Dairying in Irish Prehistory

The Evidence from a Ceremonial Center

By: Pam Crabtree

Originally Published in 1986

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Historical sources indicate that cattle have played a primary role in the Irish economy since the days of St. Patrick. In early Irish society “land was measured in terms of the cows it could maintain, legal compensa­tion was reckoned in terms of cattle, a man’s standing in society was determined by his wealth in cattle, and cattle raiding was a recognized form of warfare and adventure for young nobles” (Ó Corráin 1972:53). The Irish cattle seem to have been used primarily for dairying; meat was seen almost as a by-product. A wide variety of milk products was consumed, including fresh milk, thickened milk, soured and skimmed milk, pressed and unpressed cheeses, and salted and sweet butter (Ó Se 1948, 1949). Dairy products were known as white foods (banbidh) or summer foods denoting their season of availability.

A basic archaeological question is whether dairying was an important component of prehistoric Irish sub­sistence as well. Evidence for dairy cattle in the Iron Age comes from the faunal remains (animals bones) from the early Irish ceremonial site of Dún Ailinne, Co. Kildare. The site, which was excavated by Bernard Wailes of the University of Pennsylvania between 1968 and 1975, is located about 30 miles southwest of Dublin. (See Wailes 1976 for an interim report on the Dun Ailinne excavations.)

Dún Ailinne is traditionally asso­ciated with the kings of Leinster and is one of a small number of Irish royal sites of the pre-Christian period (Wailes 1982). Radiocarbon age determinations indicate that the site was occupied between about 300 B.C. and A.D. 400. At Dun Ailinne the main architectural fea­tures are a series of concentric circular ditches which would have held upright wooden posts forming a palisade. The site is surrounded by a bank and ditch which encloses an area of 13 hectares (Fig. 1). At Dun Ailinne and the other royal sites the bank is located outside the ditch. This is not an effective design for a fortification. Iron Age forts in the British Isles and on the continent have banks surrounded by ditches.

The external bank/internal ditch arrangement seen at Dún Ailinne and the other royal sites is char­acteristic of ritual sites. This pattern is also seen at henge monuments, ceremonial sites of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age in Britain and Ireland (Wailes 1982:19).

In the final phases of Iron Age occupation, Dún Ailinne seems to have been the site of periodic ritual feasts; animal bones formed a major portion of the archaeological evi­dence found there. Nearly 19,000 animal bones and fragments were recovered during the eight excava­tion seasons. As might be expected, cattle bones were the most num­erous, followed by pigs, and small numbers of sheep and horses (Fig. 2). The large numbers of pig bones were not unexpected either. Histor­ical sources, including sagas, tales, and lives of saints, indicate that bacon and pork were favorite foods in early Irish society (Lucas 1960:10). Mutton, on the other hand, was not commonly eaten. There are few references to the use of mutton in the early Irish sources (Lucas 1960:7). Horseflesh was not eaten in early Christian times. One reason for the ecclesiastical ban on its consumption may have been that early churchmen associated it with pagan rites (Lucas 1960:12).

Identification of a Dairying Economy

As noted above, historical sources indicate that cattle in ancient Ireland were kept primarily for dairying, not for meat. (See Lucas 1958, Ryan 1985, and McCormick 1983 for detailed dis­cussions of this evidence.) If the Dún Ailinne cattle were in fact dairy cattle, we would expect to find the bones of a large number of very immature animals. Since the yearly production of calves was essential for initiating lactation in cows, a large number of excess calves was produced each year (Legge 1981:86). Since only a few bulls were needed for reproductive purposes, most male calves were killed at young ages. In 17th century rural Ireland male calves were killed soon after they were born, and their skins were stuffed and placed near the cows to encourage milk pro­ duction (Lucas 1958:81). In a dairy­ing economy most of the adults will be elderly females, killed after their milk production has declined.

