Farming on the Emerald Isle

Welcome back to Farming Unearthed! Regular visitors may notice that I’ve redecorated – after more than two years of blogging, it seemed like time for some sprucing up. It seems like time, too, to revisit one of my pet topics: agricultural change in early medieval Europe. Previous posts have touched upon Spain, Italy,and my own province of Anglo-Saxon England (on which, more to come). Today I set my sights upon Ireland, and an excellent new(ish) publication:

O’Sullivan, A., McCormick, F., Kerr, T.R. & Harney, L. (2013/2014). Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100. The Evidence from Archaeological Excavations. Royal Irish Academy Monographs: Dublin.

Early Medieval Ireland AD 400-1100

This hefty and impressive monograph is something that could easily make other countries envious: a synthetic account of life and death in 5th-11th century Ireland using archaeological evidence from excavations spanning 1930-2012. It’s a handsome and well-illustrated tome of nine chapters, covering:  the background to early medieval Irish archaeology; dwellings and settlements; the church; farming; crafts and technology; trade and exchange; death and burial; and, of course, a conclusion. Naturally, it’s the agricultural Chapter 5 in the spotlight here.

The volume is one result of the elegantly-entitled “Early Medieval Archaeology Project” (or EMAP, to its friends), based at University College Dublin, which since 2007 has been working to synthesise, analyse and interpret data from early medieval sites in Ireland. This is no mean undertaking because, as the introduction makes clear, that’s an awful lot of sites (p.1):

“Nowhere else in Europe, and arguably perhaps in the world, is it possible to view early medieval settlement landscapes of such quality and preservation. In no other European country is there anything like 47,000 identified early medieval settlements.”

Much of this abundance is due to a boom in development-led excavation during the so-called “Celtic Tiger” years, circa 1995-2008. This aspect is important for our purposes here, because such recent excavations will often have employed good modern sampling strategies for the recovery of plant and animal remains – crucial for a better understanding of farming practices. The dataset (p.7) comprised plant remains from 60 sites and animal bones from >130 excavations, and the results were originally published in 2011, in a project report available online here. The chapter in this new volume presents the findings in a more digested – and digestible – form, and incorporates parallel work by other scholars, e.g. Monk & Power 2012. It should also be noted that, unlike its counterpart across the sea in Anglo-Saxon England, early medieval Irish farming is comparatively well-documented, mostly in law texts. Indeed, there’s an authoritative book on the mass of textual evidence, to which the EMAP work provides an archaeological counterpart (Kelly 1997).

 So, down to business, what’s the story in McCormick et al. 2014? The chapter leads us through seven sections discussing (1) social and economic organisation; (2) field boundaries, enclosures and roadways; (3) tools and tillage; (4) cereals and cultivation, including watermills and corn-dryers; (5) livestock farming; (6) natural food stocks, i.e. gathering, hunting and fishing from the wild; and (7) a conclusion. It’s a lengthy discussion, with some key points arising:

  • (p.193) There’s little archaeological evidence for a “permanent and organized pattern of fields”, but rather “open landscapes, with areas for cultivation and livestock rearing being secured by temporary wattle or brushwood boundaries.”
  • (p.195) Although there’s no firm evidence for coulters being added to ploughs before the 10th century – as previously argued by Brady – two possible examples have recently been discovered that appear to date from the early/mid 7th century. However, since one is apparently suspiciously small and the other hasn’t been fully published, the authors remain sceptical and plump for the 10th century date.
  • (p.197) There’s a shift in cereal cropping around the 8th century, characterised by diversification: earlier assemblages tend to be dominated by a single crop, whereas later assemblages are more heterogeneous.
  • (pp.198-209) Numbers of corn-drying kilns declined from the late eighth century onwards, after a 6th/7th century peak; confusingly, as the kilns decline in number, watermills increase in number (perhaps initially concentrated at ecclesiastical sites). A nuanced interpretation is offered, based on the changing morphology of the ovens over this period (emphasis added): “The evidence for fewer but more sophisticated larger kilns is a convincing indicator of a growing shift of economic power to a small noble class as arable farming develops from subsistence to producing surpluses.”
  • (pp.209-211) Cows were “a basic unit of wealth” and dominated animal husbandry until c.AD 800 when, in some parts, livestock diversified and cattle lost their predominance.

From all this, a synthetic model of change is proposed: in the 8th-9th centuries, livestock rearing diversified and became less important to the agricultural economy, while arable husbandry also diversified but became more important – and perhaps more closely controlled by lordly elites, who were perhaps responsible for the larger corn-dryers and watermills that appear around this time.

It’s a complex addition to the complex emerging picture of agricultural change in 7th-9th century Europe. Should we be viewing this as an international phenomenon? And what can it all mean?



Additional references

Kelly, F. (1997). Early Irish Farming: A study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD (Dublin).

Monk, M. & Power, O. (2012). ‘More than a grain of truth from a rash of corn-drying kilns?’, Archaeology Ireland 26 (100), pp.38-41.



6 thoughts on “Farming on the Emerald Isle

  1. ” And what can it all mean?” Perhaps the beginning of the Medieval Warm Period? Or of a somewhat drier period?

    P.S. I’m sorry to say that I find your light-on-dark very unpleasant to read – it’s leaving me a little dizzy.

  2. Yes, it’s very tempting to associate these trends with climatic (and demographic…?) change, and there’s some new-ish work that’s been published on the matter – I should blog about it specifically at some point.
    I’ve just switched back to a dark-on-light colour scheme, hopefully easier on the eye than light-on-dark, but not so stark as black-on-white (unfortunately I don’t have a full palette to choose from!).

    • Not exactly, but the question of woodland is discussed briefly on pp.180-1, with reference to pollen sequences. The authors note a period of forest clearance in the 3rd-4th centuries, and possibly again in the 9th century in some areas – the latter phase appears to be subject to dispute. They summarize: “the pollen evidence for early medieval Ireland indicates a landscape of scrubby woodland and mixed farming… Large areas of extensive forest were rare.”

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