Friday, 27 June 2014

Apples in early historic Ireland: insights from law texts and archaeobotany

This weekend, I will be attending a conference in honour of Professor Fergus Kelly on the occasion of his retirement. Prof. Kelly’s studies of early Irish law texts have had a profound influence on our understanding of Ireland during the early historic period. His work is also a pleasure to read, being written in an engaging style that helps transport the scholar ‘back in time’.

One of Prof. Kelly’s books, “Early Irish Farming” (Kelly 1997), is a key resource for archaeologists interested in finding out about daily life in early medieval Ireland (AD 400-1100). It is a text that I return to again and again. The book provides an account of farming practices as detailed in law texts from the seventh and eighth centuries AD. A wide variety of topics is addressed, including domestic animals, cultivated crops from fields and gardens, wild animals and plants, food products, farm layouts, land tenure, farm labour, and tools and technology. It is indeed a comprehensive review of many different aspects of farming practice.

One section of the book deals with fruit crops, and I was interested to read about Prof. Kelly’s findings on apples (Malus spp.). Apples are a very useful resource, particularly because they are easy to store. Their period of use can be extended even further by cutting the apples into rings and then drying them over a fire. Do we have archaeobotanical evidence for ancient apples?

The answer is yes. Archaeobotanical evidence indicates that Ireland’s earliest settlers (Mesolithic, 8000-4000 BC and Neolithic, 4000-2500 BC) would have had access to Malus sylvestris, wild apple (McClatchie et al. 2012; Warren et al. 2013). Charred pips and core fragments (endocarp) of wild apple have been found at a number of excavations, most recently at the famous portal tomb of Poulnabrone, Co. Clare (McClatchie 2014).

Charred and waterlogged apple pips and endocarp fragments have also been found at early medieval excavations in Ireland, including the Viking towns of Waterford and Dublin (Geraghty 1996; Tierney and Hannon 1997). Do these early medieval remains represent wild apples or cultivated apples? Unfortunately, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two categories simply by looking at the gross morphology (appearance) of the preserved seeds and endocarp fragments.

Prof. Kelly’s studies of the early law texts have revealed, however, that there was a generally recognised distinction between the sour wild apple and sweeter cultivated types (Kelly 1997, 259). Kelly notes that the ninth-century text Bethu Brigte refers to an abundant crop of sweet apples, ubla cumra, in a churchyard, while an eighth-century law text refers to a wild apple, fiaduball (Kelly 1997, 259-260).

Is there any potential for archaeological science to contribute further to our understanding of apples in the past? Analysis of the ancient DNA of apple remains may be useful here, with a view to distinguishing between different categories of apples. Waterlogged archaeobotanical remains of apples are suitable for aDNA analysis, and this is an avenue of research that would be worth pursuing.


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

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

McClatchie M (2014) Non-wood macrofossil analysis. In: A Lynch, Poulnabrone: an early Neolithic portal tomb in Ireland. Archaeological Monograph Series: 9. Dublin, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Dublin, pp 158-161

McClatchie M, Bogaard A, Colledge S, Whitehouse N, Schulting R, Barratt P, McLaughlin R (2012) Neolithic farming in north-western Europe: archaeobotanical evidence from Ireland. Journal of Archaeological Science. 

Tierney J, Hannon M (1997) Plant remains. In: Hurley MF, Scully OMB, McCutcheon SWJ (eds), Late Viking Age and medieval Waterford: excavations 1986-1992. Waterford Corporation, Waterford, pp 854-899

Warren G, Davis S, McClatchie M, Sands R (2013) The potential role of humans in structuring the wooded landscapes of Mesolithic Ireland: a review of data and discussion of approaches. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany.