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.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Oats: new and old

I'm writing a paper about ancient cereals at the moment, focusing on the emergence of oat as an important crop in Iron Age and early medieval Europe. I took a break from writing a few days ago to visit the Rosemount Environmental Research Station at University College Dublin. It's just a short stroll from my office, but it feels like another world.

At Rosemount, staff and students have developed wonderful outdoor plots where many different plants are growing, as well as glasshouses and laboratories, where a fascinating variety of experimental plant trials are being undertaken. I was particularly interested in the oat trials (pictured above)! It was my first visit to Rosemount, and I plan to return. Watch this space for further updates.


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 (https://doi.org/10.1017/ppr.2017.1; 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.