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Food security in Bronze Age Ireland



Food security ensures that food is available and accessible. Food security in modern societies is a major global challenge, affected by a variety of factors, including increasing populations, social, economic and political instability, environmental degradation and changing climate (UN 2019).

The challenge of ensuring that food is available and accessible stretches back thousands of years. Without food security, even the most complex societies in prehistoric Europe could have faltered.

This project poses the question: how did past societies in Ireland manage food security?

FOODSEC takes a multi-strand approach to investigate this issue, combining archaeology, archaeological science, folklife and experimental archaeology.

Archaeobotany meets astrobotany at the UCD Festival

Archaeobotany meets astrobotany at the UCD Festival

The FOODSEC team will be at the UCD Festival 2024, which takes place on campus on the afternoon of Saturday 8th June. We are excited to collaborate with colleagues in modern and future plant sciences for this event.

Come along to "Plants for the Future" (information (opens in a new window)here) and learn how findings from the FOODSEC project on Bronze Age agriculture can help us better understand how we farm today and how we can plan for farming in the future.

Opening of the experimental pits at Cornstown House

Opening of the experimental pits at Cornstown House

Six months after we filled the experimental pits with grain and sealed them, we opened the pits at Cornstown House. Did the grain survive? Find out here.

Opening of the experimental pits at Raheen, Piltown, Co. Kilkenny

Opening of the experimental pits at Raheen, Piltown, Co. Kilkenny

Five months after we filled the experimental pits with grain and sealed them, we opened the pits at Raheen, Piltown, Co. Kilkenny. Did the grain survive? Find out here.

Our Research

FOODSEC (Food security in Bronze Age Ireland) provides a new scientific basis to understand food security in the past by undertaking a case study from Bronze Age Ireland (2200-800 BC). The Bronze Age is perhaps best known for the introduction of metalworking, and the creation of complex and exquisite bronze and gold objects. But it was also a time of significantly increased agricultural production, which enabled the creation of a strong economic base. Little attention has been paid to the development of food surplus, food storage facilities and food security, however. This project addresses this knowledge gap by exploring and integrating evidence from archaeology, archaeological science, folklore and folklife, and experimental archaeology.

Over the past 30 years, many archaeological excavations have been undertaken in Ireland, often associated with infrastructural development (such as road building projects) and housing. Archaeologists often recover the tiny, fragmentary remains of plant foods from these excavations, including cereal grains and the seeds of other plants. This material survives because it was burnt long ago, which can enable its preservation for thousands of years. Animal bones are also found on many excavations, both burnt and unburnt. Recovery of these plant and animal remains enables archaeologists to build up a picture of what people ate at different times and in different social contexts. Food storage facilities are also found during excavations, including ceramic and wooden containers, storage pits and above-ground structures. FOODSEC is collating archaeological evidence for food remains and food-storage facilities from Bronze Age Ireland. We are considering this archaeological evidence within the wider context of traditional food-security practices in Ireland by drawing upon folklife and folklore evidence. New experimental work and stable isotope analyses are also being undertaken to test the capabilities of subterranean pits and to learn about the growing conditions of crops. This multi-strand approach enables exciting new insights into food-security practices in prehistoric Ireland, helping people reconnect with the past by understanding how past societies dealt with the challenges of achieving food security.

Meet Our Project Team

Find out more about our project team members below.

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Assoc. Prof. Meriel McClatchie

Principal Investigator

The project is led by Meriel, who is a lecturer at the School of Archaeology, University College Dublin. Meriel’s research explores foodways, farming and landscapes, based upon archaeobotanical remains recovered from archaeological excavations.

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Dr Kerri Cleary


Kerri works closely with Meriel to manage the project. Kerri is an Editor and Research Manager with Archaeological Consultancy Services Unit (ACSU). Her research focuses on settlement and material culture in Bronze Age Ireland, and she has played a lead role in publishing major monographs on both large-scale infrastructural projects and research excavations.

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Dr Penny Johnston

Research Scientist

Penny’s research ranges from ethnology and oral history to archaeobotany and digital humanities. As part of the FOODSEC project, Penny is examining evidence for food-storage facilities from the archaeological record (focusing on underground and overground structures). She is also investigating if Ireland’s ethnographic record of food-storage practices in the recent past can inform our knowledge of the more distant past.

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Dr Erin Crowley-Champoux

Research Scientist

Erin’s research focuses on zooarchaeology and later prehistoric Ireland. As part of the FOODSEC project, she is collating and analysing archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological data from Bronze Age excavations in Ireland. Erin is particularly interested in finding out how stored foods might be detected in the archaeological record, including practices such as the fermenting and smoking of foods.

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Clodagh Doyle and Tiernan Gaffney

Project Partners

Clodagh is Keeper of the Irish Folklife Division at the National Museum of Ireland. She is based at NMI Turlough Park, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, and her research focuses on food and domestic life. Tiernan joined the Folklife Division in 2022, and his research focuses on folklore and ethnology, with a particular interest in communities within shared spaces. Clodagh and Tiernan are working with the FOODSEC team to explore Ireland’s ethnographic record of food storage practices in the recent past.

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Assoc. Prof. Amy Styring

Project Partner

Amy is an Associate Professor of Archaeological Science at the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford. Amy is an archaeological chemist and Head of the Stable Isotope Lab at Oxford, where she investigates everyday life in the past, particularly in relation to food production and consumption practices and their impact on the environment. Amy is working with the FOODSEC team to select suitable material from Ireland, and provide advice on best practice in analysis and results interpretation.

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Dr Liam Ryan

Project Partner

Liam is a consultant food scientist and a Project Partner. He brings expertise on the analysis of foodstuffs in a modern context. Liam is working with the FOODSEC team to assess the impact of common pathogenic bacteria and mycotoxins on grain stored in underground storage pits, the potential for fermentation, and the potential impact on human health of consuming stored grain.

Profile photo of Dominic Gryson and Michael Miklis

Dominic Gryson and Michael Miklis

Project Partners

Dominic is a farmer at Cornstown House, Co. Dublin, and Michael is a farmer at Piltown, Co. Kilkenny. They are two of the leading growers of organic heritage cereals in Ireland, including ‘lost’ crops such as emmer wheat and naked barley. Dominic and Michael are working with the team to test the efficiency and impact of pits to store cereal grains. Underground pit storage was one of the most widespread methods for the conservation of crops in bulk prior to the 18th century in Europe, but it is unclear if pit storage was well-suited to Ireland’s climate and environments. In 2023, the team dug storage pits at Dominic’s and Michael’s farms, filled the pits with grain (grown by Dominic), sealed the pits carefully, and we are now monitoring the pits to assess the impact of underground storage on the grain.

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The project is funded by the Irish Research Council COALESCE Scheme (2022–2024; Strand 1L INSTAR+; Project ID: COALESCE/2022/1623)

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Contact UCD School of Archaeology

Newman Building, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
T: +353 1 716 8312 | E: archaeology@ucd.ie