Friday, 20 December 2013

Fruit trees in medieval Ireland: the College Gardens at Youghal, Co. Cork

Information sign at the College Gardens
I recently spent a lovely afternoon looking at the medieval sights of Youghal, a town on the south coast of Ireland. I was particularly interested in visiting the Youghal College Gardens. According to the Archaeological Survey of Ireland (SMR number CO-067-029006-), Youghal College was founded in 1464 by the Earl of Desmond, and the College consisted of a warden, eight ordained teaching fellows and eight lay brothers. The College was almost demolished during the Desmond rebellion, and it subsequently came into the possession of Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, who re-built the College in c. 1605 as his private residence.

16th century Pacata Hibernia map of Youghal
A very attractive and useful sign at the College Gardens provides further information about their history. According to the information provided, the Gardens can be clearly identified on the earliest maps of Youghal. The Pacata Hibernia map of Youghal (c. 1590) shows the lower gardens as a series of geometric beds surrounded by paths. In 1616, more than 100 apple trees, prunes (plums) and quinces were imported from Bristol to be grown in the College Gardens, the beginning of the walled orchard found in the Gardens today.

Fruit remains are often found when archaeological deposits from Irish medieval excavations are analysed by archaeobotanists. I previously wrote in this blog about the reasons for preservation and variety of remains. Many of these fruits are assumed to represent locally grown produce, including raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, bramble, apple, plum, cherry, sloe and elder. Exotic fruits (probably imported) have also been recorded, including fig and grape. These exotic fruits would probably have originated in France or Spain and may have been introduced to Ireland with wines or other goods such as cork wood.

It is interesting that although fruits such as apples were already being grown in medieval Ireland, some varieties continued to be imported, according to the record from Youghal College Gardens. This provides a useful reminder that just because a plant food can be grown locally, we should not automatically assume that it was. Exchange and trade of food products were important activities in medieval Ireland. Perhaps the apple trees at Youghal College Gardens were imported because the varieties were tastier, or sweeter, or had a more pleasing shape than those available in Ireland. Scientific techniques, including isotopic analyses, can provide new insights into the geographic movement of many types of plant-food products; further application of such techniques in Ireland would be a very worthwhile avenue of research.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Emmer wheat: the most important crop for Ireland's first farmers

Cultivating societies research project
I will be presenting a seminar early next week as part of the Archaeological Society evening seminar series at University College Cork. I completed BA and MA degrees at UCC, so I am looking forward to the opportunity to visit the university again. I will be presenting results from a major research project on agriculture in Neolithic Ireland, 4000–2500 cal BC (McClatchie et al. in press; Whitehouse et al. in press). The project was entitled “Cultivating societies: assessing the evidence for agriculture in Neolithic Ireland”, and I was a key member of the large, multi-disciplinary project team. The research was funded by the Heritage Council's INSTAR programme.

The project aim was to assess the timing, extent and nature of agriculture in Neolithic Ireland. Our dataset was derived from both published and unpublished archaeological and environmental evidence, and we focused on plant macro-remains, pollen, settlement and radiocarbon data. The UCC presentation will examine evidence for an early ‘boom’ in settlement evidence and cereal farming, followed by significant changes in the nature of archaeological and environmental records at a time of possibly worsening climatic conditions.

Experimental emmer wheat
Domesticated animals and crops were introduced into Ireland during the centuries after 4000 cal BC. My work on the "Cultivating societies" project focused on assessing the archaeological evidence for cereal production. We concluded that emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum Schübl.) was the dominant cereal type in Neolithic Ireland, at least during the earlier period (McClatchie et al. in press). Emmer wheat is an ancient type of wheat that was very important in prehistoric Ireland, but now is rarely grown.

The domestication of emmer wheat took place more than 10,000 years ago in south-west Asia. Domesticated cereals, including emmer wheat, then spread via the eastern Mediterranean into south-east Europe, arriving in southern Greece c. 7000 cal BC and reaching Ireland, Britain and Scandinavia around 3000 years later. Emmer wheat was the dominant cereal type in many early farming societies throughout Europe.

Emmer wheat is a 'hulled wheat', which means that the grains are tightly enclosed by cereal chaff, making separation of grain from chaff a time-consuming process. On the other hand, the chaff of hulled wheats provides an excellent barrier to protect against water and insect damage during storage of the crop.

