Response to Archaeobotanists letter
In reply to the Irish Archaeobotanical Discussion Groups letter about the article on Fulacht Fiadh and brewing published in Archaeology Ireland, in the first instance we’d like to state our delight in receiving such a stimulating and provoking response and warmly acknowledge the group’s congratulations on our experimental endeavours. It is always a welcome and worthwhile experience to engage in a debate on a subject which obviously exercised many minds, and if all we succeeded to do was facilitate a discussion on the function of the fulacht fiadh then we can count our work as a success. Furthermore we support the group’s assertion that further analysis of micro-residues from fulacht fiadh sites is necessary and may indeed provide a better understanding of activities taking place at these enigmatic sites.
The Irish Archaeobotanical Discussion Group raised two issues in relation to our research both of which were not entirely unanticipated and touched upon, if ever so slightly, in our original article. The first issue was in relation to the ‘conspicuous’ lack of plant macro-remains from fulacht fiadh in Ireland (e.g. grains, chaff and seeds).
In all we used 150 kg of malted barley in making our ale over the course of three brews, a small percentage of this we used to make malt loaves or griddle biscuits (as Beernut mentions in his comment) and some we fed to cattle as a fodder (as both Beernut and Chris G mention), the bulk of the mashed grain however was simply dumped to the rear of Billy’s garden in Headford. Within a matter of weeks this dump had entirely disappeared to the extent that it was practically impossible to determine the exact dumping spot. The spent grain had simply been eaten by animals, birds or vermin. This explanation is certainly not a scientific one but discarded food whether in the Bronze Age or 2007 will always find a willing consumer.
We also contend that the effort in growing, malting and milling the grain was such that even the spent product would have been regarded as a valuable resource and that in the interest of reusing the fulacht, following each mash the site would have been thoroughly cleaned and the detritus removed and recycled in the manner previously suggested.
The groups own studies of plant macro-remains from 132 fulacht fiadh throughout the country indicate that cereal remains were recorded at less than 8% of examined sites. Given the survival rate of spent grain in Billy’s back yard, we believe this to be a good starting point to build an argument for the theory, to use a drinking analogy, we prefer to see the glass half full if you will.
The arguments in relation to quern stones is certainly not central to the production process or the success of the experiment but is worth discussing. The group’s point that Querns ‘presence does not automatically mean that the processing of cereals was taking place at these sites’ is valid but the reverse is equally as true. As to ritual deposition we submit that our reference to Querns in association with fulacht fiadh is a practical interpretation of a tools use for a purpose it was originally designed for rather than investing its presence at such sites with a specious symbolic meaning. We’re of the Occam’s Razor school of archaeological thought (that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory).
We reiterate that fulacht fiadh were the kitchen sinks of the Bronze Age and possibly had many functions. However, in the balance of probabilities, we suggest that brewing was chief amongst them.