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Experimental pit storage

Food storage in the past was very different from today. Before electricity, there were few options for long-term storage. One solution used across Europe until the 18th century was the storage of cereals in underground pits. No form of internal lining was required, but an airtight seal across the top of the pit was necessary. When the pit was sealed, the trapped oxygen began to be replaced with carbon dioxide. Once a critical level was reached, further decay was prevented, and most of the grain would remain fresh until the seal was broken. Was this storage technique used in Ireland? Two farmers in Ireland are working with researchers at UCD School of Archaeology to find out.

At Dominic Gryson’s farm at (opens in a new window)Cornstown House, Co. Meath, the team has dug six pits and filled them with the types of cereal grains grown in Ireland around 3,500 years ago, including emmer wheat, naked barley and hulled barley. The pits contain sensors that record internal temperature, humidity, oxygen and carbon dioxide. We are learning about the efficiency of underground storage, the impact of these environments on the grain, and how pit storage helped communities through lean times in Ireland thousands of years ago.

At Michael Miklis’s farm in Piltown, Co. Kilkenny, the team has dug four pits and filled two with emmer wheat and two with hulled barley. The pits contain sensors that record internal temperature and humidity, and we also take manual readings to assess oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Undertaking the pit experiments at two locations is intended to help us understand the impact of different sediments, geologies and environments on the stored grain.

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