Monday, 25 May 2015

Food production in Bronze Age Ireland

The previous blog post focused on a paper I will present at an Agricultural History Society of Ireland (AHSI) conference next month. The paper will investigate archaeobotanical and other evidence for flax in prehistoric northern Europe. As well as the lecture programme, the conference will include several excursions, one of which will be a visit to Navan Fort. During the excursion, Prof. Jim Mallory, Prof. Mike Baillie and I will present results from our research into the archaeology, agriculture and environment of the Navan complex of archaeological sites.

Location of Haughey’s Fort, Co. Armagh within the Navan complex (after Mallory and Lynn 2002)

Emain Macha, the legendary seat of the kings of Ulster, has long been identified with the Navan complex of archaeological activity. This complex comprises more than a dozen prehistoric monuments. The major portion of the Navan complex is anchored between two large enclosures. On the east is Navan Fort, which is defined by a hengiform bank-and-ditch enclosure containing a ring-work and a mound. The main phases of activity at Navan Fort date to the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age. At the eastern base of the drumlin on which the enclosure is located lies Loughnashade, a small lake from whose marshy edge four large Iron Age horns were recovered. The western monument is Haughey’s Fort, a trivallate Late Bronze Age hillfort whose elliptical shape has a maximum diameter of c. 340m. Nearby is the King’s Stables, a Late Bronze Age artificial pool from which both animal and human remains have been recovered. Many of the archaeological remains within the Navan complex appear to represent ritual behaviour rather than secular occupation, assuming that such a distinction can be made. The only possible settlement site is Haughey’s Fort. At the AHSI excursion, I will talk about my work on the plant remains recovered from excavations at Haughey’s Fort (McClatchie 2014).

A large assemblage of cereal grains was found at Haughey’s Fort. Naked barley was the dominant cereal, with occasional evidence for hulled barley, possible emmer wheat and possible naked wheat. Naked barley is often the dominant cereal at Late Bronze Age sites in Ireland, but it fell out of favour over the following millennia. Hulled barley is the type of barley that is most often grown in modern-day Ireland.

It appears that the cereal deposits from Haughey’s Fort were at a relatively late stage of processing. Most ‘contaminants’, such as arable weed seeds and cereal chaff, had been removed, and the crop was largely ready for consumption. When I examined the arable seeds that remained, I found that they reflected diverse ecological environments, with both mildly acidic and slightly calcareous environments represented, as well as wet and free-draining sediments. It is possible that this mixed weed assemblage from Haughey’s Fort represents crops harvested from a variety of environments or farms, perhaps representing the labours of different communities and signalling the bringing together of crops to a centralised location. The hillfort may therefore have functioned as a storage or distribution centre, or perhaps an assembly location where large-scale consumption, such as feasting, took place.

Further results from my work on the Haughey’s Fort plant remains can be found in the McClatchie 2014 paper. The conference, “Farming and local economies today and yesteryear in north-eastern Ireland”, will take place from 5th to 7th June 2015 in Armagh, Northern Ireland. For further information on the conference, see here.

Mallory JP, Lynn CJ (2002) Recent excavations and speculations on the Navan complex. Antiquity 76, 532-541.

McClatchie M (2014) Food production in the Bronze Age: analysis of plant macro-remains from Haughey's Fort, Co. Armagh. Emania 22, 33-48.


  1. Valuable information ..I am delighted to read this article..thank you for giving us this useful information. Great walk-through. I value this post.

  2. Dear Not that Kind of Farmer,

    Thank you! Hope you continue to enjoy the blog.