In order to identify a dairy herd archaeologically, we need to be able to determine the age structure of the population. Faunal analysts have developed several techniques for determining the ages at death of cattle bones. One which is commonly used is based on the analysis of teeth and jaws (Grant 1975). All mammals, including cattle, have two sets of teeth: (1) deciduous or milk teeth and (2) permanent teeth which replace the milk teeth in a known sequence for each species. Once all the permanent teeth have erupted, they continue to wear throughout an animal’s lifetime. A juvenile animal’s age at death can be esti­mated quite precisely by the extent to which the deciduous teeth have been replaced by the permanent ones. For an adult animal the degree of wear on the permanent teeth can provide a somewhat less exact estimate of age.

Estimates of ages at death for archaeological cattle are usually based on complete mandibles or lower jaws. Unfortunately, the Dún Ailinne faunal assemblage was heav­ily fragmented, and complete lower jaws were rare. Of the 17 nearly complete mandibles that were re­covered, however, 9 were from newborns and young juveniles up to six months of age (Fig. 3), 7 were from elderly adult cattle, and 1 was from a young adult. This age dis­tribution is consistent with a dairy­ing pattern. When individual loose teeth are examined, the results are even more striking (Fig. 4). Most of the loose teeth are milk teeth with little or no wear; the rest are per­manent teeth showing heavy wear which must have come from elderly animals.

In a dairying herd we would also expect most of the adult cattle to be female. In general it is difficult to determine sex from most cattle bones. The pelvis, however, is the most useful bone for sex determ­ination since the female pelvis is shaped to allow the calf to pass through the birth canal. Although few complete pelves were recovered from Dim Ailinne, those that did survive do seem to be predominantly female (Fig. 5).

Thus the archaeological evidence from Dún Ailinne is consistent with a pattern of dairy production. A high proportion of the calves were killed early in life, and most of the adults were elderly, probably fe­males who were no longer able to produce milk. If meat production had been a major goal of the subsistence strategy, we should have found a higher number of adolescent and young adult cattle.

The archaeological evidence from Dun Ailinne indicates that the site was not occupied on a year-round basis. No houses or other permanent residential structures were found there. The [fauna] data, when com­bined with the botanical evidence (Crabtree 1981), can also provide some information about the times of the year when ritual feasting may have taken place at Dún Ailinne. The plant remains included hazel­nuts and blackthorn or sloe (Prunus spinosa), both of which would have been available in September/Octo­ber. A number of juvenile cattle seem to have been killed when they were about six months old. If these cattle were born in the spring (as cattle are in Ireland today), they would have been about six months old in September/October. Another large group of cattle milk teeth show little or no wear at all. These calves must have been killed shortly after birth, possibly in May or early June. The faunal evidence therefore indicates that Dún Ailinne may have been used as a site of ritual feasting in the late spring or early summer and again in the fall.

These faunal data may help us understand the economic role of ritual sites in early Iron Age Ireland. In the late spring and early summer there would have been a surplus of young male calves. In the fall female calves not needed for future breed­ing and elderly females whose milk production had declined might have been eliminated. Ritual feasting may have served to use up seasonal surpluses of animals produced by a dairying economy.

Stock raising, and especially cattle keeping, has played a major role in European subsistence practices since the advent of food production (Bogucki 1984). In northwest Europe there is also a tradition of building ritual and ceremonial structures beginning in the Neolithic period. These sites include megalithic tombs, causewayed camps, and henge mon­uments. Excavations at a number of these sites have produced large quantities of animal bones, possibly indicating ritual feasting (see, for example, Mercer 1985). If we are to understand fully the economic basis of Neolithic Europe, we must con­sider the animal remains from these ritual sites and their possible re­lationship to seasonal surpluses in farm production.

Cite This Article

Crabtree, Pam. "Dairying in Irish Prehistory." Expedition Magazine 28, no. 2 (July, 1986): -. Accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/dairying-in-irish-prehistory/

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