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.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Nuts in Neolithic Ireland

Hazelnut shell fragments from Neolithic Ireland
I recently wrote about a new paper on farming and foraging in Neolithic Ireland. One of the defining characteristics of the Neolithic period in Ireland (4000-2500 BC) is the introduction of farming. Domesticated plants began to appear -- including wheat, barley and flax -- as well as domesticated animals.  But foraged foods continued to play an important role in Neolithic Ireland, as evidenced by the recovery of charred nutshell and fruit remains from many archaeological excavations. When people started farming, they did not simply abandon foraging. Rather they made use of a wide variety of foods, both cultivated and gathered.

Hazelnut (Corylus avellana) is the most common type of nut found at Neolithic archaeological sites in Ireland. Shell fragments of hazelnut were present at an amazing 92% of sites (35/38 sites) dating from 4000 BC to 3400 BC. Then we see a decrease -- hazelnut shell fragments are found at only 73% sites (8/11 sites) dating from 3400 BC to 2500 BC. Does this mean that nuts became less popular during the later Neolithic? Not necessarily. Plant remains of any type (cereals, nuts, fruits, weeds, etc.) were recovered from far fewer sites dating to the later Neolithic (11 site) when compared with the earlier Neolithic (38 sites). Furthermore, in our new paper, we suggest that the later sites may not have been as intensively sampled as earlier sites, which might explain this apparent decrease in the recovery of nut remains.

Why were hazelnuts so popular in Neolithic Ireland? Probably because they are a very useful foodstuff. The nuts are highly nutritious, being rich in monounsaturated fats. They can be eaten whole, or ground into flour or meal. Hazelnuts are relatively easy to process using simple tools; the nutshell can be cracked open using a sharp stone, or by placing the hazelnut on a hard surface or stone, and then striking the shell with another stone. Hazelnuts usually ripen during autumn and are therefore seasonal, but hazelnuts are also easily storable, and so can be kept for eating throughout the year.

Nowadays, we tend to eat dried hazelnuts, but the taste of fresh hazelnuts is a revelation if you haven't had them before. Keep an eye out for them as they grow and ripen over the coming months!

Thursday, 28 April 2016

New study reveals Ireland’s earliest agriculture

A new paper that I wrote with colleagues in the UK has just been published. Entitled “Farming and foraging in Neolithic Ireland: an archaeobotanical perspective”, the paper was published in a major international journal, Antiquity. We examined evidence for the earliest farming in Ireland, dating to the Neolithic period almost 6,000 years ago. We found that a variety of crops were cultivated, but foraging also played an important role in the daily lives of Ireland’s first farmers.

During the preceding Mesolithic period (8000--4000 BC), people hunted, fished and gathered in their search for foods. The introduction of farming to Ireland in the centuries after 4000 BC was a hugely important shift in food procurement, and it coincided with many other changes in daily life -- new types of houses were built, people began to use pottery and new monuments were constructed to mark the final resting places for the dead.

Our new study found that we have a very long tradition of farming in Ireland. Cereal grains and chaff -- preserved through burning -- have been found by archaeologists during the excavation of many ancient houses and tombs. Based upon our extensive radiocarbon dating programme, we found that the earliest cereals date to just after 3750 BC. The most important cereal grown by these first farmers was emmer wheat (an ancient type of wheat), and barley was also cultivated. Other crops included flax. Oat and rye were not farmed in Ireland until several thousand years later.

As well as cultivated plants, we found that foraged foods played an important role in Neolithic Ireland, as evidenced by the recovery of charred nutshell and fruit remains from many archaeological excavations. When people started farming, they did not simply abandon foraging. Rather they made use of a wide variety of foods, both cultivated and gathered.

When cereals arrived into Ireland, they spread to most areas of the island within a century. But our new study has found that this ‘boom’ in cereal cultivation did not last. Around 300 years later, the archaeological evidence for cereals almost disappears. Our records do not suggest a major shift back to wild plant foods, which were the mainstay of hunter-gatherers before the arrival of farming. We argue that plant foods are not simply abandoned, and perhaps we need new approaches towards investigating the archaeological evidence that survives. The period from 3400 BC saw many changes in how people lived in the landscape. New types of houses and tombs were built, including the passage tomb at Newgrange. Changing patterns of behaviour mean that food remains become harder to detect by archaeologists. This means that our understanding of food choices becomes unclear. It is not until several centuries later, during the Bronze Age, that widespread archaeological evidence for cereals is found again.

Utilising new scientific techniques, the research team is now working to find out exactly what happened to farming during this intriguing period of several centuries. We want to find out if cereals really did disappear, the reasons for any such changes, and how this affected the daily lives of people in Neolithic Ireland. Watch this space for further results!

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.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Swords Castle: new evidence for food in medieval Ireland

A few weeks ago, I participated in a very enjoyable archaeology seminar organised by Fingal County Council in north Co. Dublin. The seminar was entitled "Swords Castle: Digging History -- First findings seminar", and it revealed the latest results from a fantastic community archaeology excavation, "Swords Castle: Digging History". I wrote about my involvement in this project in a previous post when the fieldwork was ongoing.

