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