Friday, 23 January 2015

An archaeological find of spelt wheat in Ireland

I was reminded recently of an article that I wrote for Seanda, the magazine from the National Roads Authority (NRA) Archaeology section in Ireland (McClatchie 2011). The article presented results from the excavation of an archaeological site at Baysrath, Co. Kilkenny. The site was discovered when a new road was being designed and constructed, and it was found to contain a variety of settlement, industrial and funerary features. The excavation was carried out under the direction of archaeologist John Channing of Valerie J. Keeley Ltd, and I undertook the examination of preserved plant remains from the site.

Charred grains of spelt wheat, Baysrath
One of the most interesting finds at Baysrath was the discovery of substantial spelt wheat deposits in two different areas of the site. Spelt wheat chaff and grains were found in a post-hole located in an area of Iron Age activity (700 BC – AD 400). Spelt wheat grains and chaff were also found in a T-shaped drying kiln, and the grains were radiocarbon dated to the transition between the Iron Age and early medieval period (AD 400-1150). These two features contained one of the largest spelt wheat assemblages ever found in Ireland. Spelt wheat assemblages of comparable size are more often found at Iron Age and Roman archaeological sites in Britain. Interestingly, one of the archaeological features at Baysrath containing spelt wheat, the T-shaped drying kiln, is rare in Ireland. T-shaped drying kilns are more commonly recorded in Roman Britain, and the presence of this particular kiln in Ireland may reflect links across the Irish Sea at this time.

Charred chaff fragments of spelt wheat, Baysrath
The consumption of spelt wheat has seen a revival in Ireland during recent years. Although spelt wheat (Triticum spelta L.) is closely related to bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), modern spelt wheat food-products are often less processed than bread-wheat products, which may explain why spelt wheat is viewed as more of a ‘health food’.

Spelt wheat can tolerate poorer soils and less intensive management systems than the more commonly grown bread wheat, which is reflected in the increasing popularity of spelt wheat among organic growers.

There is also an important difference in how grain is separated from chaff in each case. Bread wheat is a free-threshing wheat and is easily separated from its enclosing chaff. Spelt wheat is, by contrast, a hulled wheat, whereby the chaff is fixed firmly to the grain and is therefore more difficult to remove. Although de-husking would have been a time-consuming activity in the past, spelt wheat chaff does give the grains protection in the field and in storage, providing a useful barrier against water and insect damage.

Archaeological evidence indicates that spelt wheat was introduced into Ireland during the Bronze Age (2500-700 BC), several thousand years after the introduction of other cereals, such as emmer wheat and barley. Spelt wheat had many potential uses, including its incorporation into food products, such as bread and gruels, as well as in brewing and perhaps as animal fodder.

But it seems that spelt wheat was only ever a minor crop in Ireland’s past. The discovery of a large spelt wheat assemblage from Baysrath is important because there are very few substantial finds of spelt wheat from archaeological sites in Ireland. Indeed, I would argue that spelt wheat is probably more popular in modern Ireland than it has been at any stage in Ireland’s past!

McClatchie M (2011) A long tradition of cereal production. Seanda 6: 8-10.