Major new research project will explore diet and food culture in 16th and 17th century Ireland

Dr Meriel McClatchie is a project partner in a major new research project that has just been awarded €1.5 million funding from the ERC (European Research Council). The project (FOODCULT) will explore diet and food culture in 16th and 17th century Ireland, finding out what was on the dinner table before the arrival of the potato into this region. The five-year project, led by Dr Susan Flavin of Anglia Ruskin University, will bring together historians, archaeologists and scientists to investigate what was eaten, where, why and by whom, at a level never before attempted in Europe.

The 16th and 17th centuries witnessed significant changes in the Irish diet, with the introduction of new foreign foods to the dining tables of the elites. Historian Dr Flavin notes: “Ireland presents a unique case study for understanding the dynamic role of food and drink in a society undergoing political and cultural change. Trade was booming in 16th century Ireland, there was colonisation and immigration from England, Scotland, Wales, France and the Netherlands, and there is evidence that certain global tastes filtered into the country. Foreign luxuries like sugar, turkeys, pineapples and artichokes found their way into the homes of elite. At the same time, new ways of 'civilised' eating and drinking were accepted, even among some in the lower classes of society”.

Written records of consumption from this period focus mainly on Ireland’s wealthy households and offer fewer details of the average diet. But in recent decades, archaeological excavations have unearthed the actual remains of foods – often comprising charred seeds and animal bone – and food-related objects. Dr McClatchie and her Ancient Foods Research Group at UCD have demonstrated how archaeology can provide new insights into food preferences across different social classes through detailed exploration of archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological and artefact data. Dr McClatchie said: “This is an exciting opportunity for UCD School of Archaeology to contribute our extensive expertise in analysing ancient foods, and we look forward to playing a key role in the inter-disciplinary research team. We will develop a database to map dietary evidence across different regions and social contexts, and we will work closely with historians, environmental archaeologists, isotope analysts and residue analysts to develop new understandings of food production, preparation and consumption”. The project is expected to commence in 2019.