UCC archaeologist getting a taste of the Iron Age

19 Aug 2016

Dr Katharina Becker. Photo: Tomas Tyner

Dr Katharina Becker is unearthing clues about how people in Ireland’s south-east ate thousands of years ago. She spoke to Claire O’Connell.

How would someone figure out what you ate last week? A dig through your shopping receipts, the rubbish bin and maybe even Instagram photos might give detectives a clue about your fodder. But how do we work out what people ate thousands of years ago?

“It is not easy,” said Dr Katharina Becker, a lecturer in archaeology at University College Cork, who is delving into the landscape of south-eastern Ireland to find out what people grew and ate in the Iron Age, as far back as 2,700 years ago.

Leftovers and landscapes

Future Human

Becker co-leads the Settlement and Landscape in Later Prehistoric Ireland – Seeing Beyond the Site project with UCC archaeologist Dr Ben Gearey, and they are unearthing clues from the ground to piece together the diets of the distant past.

“The main source of data is the material remains in the ground,” explained Becker. “We are excavating sites and finding the remains of past human activity, [including] the remains of the materials of what people used and ate.”

By analysing leftovers such as grains and animal bones in the soil and by looking at the state of the soil itself, the archaeologists can gather evidence for what people ate and how they prepared it.

But there’s another, less direct route, as well – to look at what plants were growing in the area at the time. To find that out, the scientists have been looking at pollen preserved underground.

“You can sometimes see pollen of cultivated plants – sometimes you find cereal – but pollen profiles also tell us more about the landscape – was it densely forested or was it wide open, probably deforested by human activity?”

Focus on the south-east

The project – which is funded by the Heritage Council and Transport Infrastructure Ireland and includes specialists from Bradford University, Warwick University, York University, Dublin City University and University College Dublin – has been looking for such evidence at road and gas pipeline excavations carried out in the south-east of Ireland.

Previous studies had focused on the midlands, and the researchers are examining sites in Kilkenny and Carlow to get a better picture of how people in Ireland lived there in the Iron Age.

The sites are scattered, and some of the bone fragments are tiny – the archaeologists had to fine-sieve the soil to find them – but a picture is starting to emerge.

“We know they lived in small farmsteads with associated fields, and we can start to paint a picture in detail,” said Becker, who described how cattle and pigs provided dairy and meat, barley was a staple, and there is evidence of wheat varieties too.

“There was both pastoral and arable – animals and cereal farming, that is quite new. Until recently, people were speculating if people [then] were nomadic. We can tell from weeds and grains, that the fields would have been in use for quite significant time.”

Early interests

Becker developed her interest in the humans of the past when she was a child, reading voraciously about ancient civilisations, and then volunteering on archaeological digs when she was a secondary school student. She studied archaeology in her native Germany and came to UCD to do her PhD, looking at where and why people deposited valuable metalwork in the landscape in the Bronze Age.

Sink your teeth into the past

And while we can marvel at metalwork in museums, the Iron Age diet project adds an extra dimension – the team has joined up with artisan baker Declan Ryan of Cork’s Arbutus Bread and experts from the Cork Butter Museum and Cork Public Museum to reconstruct foods based on ingredients found at the millennia-old sites. This Saturday (20 August) you can find out more about the process and sink your teeth into the results at an Open Day at Cork Public Museum.

“People on the day will decide for themselves,” said Becker. “But it taught me that there is a good reason we don’t use barley as the main ingredient in bread! Wheat is tastier.”

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication