Friday, 25 March 2016

Swords Castle: new evidence for food in medieval Ireland

A few weeks ago, I participated in a very enjoyable archaeology seminar organised by Fingal County Council in north Co. Dublin. The seminar was entitled "Swords Castle: Digging History -- First findings seminar", and it revealed the latest results from a fantastic community archaeology excavation, "Swords Castle: Digging History". I wrote about my involvement in this project in a previous post when the fieldwork was ongoing.

Under the leadership of Fingal’s community archaeologist, Christine Baker, the excavation at Swords Castle is helping to engage both locals and tourists with fascinating aspects of our past. During the summer of 2015, members of the public were invited to play an important role in the excavation as volunteers, where they had the opportunity to experience many different aspects of archaeological excavation, including digging, organising artefacts, washing pottery and bone, and processing environmental samples. Lots of soil samples were taken during the excavation for archaeobotanical analysis. Over the winter of 2015/16, I examined these samples in the laboratory to see what plant remains were present.

Selection of charred plant remains, Swords Castle
At the seminar in February 2016, I presented an overview of my work on the samples. The results were very exciting -- the samples contained an extraordinarily large quantity of food remains dating to the medieval period (AD 1150-1550). Thousands and thousands of wheat grains were present in the samples (you can see some examples of the wheat grains in the photo, 1). Many of the wheat grains had the appearance of Triticum aestivum (bread wheat), but it can be difficult to identify wheat grains to species level. Chaff remains are usually more diagnostic, and I was fortunate to find the chaff of bread wheat (2) in several samples, indicating that most, if not all, of the wheat grains are indeed bread wheat.

Other cereal grains were also present, including oat and barley (3 and 4), but the oat and barley were recorded in much smaller quantities when compared with the wheat. Arable weeds were also present (5), as well as beans and peas (6). The cereals are likely to have been used in many different food products, including breads, gruels, porridges, ales, and animal fodder. The legumes could also have been used as foods for animals and humans.

While the variety of food remains is pretty typical for a medieval site in eastern Ireland, it is the quantity of food remains that is particularly unusual. The presence of thousands of wheat grains in different areas of the site indicates that food played a very important role in activities at Swords Castle during the medieval period.

The importance of food here in medieval times is further highlighted by contemporary historical documents. Historical records confirm that Swords Castle was the headquarters of a manorial estate during the 14th century, and agricultural production and trade were listed as important activities associated with this estate. While the historical evidence for food at Swords was well known, the excavation has uncovered, for the first time, archaeological evidence for extensive food production in medieval Swords. It was very exciting to find the actual food remains mentioned in the historical documents! Analysis of the plant remains is ongoing, so watch this space for further results.