Sunday, 29 April 2018

Bitter sweet: a new documentary about ancient Irish apples

I was interviewed recently by a radio documentary maker -- Patricia Baker -- who has been recording a documentary on the history of apples in Ireland. The documentary has now been completed, and it will be broadcast on Newstalk 106-108 FM (in Ireland) on Bank Holiday Monday 07 May at 7am, and repeated on Saturday 12 May at 9pm.

The documentary is entitled "Bitter sweet" and will tell the story of an important collection of native Irish apples, based at Rosemount in UCD. Patricia interviewed many people for the documentary, learning about the different routes that can be taken in investigating the role of apples in our food history. 

I met with Patricia in the National Museum of Ireland, and we conducted the interview beside the exhibit of apple remains from Hiberno-Norse (Viking) Dublin. I explained how apple remains -- usually pips and endocarp (core) fragments -- can become preserved in the archaeological record. Possible remains of apples have been found as far back as the Mesolithic period in Ireland, and they appear throughout prehistory, with cultivated examples emerging in the historic period. Listen in to the documentary to find out more.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Beyond food: promoting equality in Irish universities

This blog usually concentrates on research into ancient food and farming, which is a primary focus in my work. But as a lecturer at University College Dublin, I play many roles beyond being a researcher. One of the roles that I most enjoy is Officer for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at UCD School of Archaeology.

UCD is committed to celebrating diversity within the university community and promoting an environment where equality of opportunity is created for all. My role as EDI Officer is to develop and promote EDI initiatives within the School, advocate for EDI values in decision making, policy and strategy development, and work closely with colleagues across UCD in promoting EDI.

On International Women's Day earlier this month (08 March), we launched a new banner that is now housed in the main corridor of UCD School of Archaeology, Newman Building. The banner will remind us every day of our commitment to equality within the School, which I hope will have a lasting impact on our culture and activities.

For more on my EDI work, see

Monday, 26 February 2018

A taste of prehistory: feasting and science in Belfast

I spent a very enjoyable evening on Friday (23 February 2018) at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was participating in a Northern Ireland Science Week event, where I was part of the team bringing archaeological science to the public. The event, "A taste of prehistory", invited people to feast on a three-course special dinner in the Museum, inspired by ingredients and objects from prehistoric Ireland. Before dinner, attendees heard the call of ancient musical horns played at feasts and explored the science behind investigating ancient foods.

I was equipped with a (replica) saddle quern stone, rubbing stone and grain, and I encouraged people to try their hand at grinding grain to make flour. Most people were surprised at how hard it can be to produce flour! The activity helped me explain how archaeobotany can provide exciting insights into what people ate in the past. I also brought along some archaeobotanical specimens, including Bronze Age emmer wheat and barley, and outlined the long history of these crops in Ireland.

As well as the quern stone, a great variety of other demonstrations took place on the evening, including willow weaving and eel fishing, stone tool and palaeoecological analyses, ceramic reconstructions and analyses, tracing the history of animals in Ireland, and more. The event sold out in advance and was a great success. Well done to Dr Greer Ramsey and the team at the Ulster Museum for organising a very enjoyable event. 

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ancient Irish grains

People who are interested in food often ask me what cereals were eaten in Ireland hundreds and thousands of years ago. One of my main research interests is archaeobotany, where we recover the fragmentary remains of food plants from archaeological excavations. Luckily for me as an archaeologist and archaeobotanist, if plant components are sealed beneath the ground in certain conditions, they can survive for thousands of years. If the plant components have become burnt (charred), for example, or kept in consistently wet conditions (waterlogged) or dry conditions (desiccated), then they can be preserved.

Bronze Age barley grain
Cereal grains are quite robust, so we often find them in soil samples taken from archaeological excavations. Based on my research and the work of colleagues, I will be presenting a talk entitled "Ancient Irish grains" to introduce archaeobotany and archaeological science to a wider audience. The talk will take place on Thursday 25 January at  a Slow Food Ireland event in Ballymaloe Cookery School, east Cork, Ireland. The event is being hosted by Darina Allen, who is well known for her fantastic work in exploring and promoting Irish food cultures. I am really looking forward to engaging with the Slow Food community and the Ballymaloe team, and hearing their perspectives as growers and food producers.

