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Dublin: 14°C Thursday 18 August 2022

Someone has just worked out what the Irish ate for breakfast over 2,000 years ago

A new UCC-based project has been looking into the mysteries of what our forefathers ate each day.

16-92_H5A9668 Iron age bread, courtesy of artisan baker Declan Ryan Source: Tomas Tyner; AVMS; UCC.

WHEN YOU THINK of periods of human history like the Stone Age or Iron age, you probably think of early farmers living in crude dwellings. But have you ever wondered what they ate?

A new study by Irish-based academics at UCC is set to provide some answers to that question.

The project, the first of its kind in Ireland, has focused on what people based in the southeast of the country ate over 2,000 years ago. And those involved are justifiably excited about it.

The study involved investigating a ‘core’ – that is an excavated section of bog from beneath a lake – which was dug up and then searched for environmental sequences – that is, indications of what life was like when the layer was first formed. The analysis is performed using ‘cutting edge modelling techniques’.

16-92_H5A9741 Dr Katharina Becker and Dr Ben Gearey, lecturers in archaeology at UCC Source: Tomas Tyner; AVMS; UCC.

To give this some context, it was long assumed that no records of those times in that part of the country existed due to agriculture and peat cutting. That is no longer the case.

“It’s a very big deal, it’s a breakthrough really,” doctor of archaeology Katharina Becker told

For the first time we can reconstruct the landscapes of the Iron Age in this area (Lough Cullin in Co Kilkenny). People didn’t even really know if the south was settled during the Iron Age before now.

So, what exactly did our ancestors subsist on then?

They had farmsteads, they were settled, and they farmed pigs, cattle, and grain according to Dr Becker.

“We’ve found evidence of the processing of grain – drying kilns that would be used in a harvest, cooking troughs, and ironworking as well, together with animal bones” she says.

Barley was a staple, and evidence of many different kinds of wheat has also been discovered.

All this is determined from the aforementioned environmental sequences. The actual archaeology of the study is perhaps a bit more mundane.

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Images relating to Open day Department of Archaeology Declan Ryan grinding wheat Iron Age style Source: Tomas Tyner; AVMS; UCC.

“We’ve found the remains of the features of dwellings – but that are recognisable by signs of decayed wood say, which leaves behind a different coloured soil, or if a house had been dismantled the evidence of the space that a gatepost may have occupied would still be visible,” says Katharina.

But amid all this evidence of southern Ireland’s eating habits circa 2,700 years ago, the investigating archaeologists have taken things a step further. In teaming up with artisan baker Declan Ryan and the Cork Butter Museum and Cork Public Museum, they’ve attempted to recreate the meals that our farming ancestors might have eaten.

The recipes used are based on the grains and seeds discovered during the team’s analysis of the core. They’re even making butter.

16-92_H5A9703 It does look delicious to be fair Source: Tomas Tyner; AVMS; UCC.

You can check out the food produced (if you’re in Cork at any rate) at an open day at Cork Public Museum today, and get a tutorial in how the project analysed the animal bones and cereal grains it found while you’re at it.

“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,” says Katharina.

You can read more about the project, Seeing Beyond The Site, here.

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