Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Food in an early Irish monastery

A beautiful new volume details the results of excavations at the early medieval monastery of High Island, off the west coast of Co. Galway, Ireland (Scally 2014). Ancient remains of many stone structures have survived quite well here because the island is hard to access and has long been uninhabited. Over the years, the monastery has fallen into a ruinous state. The excavations, directed by Georgina Scally, took place between 1995 and 2002 in conjunction with extensive conservation works carried out by the National Monuments Service. Just under half of the area within the monastic enclosure was excavated. Stone-built domestic huts were identified around the church, and other remains included stone structures, graves, extensive paved areas, and elaborate drainage and water collection features. As well as the excavation results, the volume contains contributions from many experts on associated historic sources, artefacts, burials and environmental remains. I wrote a section on the plant remains recovered from the excavations (McClatchie 2014), revealing the types of foods that were eaten at the monastery.

Charred plant remains were present in several areas at High Island: in the vicinity of the domestic huts and the extended monastic enclosure, as well as around the church and other areas. Barley was the predominant cereal type (mainly six-row hulled barley), with oat also present. These crops were used by the island’s inhabitants over several centuries, during occupation of the monastery (AD eighth to late-twelfth/early-thirteenth century) and re-occupation of the island after the decline of the monastery (late-twelfth/early-thirteenth to mid-fifteenth century). The presence of an ancient horizontal water-mill outside the monastic enclosure at High Island underlines the importance of cereals at this location; the water-mill would have enabled large-scale processing of cereals. Cereals may also have been processed on a smaller scale using the rotary-quern and dished grinding-stones that were found.
The predominance of barley and oat at High Island reflects a more general trend that can be detected at other early medieval sites throughout Ireland, AD 400-1150 (McCormick et al. 2014). During the earlier part of the medieval period (post-AD 1150), barley and oat continued to be important, particularly in areas beyond Anglo-Norman control (McClatchie 2003). The cultivation of barley is relatively low-risk, as barley will yield at least part of its crop even after a poor season. Barley will also grow equally well on light and heavy soils. Oat is well suited to the humid and wet Irish climate, and will tolerate poorer soils that may have discouraged the cultivation of other cereal types.

A previous blog entry explored how oat was used to produce a variety of foods and drinks. What was barley used for? In modern times, barley is often grown for brewing, and it is possible that brewing was being carried out at the High Island monastery. But the absence of grains that displayed signs of malting (malted grains can often be identified by the presence of a 'sprouted' embryo) means that the barley here may have been used in other products. Documentary sources of the early medieval period regularly list bread as one of the main foods consumed in monastic diets, and where cereal type is mentioned, the bread is often made of barley (Kelly 1997; Sexton 1998; Murray et al. 2004). Barley flour produces a coarse, dense loaf, in keeping with the penitential existence associated with monasteries. Tigernach of Clones, Co. Monaghan, for example, is said to have lived exclusively on barley bread, water-cress and hot water (Kelly 1997). Documentary sources were often concerned with issues of fasting and dietary penance, and it is possible that extreme eating regimes, like Tigernach’s mentioned above, were not continually observed at all monasteries (Murray et al. 2004). But the importance of barley in the monastic diet, as noted in the early documentary sources, is supported by the archaeobotanical evidence from High Island.

For further reading on the High Island plant remains and archaeology, you can purchase the newly published volume here.

Kelly F (1997) Early Irish farming: a study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

McClatchie M (2003) Section 12: the plant remains. In: RM Cleary, MF Hurley (eds), Cork city excavations 1984-2000, pp 391-413. Cork: Cork City Council.

McClatchie M (2014) Non-wood plant macro-remains. In: G Scally, High Island (Ardoileán), Co. Galway: excavation of an early medieval monastery, pp. 261-269. Archaeological Monograph Series: 10. Dublin: Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

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.

Murray E, McCormick F. Plunkett G (2004) The food economies of Atlantic island monasteries: the documentary and archaeo-environmental evidence. Environmental Archaeology 9(2): 179-188.

Scally G (2014) High Island (Ardoileán), Co. Galway: excavation of an early medieval monastery. Archaeological Monograph Series: 10. Dublin: Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Sexton R (1998) Porridges, gruels and breads: the cereal foodstuffs of Early Medieval Ireland. In: MA Monk, J Sheehan (eds), Early Medieval Munster: archaeology, history and society, pp 76-86. Cork: Cork University Press.