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.