home News UCC archaeologists unravel enigma of Ireland’s Iron Age diet

UCC archaeologists unravel enigma of Ireland’s Iron Age diet

A project led by UCC, the first ever project of this kind in Ireland, has seen a team of international archaeologists reveal evidence about the diet of Iron age man in the south east of the country.

The evidence came from a variety of sources, including things like animal bones & seeds found in numerous excavations, revealed the food grown, cooked and eaten in Ireland over 2000 years ago, and has resulted in some experimental reconstructions of the Iron age cuisine in Ireland.

Dr Katharina Becker, an Archaeology lecturer here in UCC, commented on the findings: “we have identified evidence of settlement, as well as arable and pastoral agriculture, indicating that communities were thriving in the southeast of Ireland. The apparent lack of archaeological sites dating had previously created mystery around this period,”

“The animal bones and seeds recovered from road and gas pipeline excavations provide direct evidence of farming practises and the diet during the Iron Age, dating as far back as 2700 years ago. Cattle and pigs provided dairy and meat, barley was a staple, and we also have evidence of a variety of wheats, including spelt, emmer and naked wheat.”

The ‘Seeing Beyond the Site’ project, benefitting from the Heritage Council INSTAR funding grant, has been compiling information recovered from any such archaeological excavations carried out in the southeast region of Ireland, initially done during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period but also including more recent excavations.

The investigations were carried out by UCC specialists in later-prehistoric archaeology & paleoecology in connection with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, which is financially supporting the project, and was joined by an international research team including Specialists from Bradford University Warwick University & UCD.

The team employed cutting-edge modelling techniques to examine the findings against previous data collected on the study of pollen records preserved in lakes, bogs and other areas in the southeast. It was initially thought that no such records would have survived from that time period in this part of the country, given that activities like peat cutting & agriculture would likely have destroyed them, yet the team managed to recover a core from a lake which stretches right back to the end of the last ice age (approximately 11,000 years ago).

Dr Ben Gearey, also an Archaeology lecturer here in UCC, said that “the analysis of lake sediments which have accumulated over thousands of years allows us to identify the actual pollen grains from the plants that people were cultivating during prehistory. We can date these sequences using radiocarbon dating and compare them to the archaeological evidence of settlement and agriculture,”

In order to further its investigation into how farmers turned raw ingredients into meals during Ireland’s Celtic era, the team linked up with artisan baker Declan Ryan of Cork’s Arbutus Bread and with experts from the Cork Butter Museum & Cork’s Public Museum. Recipes used will be based on the range of charred grains & seeds that represent the remains of the actual foodstuffs grown by prehistoric peoples that were preserved in the soil for over two millennia.

The results of the experiment were twofold: Iron Age bread making, done with barley (a lower gluten cereal that did not offer an easy rise), and traditional butter making methods. These were made available on  20th of August during Heritage week, which gave visitors a first-hand experience of the procedure used to process grains & make butter in the prehistoric iron age era. The archaeologists’ methods, used to analyse cereal grains and animal bones found on these digs & excavations, were also explored in some hands-on sessions. “We want to give the public the opportunity to see for themselves how archaeologists and environmental specialists connect and make sense of the minute pieces of evidence found on archaeological sites to reconstruct the stories of people’s lives,” added Dr Becker.