Under the leadership of Fingal’s community archaeologist, Christine Baker, the excavation at Swords Castle is helping to engage both locals and tourists with fascinating aspects of our past. During the summer of 2015, 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. Lots of soil samples were taken during the excavation for archaeobotanical analysis. Over the winter of 2015/16, I examined these samples in the laboratory to see what plant remains were present.

Selection of charred plant remains, Swords Castle
At the seminar in February 2016, I presented an overview of my work on the samples. The results were very exciting -- the samples contained an extraordinarily large quantity of food remains dating to the medieval period (AD 1150-1550). Thousands and thousands of wheat grains were present in the samples (you can see some examples of the wheat grains in the photo, 1). Many of the wheat grains had the appearance of Triticum aestivum (bread wheat), but it can be difficult to identify wheat grains to species level. Chaff remains are usually more diagnostic, and I was fortunate to find the chaff of bread wheat (2) in several samples, indicating that most, if not all, of the wheat grains are indeed bread wheat.

Other cereal grains were also present, including oat and barley (3 and 4), but the oat and barley were recorded in much smaller quantities when compared with the wheat. Arable weeds were also present (5), as well as beans and peas (6). The cereals are likely to have been used in many different food products, including breads, gruels, porridges, ales, and animal fodder. The legumes could also have been used as foods for animals and humans.

While the variety of food remains is pretty typical for a medieval site in eastern Ireland, it is the quantity of food remains that is particularly unusual. The presence of thousands of wheat grains in different areas of the site indicates that food played a very important role in activities at Swords Castle during the medieval period.

The importance of food here in medieval times is further highlighted by contemporary historical documents. Historical records confirm that Swords Castle was the headquarters of a manorial estate during the 14th century, and agricultural production and trade were listed as important activities associated with this estate. While the historical evidence for food at Swords was well known, the excavation has uncovered, for the first time, archaeological evidence for extensive food production in medieval Swords. It was very exciting to find the actual food remains mentioned in the historical documents! Analysis of the plant remains is ongoing, so watch this space for further results.


Thursday, 25 February 2016

Conference: a lot done, a lot to do!

From the EAI Twitter account:
Our conference, 70 years of Environmental Archaeology in Ireland, took place last week, and it was a great success. More than 50 people participated in the conference, which was held at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin. Most of our participants were from Ireland, and we were delighted to see several researchers make the journey over from Britain.

I opened the conference with a few comments on environmental archaeology in Ireland today and why the conference was organised. Our morning session was chaired by Ben Gearey (University College Cork), and we heard from speakers on many exciting aspects of research in Ireland, including woodlands and wetlands, bog bodies, climate change, agriculture and urban environments. Something for everyone! We learned about the extraordinary variety of analyses that can be undertaken in environmental archaeology and the importance of inter-disciplinary approaches in tackling the big questions. The morning finished with a great overview from Mick Monk (University College Cork), who has been one of the leading lights and inspiring mentors for environmental archaeology in Ireland over the past few decades.

Then in the afternoon session, we decided to address some of the main issues in environmental archaeology in Ireland today:
---National Research Priorities
---Education and Training, including CPD and skills gaps
---Digital Data Curation and Accessibility
---Long-term retention of environmental remains and legacy issues
---Professional practice and Regulatory policies

We asked participants to think about what we are doing right. What we are doing wrong? What future directions should we take? Participants were split into small groups with just a few minutes to discuss each issue. This is an approach that really focuses the mind and also makes it all a bit more fun!

Then we heard from our invited discussants, Gill Campbell (Historic England) and Prof. Chris Caseldine (Exeter University) who reflected upon their international experience to suggest ‘where next’ for colleagues in Ireland. The final open discussion was chaired by Dr Michael Ryan, who kept us on track, encouraging us to think about what we wanted and how to achieve it. Now we have to get out there and do it!

A full conference report will appear in the newsletter for the Association for Environmental Archaeology later this year.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Environmental archaeology conference: coming soon!

I am busy these days organising a conference with colleagues in Ireland. The conference is Looking back, moving forward: 70 years of Environmental Archaeology in Ireland and will be held at the fantastic lecture theatre in the National Botanic Gardens Dublin on Friday 19th February 2016.

Why are we running this conference? The last few decades have seen a surge of interest in environmental archaeology, and many analyses of environmental remains have been undertaken, including analyses of preserved plants, wood, animal bones, insects and other materials. We decided it was time to take stock and think about the future.

The conference will explore how environmental archaeology developed in Ireland, where we are now, and how we can move forward. We want to provide a forum to consider our strengths and expertise, gaps in knowledge and skills, and challenges in practice. We believe this will help us develop a sustainable future for environmental archaeology in Ireland.

The morning session of the conference comprises a series of lectures, where we will find out about new research on climate change, bog bodies, woodlands and wetlands, agriculture, and the environments of early towns. Something for everyone, we hope! Then in the afternoon, interactive discussions will help us to find a way forward.

As well as participating in the conference, delegates will have an opportunity to view the Viking house reconstruction built by the hugely talented Eoin Donnelly (see here for my involvement in the project). Delegates will also be able to have a look at the new photographic exhibition on the World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael.

Further information on the conference, and registration details, can be found here. Hope to see you at the conference!