of many different types of remains, including preserved plants, wood, animal bones, insects and other materials. These analyses can reveal what people ate in the past, how they organised their economies, and how people interacted with their local environments and wider landscapes.
This conference will seek to explore how environmental archaeology developed in Ireland, where we are now, and how we can move forward. What are the strengths and expertise in Irish environmental archaeology? Where are the gaps in knowledge and skills? What are the challenges in practice? Through a day of lectures and interactive discussion, this conference will seek to set out a vision for environmental archaeology in 21st century Ireland.
Attendance will be free, but registration will be required. We will open registration in November 2015. See for further information.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Community Archaeology: bringing archaeobotany to a new audience

Swords Castle project website

One of my current roles is the provision of environmental advice to the team who is excavating Swords Castle in Co. Dublin. A fantastic new project has been established, Swords Castle: Digging History, which is a Community Archaeology project designed and supported by Fingal County Council. Under the leadership of Fingal’s community archaeologist, Christine Baker, the project helps to engage both locals and tourists with fascinating aspects of our past. As the project website notes, “A series of ‘knowledge gaps’ were identified in the Swords Castle Conservation Plan 2014.  Although it is the best surviving example of a Dublin archbishop’s palace and was an important administrative centre there are some questions that remain unanswered; Is there a graveyard underneath the castle? Were there buildings within the yard? How old are the different buildings? Through this project we hope to answer at least some of these questions.”

The 2015 excavation season took place in August and September. Members of the public were invited to play an important role in the excavation as volunteers, where they had the opportunity to experience many different aspects of archaeological excavation, including digging, organising artefacts, washing pottery and bone, and processing environmental samples. My role on the project was to introduce the concept of environmental archaeology to people who had little or no experience in archaeology. I explained how the tiny fragments of plants (often seeds) can become burnt and are thereby preserved, and they can survive in the soil for thousands of years. We discussed how a great variety of plant remains can be recovered from soil samples taken during the excavation, and these plant remains can tell us about past diets and environments. Many of the volunteers were amazed and fascinated by this ‘hidden’ aspect of the Swords Castle excavation – who would think that such tiny things could survive and reveal so much!
When I was at the excavation, I also showed the volunteers how to process these soil samples. We used the flotation method to separate preserved plant remains from the soil. This method involves placing the soil sample into a bucket, adding water and stirring it all gently. Any charred plant remains and other organic material such as wood charcoal usually float to the surface of the water. The water is then poured into a fine-mesh sieve to catch the organic remains, and this material is left to dry before being bagged up. Lots of samples were processed, and now I have them back in my lab, awaiting analysis. Watch this space for the results!

Monday, 31 August 2015

Celebrating Heritage Week 2015

In Ireland, we have just finished celebrating Heritage Week 2015. Heritage Week in Ireland is coordinated by the Heritage Council and is a part of European Heritage Days. These are a joint initiative of the Council of Europe and the European Union in which over forty countries participate each year. 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. Heritage is so important in Ireland that we spend a whole week celebrating European Heritage Days!

53c50ac59f34a90d418280cc_logosecond.gifI was involved in several events that took place during Heritage Week. One of these events was organised by team members from my current major 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 decided to show how we are using archaeological science to find out about foods, environments and people in ancient Ireland.

We held an 'open-lab' morning at the Department of Archaeology, University College Cork, where our project is based. Over the course of three separate hour-long sessions, members of the public learned about the period that we are studying (Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Ireland, 1200 BC to AD 400), the types of plant and animal foods that were eaten, how foods were processed, and what local environments would have looked like.

An update from our Twitter account
We started with an introduction from Dr Katharina Becker, who welcomed participants and explained what we are doing in our research project. Then we moved onto my area - archaeobotany. We looked at charred barley grains dating to the Late Bronze Age, and we compared them 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. We estimate that this was the first time in more than 3000 years that the quern stone had been used to grind grain!

We then moved on to look at animal bone with Caitlin Nagle, learning about the many animals that were farmed and hunted, and how their bone remains can provide insights into how animals were raised and butchered. Finally, Dr Ben Gearey showed how teeny-tiny pollen remains can provide remarkable insights into the types of environments in which people were living (and people's impacts on their environments), and how we can look at ancient farming strategies through pollen analysis.

The visitors to our open lab were a bright bunch, asking lots of good questions and having fun with the hands-on quern experience. We were delighted that we had a full house for each session. Public engagement is an important aspect of our project, so watch this space for further initiatives over the course of the project.