Grains and chaff of emmer wheat
Emmer wheat continued to be an important crop during the Bronze Age in Ireland, and has also been found at some Iron Age sites. From the early medieval period in Ireland (400–1150 cal AD), changes in agricultural choices and production resulted in oat and barley becoming the dominant crops. There is some evidence for the production of emmer wheat in early medieval and medieval Ireland, but it only appears as a minor crop at this stage. The resurgence of 'heritage' crops throughout Europe in recent years may, however, result in emmer wheat being increasingly grown, albeit on a relatively small scale.

McClatchie, M, Bogaard, A, Colledge, S, Whitehouse, N, Schulting, R, Barratt, P, McLaughlin, R (in press) Neolithic farming in north-western Europe: archaeobotanical evidence from Ireland. Journal of Archaeological Science.

Whitehouse, NJ, Schulting, RJ, McClatchie, M, Barratt, P, McLaughlin, TR, Bogaard, A, Colledge, S, Marchant, R, Gaffrey, J, Bunting, MJ (in press) Neolithic agriculture on the European western frontier: the boom and bust of early farming in Ireland. Journal of Archaeological Science.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Archaeological evidence for the consumption of 'weeds'

Charlock (Sinapis arvensis): a potential 'famine food'
We categorise some plants as ‘weeds’ because they are not considered useful in modern societies. But there is much archaeological and historical evidence that many of these plants would have been gathered and eaten by people hundreds and thousands of years ago. Historical documents provide useful information on the variety of plants selected and how these plants would have been prepared for consumption. For example, an eighteenth-century document notes that the Irish made use of “simple herbs, the product of our own kingdom, whose qualities and virtues are by long experience perfectly known to us” (Keogh 1735). Archaeobotanical studies can also provide many insights into the use of ‘weeds’ in the past. These plants may have served many purposes, including foods, medicines and dyes. This blog entry will focus on the use of some of these ‘weeds’ in food products.

Fat-hen (Chenopodium album) is a ‘weed’ regarded as a pest by many gardeners, but various parts of the fat-hen plant are edible, including the seeds and leaves. Charred and waterlogged seeds of fat-hen are often recorded in archaeological deposits from Viking and medieval towns in Ireland, reflecting a plant that would have been growing and gathered within the town. Fat-hen was sold by hawkers and eaten as a leafy vegetable until as recently as the eighteenth century in Dublin, and it has even been suggested that fat-hen plants were not just gathered from wild stands, but were actually managed as a food resource since the prehistoric period (Geraghty 1996; Stokes and Rowley-Conwy 2002).

Many ‘weeds’ were not important in terms of nutrition, but used in conjunction with other foods, they could have been vital for palatability. Oatcakes (flat breads made from oats) were important foods in Ireland from the early medieval period. The texture and taste of these oatcakes are compared to horses' hooves in a twelfth-century poem Aislinge Meic Con Glinne, and condiments would have been a welcome addition (Gerard 1633; Moloney 1919; Lucas 1959; Sexton 1998).

Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

Seeds of common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) are a regular find from medieval archaeological deposits in Irish towns. Gerard's seventeenth-century Herball describes how common sorrel provided a “profitable sauce in many meats” and was “pleasant to the taste”, while Lucas noted that common sorrel is one of the “curious sallads” consumed by the Irish. Seeds of sheep's sorrel (Rumex acetosella) have also been found from medieval Cork, and Moloney noted that that this plant was used to flavour fish.

Pale persicaria (Persicaria lapathifolia) and redshank (Persicaria maculosa) have been interpreted as food grains due to their presence in the stomach contents from human skeletons in Viking Dublin, and various species of the knotweed genus (Persicaria) have also been recovered from faecal deposits at a number of Irish archaeological sites (Mitchell 1987; Geraghty 1992). Charlock (Sinapis arvensis) is another plant that is often found during archaeological excavations. Charlock is regarded by Lucas as a potential 'famine food', used when other cultivated foods were scarce. The Irish name of charlock is praiseach bhuidhe. Besides being a plant name, Lucas has noted that the word praiseach in modern Irish also has more generalised meanings such as pottage, porridge, gruel or broth.

Plants that we now describe as ‘weeds’ may have therefore played an important part in ancient diets, providing nutritious greens and seeds, as well as tasty condiments that could be added to other food products. Recovery of the charred and waterlogged remains of these plants from archaeological excavations does not automatically imply that they were eaten, but when we combine this evidence with historical documents, we can start to build a better picture of the great variety of plant foods eaten in the past.

For further information on the use of ‘weeds’ in the past, see McClatchie 2003.

