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.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Participating in the EAA conference, Maastricht

I am delighted to be in Maastricht, where I am participating in the 2017 EAA conference. The EAA (European Association of Archaeologists) is the Association for all professional archaeologists of Europe and beyond. There are thousands of archaeologists in Maastricht for the conference, and I am looking forward to the start of lectures tomorrow.

I am delivering one lecture and co-authoring another. The paper that I will deliver is entitled "Fibre plants in prehistoric Ireland: insights from archaeobotany and other sources". The paper will provide a review of fibre plants from prehistoric Ireland, based primarily upon archaeobotanical evidence. The potential use of fibres from wild plants during the Mesolithic period (8000-4000 BC) will be explored. Cultivated plants arrived into Ireland at the beginning of the Neolithic period (4000-2500 BC), including flax, but there is also extensive evidence for continued use of wild plants in various activities, possibly including fibre production. It is during the Bronze Age (2500 - 700 BC) and Iron Age (700 BC-AD 400) in Ireland that we start to find actual textile fragments, as well as further archaeobotanical evidence for plants possibly used in fibres. The paper will focus on archaeobotanical evidence for fibre production in prehistoric Ireland, but will also explore archaeological evidence for tools utilised during the various stages of fibre and textile production, as well as related archaeological features. The paper will also draw upon documentary and folkloric evidence from the historic period to provide an integrated approach to understanding the role of plants as resource fibres.

The co-authored paper is entitled "Exploring the 'somewhere' and 'someone' else: an integrated approach to Ireland's earliest farming practice". The paper will be delivered by my colleague at UCD School of Archaeology, Dr Jessica Smyth, and our colleague Associate Professor Graeme Warren is another co-author. We have had fun putting the paper together, bringing our individual perspectives on the nature of early farming in Ireland, and learning from each other. As an island on the westernmost edge of Europe, with few native wild predecessors of the main domesticated animal and crop species, the idea that farming arrived in Ireland from somewhere and someone else has rarely been contested. Only recently have archaeologists begun to amass significant amounts of data on the specifics of the earliest crop and animal husbandry on the island. This has resulted in narratives that sometimes complement, and sometimes conflict with, existing models on the arrival of farming drawn from observations of the material culture record. In this paper, we review multiple strands of evidence for what the earliest farming in Ireland looked like, combining results from the organic residue analysis of pottery, programmes of radiocarbon dating, and analysis of plant macro-remains, lithics and settlement remains. Together, these data provide greatly increased resolution on where these somewheres, and who these someones, may have been.

The EAA conference will also be a great opportunity to catch up with colleagues from around the world and hear the results of lots of good research! I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Building our lab resources: a comparative collection

Spelt wheat, ready for harvest
These are busy times for members of the Bioarch Laboratory at UCD School of Archaeology, where we are building up a reference collection of modern plant specimens. The Bioarch Lab was established in 2016 at UCD, and it is where staff and students undertake analysis of archaeobotanical (non-wood plant macro-remains) and anthracological (charcoal) remains.

A modern collection of plant specimens is required to enable secure identification of ancient plant specimens. Botanical illustrations are certainly helpful for narrowing down identifications. But the most important requirement for identification is a regional comparative collection of modern specimens. This comparative collection enables the placing of ancient and modern material side-by-side to confirm identification of the ancient material.

Members of the Bioarch Lab are now working with botanic gardens and growers around Ireland to secure these modern specimens. Earlier this week, we visited a farmer in Co. Meath, Mr Dominic Gryson, who very kindly allowed us to take samples from his crops. Mr Gryson is growing a fantastic array of heritage crops, such as the spelt wheat pictured. It was a wonderful opportunity for us in the Bioarch Lab to see these plants growing and to learn about their growing preferences and challenges. 

Building up a modern comparative collection really is time consuming, but we are finding it worthwhile. I am particularly enjoying the opportunity to discuss and learn about the plants with our students, postdocs and professionals beyond UCD. The samples we collected this week are now back in the lab, and we are preparing them for long-term storage and hopefully many years of use by UCD staff and students.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Food ‘facts’: new findings and emerging challenges in the investigation of ancient foodways

A few weeks ago, I presented the keynote lecture at the annual conference of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland. My lecture was entitled "Food ‘facts’: new findings and emerging challenges in the investigation of ancient foodways". It was a very enjoyable conference, and I received good feedback on my lecture. 

My aim was to showcase the fantastic new techniques that we use in archaeology to investigate food and some of our recent discoveries. I also wanted to highlight the growing public interest in learning from the past to develop healthier eating habits in a modern context. Archaeologists can engage in myth-busting, explaining how there is good archaeological evidence for carbohydrate-rich foods in hunter-gatherer societies, even though the modern “Paleo diet” might suggest otherwise. Ancient DNA analyses have revealed a remarkably high incidence of lactose tolerance in Ireland – we have a very long history of humans producing the lactase enzyme during adulthood, which enables us to drink milk – and lipid analyses highlight the production of dairy products over thousands of years.

We are on trickier ground, however, if we attempt to advise modern societies how they should eat now. Best practice in public health and community nutrition is developed by teams comprising professionals in dietetics, epidemiology, immunology, cardiovascular disease and other specialities. We as archaeologists can provide valuable insights into the ‘deep history’ of ancient foodways. But if we want to draw upon this evidence to help develop future nutrition strategies, we should do so as part of a team-based approach, including established professionals in public health and community nutrition. Archaeologists can play an important role here – and indeed we should be more explicit in the public arena about our expertise and fascinating findings – but as professionals, we must develop a careful, considered and, most importantly, collaborative approach if we want to tackle modern health issues.