Wednesday, 26 April 2017

New publication: early dates for a Neolithic passage tomb in Ireland

My latest paper with the Cultivating Societies research team has just been published in a leading journal, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (; also see news item on UCD School of Archaeology webpages). 

The team has written several ground-breaking papers in recent years on early farming in Ireland, funded by the Heritage Council under the INSTAR programme. We have published in a variety of high-impact journals, including Journal of Archaeological Science, Journal of World Prehistory and Antiquity, placing the archaeology of Ireland firmly on the world stage.

Our latest paper is entitled “Radiocarbon dating of a multi-phase passage tomb on Baltinglass Hill, Co. Wicklow, Ireland”, and it provides new evidence for Neolithic activity spanning at least six centuries at this funerary monument. The paper presents the results of a radiocarbon dating programme on charred wheat grains and hazelnut shell found underlying the cairn, and on cremated human bone found within and near two of the monument’s five chambers. The results are surprising, in that three of the six determinations on calcined bone pre-date by one or two centuries the charred cereals and hazelnut shells sealed under the cairn, dating to c. 3600–3400 cal BC. Of the remaining three bone results, one is coeval with the charred plant remains, while the final two can be placed in the period 3300/3200–2900 cal BC, which is more traditionally associated with developed passage tombs.

A suggested sequence of construction is presented, beginning with a simple tomb lacking a cairn, followed by a burning event – perhaps a ritual preparation of the ground – involving the deposition of cereal grains and other materials, very rapidly and intentionally sealed under a layer of clay, in turn followed by at least two phases involving the construction of more substantial chambers and associated cairns. What was already regarded as a complex funerary monument has proven to be even more complex.

Schulting, R., McClatchie, M., Sheridan, A., McLaughlin, R., Barratt, P. and Whitehouse, N. (2017) Radiocarbon Dating of a Multi-phase Passage Tomb on Baltinglass Hill, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Archaeology conference in Ireland

The first half of 2017 is proving to be a busy time for me! I am speaking at another conference at the end of this month -- the annual conference of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland. I am a long-standing member of the Institute, and I was delighted to be asked to deliver the keynote lecture for the conference.

My lecture will be entitled "Food ‘facts’: new findings and emerging challenges in the investigation of ancient foodways". I will examine ancient foodways – the customs or habits of a group of people concerning food and eating – which are increasingly a focus of research in archaeology. This paper will highlight some of the exciting new findings from Ireland and beyond, as well as some of the challenges facing archaeologists who are undertaking research in this area.

The structure of the paper will follow the four themes of the IAI conference: prehistory, environmental archaeology, community archaeology and historic archaeology. The prehistory and environmental archaeology themes will be explored through consideration of evidence from Ireland’s first farmers, highlighting research from the “Cultivating Societies” project. The community archaeology and historic archaeology themes will focus on the “Swords Castle: Digging History – Fingal Community Excavation Project”. These two projects have made important new discoveries on ancient foodways, and they have highlighted issues relating to professional practice in Ireland. The paper will also include an analysis of the role that archaeologists can play in informing debates relating to modern food trends, such as the Paleo diet and lactose-avoidance, as well as potential problems that may arise when archaeologists advise on healthy-eating practices for modern societies.

For more information on the conference, visit the IAI
website. Tickets are available here.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Conference -- Innovation in Irish Food and Drink: Past, Present and Future

I am looking forward to speaking at a upcoming conference about food in Cork, Ireland. The conference, "Innovation in Irish Food and Drink: Past, Present and Future" will take place at University College Cork, 10-12 March 2017. I started my studies in archaeology at UCC -- and this is where I first became interested in ancient foods -- so it is a great pleasure for me to return to Cork and speak about my latest research on archaeological evidence for foods in the past.

The conference will explore food production and consumption, both old and new. The conference is being organised by food historians Dr Chad Ludington (Marie Curie Senior Research Fellow, UCC School of History) and Regina Sexton (UCC Adult Continuing Education, UCC School of History), and will feature food historians, food geographers, food scientists, business leaders, food producers, restaurateurs, and food writers. It promises to be an exciting weekend, bringing together researchers and practitioners from varied backgrounds to talk and think about the many roles of food in our lives.

The title of my presentation will be "Early innovators: Ireland's first farmers", and I will present results from my investigations into foodways in Neolithic Ireland. The Neolithic period in Ireland (4000–2500 BC) witnessed enormous changes in the types of foods being produced and the work involved in their production. Several new crops were introduced into Ireland soon after 4000BC. Archaeobotanical studies indicate that emmer wheat became the dominant crop, with evidence also for barley (hulled and naked) and flax. Analysis of arable weeds suggests that farming was intensive, rather than extensive. Gathered resources (which provided staple foods for hunter-gatherers before the Neolithic) were not abandoned when farming arrived into Ireland. On the contrary, there is substantial archaeobotanical evidence for a variety of nuts, fruits and greens. Establishing the types of foods being made from these plants has proved rather challenging, but new research is being undertaken to address this issue. This paper will provide an overview of the latest research in archaeological science and highlight new pathways to further develop our understanding of the foods produced and eaten by Ireland’s first farmers.

The conference is open to the general public and registration is free. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Popular magazine focuses on early farming

My research features in the current edition (Winter 2016) of the popular RTE magazine, Ear to The Ground. The television show of the same name has been broadcast in Ireland for many years, exploring issues of interest to Irish farmers and their families. The magazine delves further into some of the issues raised during the television broadcasts, as well as highlighting farming news stories.

A researcher from the magazine was interested in finding out how and when farming arrived and spread across Ireland, eventually becoming a new way of life. Much of the article, entitled "Ireland's first farmers" (pages 120-122), is based upon an interview with me, where I explained my research findings.

An extract from the article:
The earliest farmers practised mixed farming. They cleared forests to graze their animals, chose sheltered locations and lived in isolated settlements, for the most part. We know this because these early farmers’ remains are occasionally discovered and excavated by archaeologists. Meriel McClatchie is an assistant professor at the UCD School of Archaeology and also the director of the Ancient Foods Research Group, which explores the foods eaten by our ancestors from as early as the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers; she explains how various excavations have helped to create a pretty good picture of the early farmers’ lifestyle.

"What we find on a lot of excavations of the early farmers is actual food remains, such as animal bones, which tell us the types of animals these people were eating; we’re finding bones that suggest they were raising cattle, sheep and pigs,” she says. “Then we find little tiny burnt seeds, which are the crops – what happens is if the crops come into contact with fire and become charred then they can survive in the ground for thousands of years – and we can reconstruct what the first farmers were eating: wheat, particularly, and barley, but it was an older type of wheat, emmer wheat, the earliest wheat. Oat and rye are much later introductions to Ireland – they only came in roughly 2,000 years ago. They were producing crops on a sustainable level for themselves.”

Another extract:
“What we see in Ireland from the very beginning of farming is that they were growing wheat and barley, they were raising animals but not just for meat; we know that they were producing dairy products as well. They were also making pottery vessels for the first time too. So we have built up a very nice picture of what people were eating and how they were farming,” says Meriel.

For more, you will have to buy the magazine! You can also read more about this topic in my recent collaborative paper in the academic journal, Antiquity.

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.

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.