I was delighted to spend last week participating in an excellent workshop in the La Rioja region of northern Spain. The workshop was organised by Guillem Pérez Jordà and Leonor Peña-Chocarro, both of whom work at the Instituto de Historia, CCHS/CSIC, Madrid. Pérez Jordà and Peña-Chocarro are running a fascinating research project to explore the origins and spread of tree-fruit cultivation.
When exploring origins of agriculture, the focus has often been on cereals and legumes, but this project is focusing its attention on tree fruits. We were treated to fascinating presentations from some of the leading archaeobotanists in Europe, showing how tree-fruit cultivation emerged in their regions and the types of fruits being cultivated through time.
My presentation was entitled “Arboriculture at the northern margins of Europe: insights from Ireland”. I drew upon archaeological, historical and ethnographic data to explore when and where tree-fruit cultivation took place in Ireland. We have very little evidence in Ireland for tree-fruit cultivation during the prehistoric period, but it does seem that apples, plums and perhaps other fruits were cultivated in early medieval Ireland.
In the case of apple, charred and waterlogged apple pips and endocarp fragments have been found at several early medieval excavations in Ireland, including the Viking towns of Waterford and Dublin. It can be difficult to distinguish between wild and cultivated apples simply by looking at the gross morphology (appearance) of the preserved seeds and endocarp fragments. Studies of the early law texts have revealed, however, that there was a generally recognised distinction between the sour wild apple and sweeter cultivated types (Kelly 1997, 259-260). Kelly notes that the ninth-century text Bethu Brigte refers to an abundant crop of sweet apples, ubla cumra, in a churchyard, while an eighth-century law text refers to a wild apple, fiaduball. It appears, therefore, that apple cultivation had arrived into Ireland. At the La Rioja workshop, I learned that apple cultivation was widespread in Europe by this period, so the Irish evidence fits well into this wider picture.
The workshop participants are planning to write up their findings in the coming year, so watch this space for a more detailed review of the Irish evidence.