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 Our dataset was derived from both published and unpublished archaeological and environmental evidence, and we focused on plant macro-remains, pollen, settlement and radiocarbon data.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.