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 Historical documents provide useful information on the variety of plants selected and how these plants would have been prepared for consumption.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