Geraghty, S (1992) Appendix II: the macrofossil plant remains, 119–21. In: M Gowen, Excavation of two souterrain complexes at Marshes Upper, Dundalk, Co. Louth. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 92:55–121

Geraghty, S (1996) Viking Dublin: botanical evidence from Fishamble Street. Royal Irish Academy: Dublin

Gerard, J (1633) The herball or generall historie of plantes: very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Johnson. Islip and Norton and Whitakers: London

Keogh, J (1735) Botanalogia universalis Hibernica or a general Irish herbal. Harrison: Cork

Lucas, AT (1959) Nettles and charlock as famine food. Breifne 1(2):137–46

McClatchie, M (2003) Section 12: the plant remains. In: RM Cleary, MF Hurley (eds), Cork city excavations 1984-2000. Cork City Council: Cork, pp 391–413

Mitchell, GF (1987) Archaeology and environment in early Dublin. Royal Irish Academy: Dublin

Moloney, MF (1919) Irish ethno-botany and the evolution of medicine in Ireland. Gill: Dublin

Sexton, R (1998) Porridges, gruels and breads: the cereal foodstuffs of Early Medieval Ireland. In: MA Monk, J Sheehan (eds), Early Medieval Munster: archaeology, history and society. Cork University Press: Cork, pp 76–86

Stokes, P, Rowley-Conwy, P (2002) Iron Age cultigen? Experimental return rates for fat hen (Chenopodium album L.). Environmental Archaeology 7:95–9

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Local and exotic fruits and nuts: evidence from medieval Cork

Map of Cork city c.1600, Pacata Hibernia
Some months ago I examined plant remains from an archaeological excavation in Cork, a city on the south coast of Ireland. During the excavation, deposits were sampled from medieval houses, pits and ditches. It was hoped that plant remains would be preserved within these deposits, and that analysis of the plant remains would shed light on what people were eating and the appearance of the local environment.

I extracted and identified the preserved plant remains from these samples, and I am currently updating the final report on my analysis. Most of the plant remains were preserved through waterlogging (being sealed in a consistently damp environment), with occasional preservation through charring (exposure to fire). Amongst the most common finds from this analysis were fruit seeds/stones and nutshell.

Throughout Ireland, fruit and nut remains are a striking feature of urban medieval deposits. Indeed, colleagues in Britain dealing with medieval material have highlighted the discovery of a veritable “fruit salad” of remains at many sites (Greig 1981), underlining the wide variety of fruits recorded. Hazelnut shells are also a common find, with other nut types generally being rarer in the archaeological record.

Why are fruit and nut remains so common at these sites? Fruits seeds and stones, as well as nutshell, are relatively robust, and will often survive well in archaeological deposits. Vegetable remains, on the other hand, are more fragile and are somewhat under-represented in the archaeological record. Fruit seeds/stones can be found in very large quantities, particularly in cess deposits. These seeds/stones represent fruits that would have been eaten by humans, digested and the seeds eventually excreted. The excreted material (cess) may then have been placed into pits (known as cesspits) or formal garderobes (toilets), as well as being incorporated into watercourses in the town.

I will be comparing the results of the current analysis with research that I carried out several years ago at University College Cork (McClatchie 2003), when I was given the opportunity to analyse plant remains from a total of 10 excavations around Cork city. Activity at these sites ranged in date from the 11th century to the 17th century. The plant remains provided evidence for the collection and perhaps cultivation of fruits within the town and its surrounding areas. Exotic species that are likely to have originated in other countries were also represented.

Seeds and stones from locally growing fruits were most common in the 2003 study, including raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, bramble, crab-apple, wild plum, wild cherry, sloe and elder. It was clear that inhabitants and traders of the town were making use of a wide variety of fruits in their diet. Some of these seasonally available resources may have been growing within the medieval town, while other fruits would have been collected from the town’s hinterland.

The recovery of hazelnut shell fragments suggests that hazelnuts were also gathered for consumption, perhaps from areas surrounding the town. As well as representing a food resource, hazelnut shell can also provide a useful surface for flooring and paths.

Although local fruits and nuts dominated the 2003 study, seeds from exotic species were also found, including fig and grape. While fig can be grown on a small-scale in Ireland, its presence in medieval deposits is likely to represent imported produce, evidence for this being provided in trading records of the time (O’Neill 1987). Fig, in addition to grape, is likely to have been imported as a luxury food, probably in a dried form. These exotic fruits would probably have originated in France or Spain and may have been introduced to Ireland with wines or other goods such as cork wood.

