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.

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