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.

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.