Further information on the event can be found here:

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Bronze Age Forum: new paper on agriculture

I was delighted to present at paper at the Bronze Age Forum, which took place at University College Cork, Ireland from 10 to 12 November 2017. The Bronze Age Forum is held every two years, and it provides an excellent opportunity to hear about recent discoveries by scholars on all aspects of Bronze Age life (and death) in Europe. The event in Cork was very enjoyable. More than 40 papers were presented, as well as posters, providing a great overview of what’s new in research and an opportunity to catch up with European colleagues.

The last time I spoke at a Bronze Age Forum event was back in 2006, so it was good to get involved again. My paper was entitled "Farming in Late Bronze Age Ireland: a landscape approach". The paper was co-authored with international and inter-sectoral colleagues from our major research project, “Settlement and Landscape in Later Prehistoric Ireland – Seeing beyond the site”.

Agriculture in Bronze Age Europe is often considered to have provided a basis for economic growth and emerging social power. Extensive scientific data from Bronze Age excavations – particularly archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological evidence – have become available over the past two decades. Despite this availability of data and the recognised importance of farming, detailed analysis of what was being farmed, and how farming was undertaken, is often absent from narratives on the Bronze Age. To address this issue, a major INSTAR-funded research project was established, “Settlement and Landscape in Later Prehistoric Ireland – Seeing beyond the site”, which aimed to contextualise the archaeology of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Ireland within its contemporary prehistoric landscape, focusing on farming strategies and broader landscape interactions.

The paper revealed results from collation and analysis of archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological data, focusing on south-east Ireland during the Late Bronze Age. The project team is currently writing up results for publication, so watch this space for more information on our findings.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Tree fruits: a different type of crop

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.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Swords Castle: re-imagining ancient foods

A few weeks ago, I was delighted to participate in a public event at Swords Castle. The event formed part of a collaborative project that I developed with Fingal Community Archaeologist Christine Baker, Fingal Public Art Coordinator Caroline Cowley, and an invited curator and artists.

The project, ‘All Bread is Made of Wood’, is curated by Anne Mullee, who invited artists Fiona Hallinan and Sabina Mac Mahon to contemplate bread and its elements as a vehicle for the transference of knowledge and memory as embodied in its production. The project is composed of a series of private and public interactions, including recipe salons with local African women’s group and the area’s older population, and public events where hypotheses of bread and its elements are anatomised and considered.
As part of the Swords Castle - Digging History community excavation project, I am undertaking archaeobotanical analysis of the excavated deposits, and I have discovered a large quantity of early medieval and medieval food remains, particularly cereals. Inspired by these results, ‘This Dirt’ took place on 29th August, and brought together methods of baking and food production from North County Dublin’s past and present. Utilising Swords Castle as a catalyst for exploration, ‘bread’ acted as the threshold for investigations into contemporary and ancient local food culture, somatic learning and haptic processes of making.

"Seed Carriers" was a pair of activities devised by Fiona Hallinan. Plant macro-remains found in archaeological deposits at Swords Castle were made visible in two ways: in one instance, figuratively, as illustrations on nail transfers applied to the hands of participants, and in another, constitutively, as ingredients used in the menu of an on-site food truck (see image above). It was really exciting for me to see the tiny seeds re-imagined as nail transfers, while the food from the food truck showed how 'basic' ingredients from early medieval and medieval Ireland can provide a creative and delicious meal.

Sabina Mac Mahon presented a pop-up exhibition – the first part of Anti-anti-pasta, a project exploring the life and work of little-known (imaginary) Italian Futurist Ermenegildo Cervi (1897-1966) who settled in north county Dublin following the publication of his fellow Futurists’ Manifesto of Futurist Cooking in late 1930. The manifesto called on Italians to turn their backs on pasta, a staple foodstuff believed to induce lethargy, pessimism and nostalgia, and therefore contrary to the Futurists’ belief in technology and speed. Cervi became disillusioned with the Futurists’ anti-pasta stance and, assured of Irish people’s enthusiasm for starchy foods like bread and potatoes by relatives who ran a fish and chip shop in Dublin, decided to move to Ireland and attempt to establish a new nation of pasta-eaters here. This was a beautifully presented and wonderfully creative exhibition that really got me thinking about cultural attitudes to certain foods.

Our event was featured on the RTE Radio 1 arts show, Arena on 28 August. I'm looking forward to working with the team again. Watch this space for further events.