Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Nuts about hazelnuts: the enduring tradition of foraging in Ireland

Hazelnuts (image via Orkney Jar)

Hazelnuts have been an important food resource in Ireland for thousands of years. Hazelnuts usually ripen during autumn and are therefore seasonal, but hazelnuts are also easily storable, and so can be kept for eating throughout the year. The nuts provide a highly nutritious foodstuff, being rich in monounsaturated fats. They can be eaten whole, or ground into flour or meal. Hazelnuts are also relatively easy to process using simple tools; the nutshell can be cracked open using a sharp stone, or by placing the hazelnut on a hard surface or stone, and then striking the shell with another stone.

While the actual nuts rarely survive in the archaeological record, hazelnut shell is often recorded. Hazelnut shell is relatively easily identified by archaeobotanists. The shape of the nutshell is very distinctive, and although the nutshell is woody, it is smooth in section when compared with wood charcoal. Hazelnut shell can be preserved through a variety of mechanisms, but charring is the most commonly encountered process in Ireland. In order for charring to occur, the plant material must come into contact with fire. Nutshell represents waste and is perhaps more likely to come into contact with fire and become preserved, when compared with other plants. For example, the nutshell can be utilised as fuel or simply disposed of in fires to reduce its mass. Other food sources, such as cereal grains, are less likely to enter a fire, as the grains will become unusable if charred (Jones 2000).

Charred hazelnut shell
While we often associate gathered foods with prehistoric societies (McComb and Simpson 1999), archaeobotanical evidence clearly demonstrates that foraging was an important activity right into the historic period. A recent study of plant foods consumed by Ireland’s earliest hunter-gatherer communities, during the Mesolithic period (8000-4000 BC), revealed that hazelnut remains were commonly found at excavations, sometimes in very large quantities (Warren et al. 2014). Although farming was introduced into Ireland during the Neolithic period (4000-2500 BC), gathered foods remained important; a study of plant remains from Neolithic excavations in Ireland found that hazelnut shell was present at 87% of sites (McClatchie et al. 2014). From the Bronze Age, it does appear that cultivated foods became increasingly important at the expense of gathered foods, but foraging continued to be undertaken. A recent study of plant remains from early medieval Ireland (AD 400-1100), for example, found that hazelnut shell was recorded at 40% of sites (McCormick et al. 2014), highlighting that gathered foods continued to play an important role, even in societies heavily involved in farming. There is a long history of hazelnut gathering and consumption in Ireland, and it looks set to continue, helped by a revived interest in foraging that has developed over recent years.

Jones G (2000) Evaluating the importance of cultivation and collecting in Neolithic Britain, pp. 79-84. In Fairbairn AS (ed.), Plants in Neolithic Britain and beyond. Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers 5. Oxford, Oxbow.  
McClatchie M, McCormick F, Kerr T, O'Sullivan A (2014) Early medieval farming and food production: a review of the archaeobotanical evidence from archaeological excavations in Ireland. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. DOI: 10.1007/s00334-014-0478-7.

McComb AMG, Simpson D (1999) The wild bunch: exploitation of the hazel in prehistoric Ireland. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 58, 1-16.

McCormick F, Kerr TR, McClatchie M, O'Sullivan A (2014) Early medieval agriculture,livestock and cereal production in Ireland, AD 400–1100. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 2647. Oxford, Archaeopress.

Warren G, Davis S, McClatchie M, Sands R (2014) 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 23(5): 629–646.