Almond remains were previously recorded from medieval deposits in Cork, providing further evidence for the presence of luxury foodstuffs in the medieval town (Power 1928). In the 2003 study, exotic fruits were recovered from 13th–14th century and 17th century deposits only, coinciding with periods of increased activity and prosperity in Cork. These exotic foodstuffs would have been socially symbolic, as their high value meant that they were beyond the means of many citizens.

The 2003 study provided many new insights into food resources in medieval Cork. A wide variety of local fruits was available to the townspeople, including berries, apples, plums and cherries. Hazelnuts are also likely to have been commonly available. Cork’s status as a trading port was represented through the recovery of exotic fruit remains, such as fig and grape. Unlike the locally grown fruits, these exotic fruits were probably available only to those who could afford their high price.


Greig, J (1981) The investigation of a medieval barrel-latrine from Worcester. Journal of Archaeological Science 8(3):265–282

McClatchie, M (2003) The plant remains. In: RM Cleary, MF Hurley (eds), Cork city excavations 1984–2000. Cork City Council, Cork, pp 391–413

O’Neill, T (1987) Merchants and mariners in medieval Ireland. Academic Press: Dublin

Power, P (1928) On a find of ancient jars in Cork city. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 33:10–11

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Oat in medieval Ireland

Crescenzi medieval agriculture calendar
The medieval period in Ireland extended from the 12th century to the 16th century, and agriculture was a very important component of the economy at this time. Excavations of medieval archaeological sites in Ireland often uncover the charred remains of cereals, usually in the form of cereal grains; fragile cereal chaff is less often found. Four different types of cereals have been discovered at medieval sites in Ireland: oat, wheat, barley and rye (Monk 1996; McClatchie 2003). This blog entry will focus on archaeological and historical evidence for common oat (Avena sativa L.).

Oat is the most commonly recovered cereal type from medieval archaeological sites in Ireland. Historical documents confirm the economic importance of oat at this time, particularly in areas outside the east and south-east of the country (Murphy & Potterton 2010). Oat is well suited to the Irish humid, wet climate and will tolerate poorer soils that discourage the cultivation of other cereal types.

Oat was used to make bread shaped as a broad, flat cake, and was also widely consumed in the form of porridges, gruels and oatmeal pastes (Sexton 1998). Ale was often brewed using oat rather than barley or wheat, a custom that sometimes offended English travellers of the 17th century: “scarce anywhere outside Dublin and some few other towns will you meet with any good beer or any reasonable bread for your money, only you may have some raw, muddy, unwholesome ale, made solely of oats” (O'Brien 1923).

It is important to understand that ale could have been viewed not just as a drink, but also as food, its nourishing content providing a liquid alternative to what would usually be considered food. Indeed, a 17th century English traveller in Ireland believed that the ale was brewed in this way to verify the proverb: “Good drink is meat, drink and cloth” (O'Brien 1923).

As well as providing an important ingredient for human food and drink, oat was used in animal feed. The chaff and straw of cereals also provided useful bedding and flooring material. Cereal chaff and straw was further used in the manufacture of baskets, mats and hen-roosts, as well as in the construction of houses. According to an Irish early 17th century document, “in the heart of the best walled towns, cities and boroughs, there stand many poor cottages of straw, chaff and clay” (O'Brien 1923).

McClatchie, M (2003) The plant remains. In: RM Cleary, MF Hurley (eds), Cork city excavations 1984–2000. Cork City Council, Cork, pp 391–413

Monk, MA (1986) Evidence from macroscopic plant remains for crop husbandry in prehistoric and early historic Ireland: a review. Journal of Irish Archaeology 3:31–3

Murphy, M, Potterton, M (2010) The Dublin region in the Middle Ages. Four Courts Press, Dublin

O'Brien, G (ed.) (1923) Advertisements for Ireland. Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Dublin

Sexton, R (1998) Porridges, gruels and breads: the cereal foodstuffs of early medieval Ireland. In: MA Monk, J Sheehan (eds), Early medieval Munster: archaeology, history and society. Cork University Press, Cork, pp 76–86

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Farming in early medieval Ireland: comparing archaeological and documentary evidence

The previous post provided an overview of archaeological evidence for the types of cereals grown in early medieval Ireland (AD 500–1100). We can also look to documentary sources to find out more about what and how people were farming during this period.

I recently presented a research paper at the 16th meeting of the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany in Thessaloniki, Greece. The focus of the paper was archaeological evidence for plant foods in early medieval Ireland, but I also discussed documentary evidence for food choices. A number of colleagues were impressed at the quality of documentary sources from this period in Ireland, particularly one document that lists different types of cereals and explains how they were perceived by society.

Historians such as Prof. Fergus Kelly have drawn our attention to Bretha Déin Chécht, an eighth-century law text that listed cereals in the following order: cruithnecht (bread wheat), secal (rye), suillech (spelt wheat?), ibdach (two-row barley?), rúadán (emmer wheat?), éornae (six-row barley) and corcae (oat) (Kelly 1997, 219). There are question marks attached to a number of cereal types, as their identity is uncertain.

This order represents the relative prestige of each type of cereal, which is correlated with a particular ranking in society. Bread wheat is equated with the rank of a superior king, bishop or chief poet whereas, at the other end of the scale, oat is equated with the commoner.

How does this compare with the archaeological record? A number of studies confirm that oat and barley are the most commonly recorded cereal types from early medieval excavations in Ireland (Monk 1991; McCormick et al. 2011). This probably reflects their lower status in society, as highlighted in Bretha Déin Chécht.

Bread wheat and rye were perceived as being of higher status, and accordingly, they are much rarer in the archaeological record. Cereals in early medieval Ireland were therefore regarded not just as a source of sustenance, but also as cultural symbols that could distinguish social classes (Fredengren et al. 2004).


Fredengren C, McClatchie M, Stuijts I (2004) Reconsidering crannogs in early medieval Ireland: alternative approaches in the investigation of social and agricultural systems. Environmental Archaeology 9(2):161-166

Kelly F (1997) Early Irish farming. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin

McCormick F, Kerr T, McClatchie M, O'Sullivan A (2011) The archaeology of livestock and cereal production in early medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100. UCD School of Archaeology, Dublin

Monk MA (1991) The archaeobotanical evidence for field crop plants in early historic Ireland. In: J Renfrew (ed.), New light on early farming: recent developments in palaeoethnobotany. Edinburgh University Press,
Edinburgh, pp 315-328

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Preparing an archaeobotany conference paper

I am preparing to speak at a conference in Thessaloniki, Greece next week. The conference is the 16th meeting of the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany, the major international archaeobotany conference held every three years and attended by several hundred archaeobotanists from around the world. I’m very much looking forward to catching up with colleagues, making new contacts and learning about new studies.
I will be presenting a paper on plant food production and preparation in early medieval Ireland (AD 5001100). The paper will be based on results from two research projects on early medieval agriculture. The first project is the Early Medieval Archaeology Project, based at UCD School of Archaeology and Queen’s University Belfast School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology. I was a member of the project team in 2011, when I collated and analysed evidence for preserved plant remains from archaeological excavations. The second project is my current project at UCD School of Archaeology.

At the conference, I will talk about the types of crops being grown in early medieval Ireland and how they were incorporated into foods. There is much archaeological and historical evidence for the use of crops during this period. Charred cereal grains and chaff are often uncovered during archaeological excavations, in addition to tools associated with soil preparation, harvesting and food processing. The cultivation, harvest, preparation and trade of cereal products are frequently referred to in documentary sources.

Results from the two projects indicate that barley and oat were the primary crops of early medieval Ireland. Wheat was recorded at many excavations, but it was rarely the primary crop. Rye was a minor crop at all locations where it was found. As well as cereals, occasional evidence was found for legumes, particularly in eastern Ireland.

The earliest evidence for barley and wheat production in Ireland dates to the Early Neolithic period (4000–2500 BC). Although oat and rye have occasionally been found at prehistoric archaeological sites, they only began to be cultivated in significant quantities from the early medieval period. There is similarly little evidence for legumes in prehistoric Ireland, and they are also likely to have been introduced by early medieval communities. The introduction of these new crops represents an important change in food production, particularly in the case of oat, which relatively quickly became one of Ireland’s most important crops.

To find out about how meals were prepared in early medieval Ireland, we often rely on historical sources. While there is plenty of archaeological evidence for individual ingredients (such as cereal grains), we very rarely find actual archaeological evidence for how they were used in dishes. One notable example is the "Lisleagh oat biscuit", which was discovered during excavation of a ringfort in North Cork. The charred remains of an oat biscuit were discovered by Mick Monk and analysed by Frances McLaren, who found that it consisted of oatmeal and a low-fat dairy product, perhaps whey. This was an extraordinary find, but it is hoped that advances in chemical analyses of archaeological deposits and objects will increasingly reveal new insights into the meals being prepared by our ancestors.