Non-metalic Cooking Vessels in Ireland


Introduction

The three wooden troughs included in this research are considered to have been used for the heating of water or other liquids, most likely for food preparation, washing, or other 'domestic' chores. Infra-red imaging of each vessel has highlighted scorch marks on the interior, consistent with a process known as hot stone boiling. In this technique a volume of liquid is added to the vessel, and stones heated in a nearby fire are placed in the liquid. The quenching of the stones in the liquid raises the temperature such that the water eventually begins to boil. The scorch marks visible on the interior bases of these objects may indicate areas where an extremely hot stone has been left in place for too long- it seems likely that the hot stones were agitated or moved around within the liquid to prevent such scorching from occurring. 

None of the troughs included in this research have been radiocarbon dated, but some work has been done to stylistically date types of Irish vessels. The Grainger vessel is perhaps one of the earliest examples of a two-handled wooden vessels of similar type in Ireland. While more rounded than oblong in shape, the twin carved handles on this cauldron-like vessel are somewhat reminiscent of those on trough 473.1932 (Earwood 1991: 45, Fig.21). The Grainger vessel, part of the archaeological collection at the Ulster Museum, has been stylistically compared with Bronze Age metal cauldrons found in Ireland, and radiocarbon dating confirms a date between 1055 and 795 B.C. (Earwood 1989) .

 

Another cauldron-like wooden vessel, but with carved wooden handles comparable with those on trough Wk 285 was found in Clough bog, between Lisbellaw and Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh (Mahr 1934: 20), and has been radiocarbon dated to between 663 to 363 BC (Earwood 1989). While comparative stylistic dating appears to push the origin of these vessels back into prehistory, it could be argued that stylistic comparison of isolated features such as handles is not a secure process. The troughs included in this study vary considerably in shape and size to the vessels with which Earwood makes stylistic comparison (shown in the images above). Indeed, Earwood (1993,50-52) cautions that wooden vessels of this type are difficult to stylistically date, because they are rarely distinctive. Perhaps for user made objects such as these, making the handles in either of the three ways found on these vessels was the simply the most practical or traditional way of doing so. As has been demonstrated on the spade section of this website, the material culture in the Gaelic region of western Ulster included other object designs that could be considered archaic. Earwood (1993, 237) points to a curious decline in the technology associated with wooden vessel production in rural Ireland from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries.

"Whereas the stave-built vessel is one of the most common wooden artefacts from sites of the early historic period in Ireland, very few are known from the bog finds which make up the bulk of the evidence for the medieval and post-medieval periods. Stave-built vessels were made and used in medieval Dublin and other urban settlements but evidence from the rural areas shows that the majority of wooden vessels found here were produced by carving... Observations on rural life in Ireland dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries describe vessels of this archaic type which had become virtually obsolete in the rest of Europe." Earwood (1993, 237)

Heating water with hot stones has a long history in Ireland, and a type of archaeological feature known as fulachta fiadh are considered to have been used for this purpose. These archaeological sites typically include evidence of a trough shaped depression in the ground, and a nearby mound of heat fractured stones. The troughs in some of these sites are placed in waterlogged ground so that they would naturally fill with water, and in some cases are lined with stone or wood. While these sites, the earliest of which date back to the second millennium B.C.,  are interpreted as places where water was heated, the exact reasons for heating the water are disputed. A number of ideas have been put forward including cooking, making beer, bathing, and even using the steam from the process as a type of sauna. Radio carbon dating of Irish fulachta fiadh has demonstrated that heating liquids with hot stones in this way continued throughout the bronze age (2500-500 B.C.), and may have continued into the iron age (500 B.C.- 400 A.D.) 

Medieval literature

While radiocarbon analysis indicates that fulachta fiadh fell out of use well before the beginning of the medieval period, there are a number of references in the literature that suggest that heating liquids with hot stones may have continued into the medieval period.  One of the earliest written description of hot stone cooking comes from the 'Life of St.Munnu', a latin manuscript thought to have first been written prior to the fifteenth century (Ó'Néill, 2003, 79). The document recounts the lifestyle of the seventh century Irish saint, St. Munnu, otherwise known as St.Fintan. In one section which seeks to illustrate the tough, self-imposed monastic lifestyle, the preparation of food is described and translated as:

"They did not sieve the flour, but rather, mixed it in a basin with water, chaff and all, and cooked it with fire-heated stones." 

Perhaps more famously, Geoffry Keatings seventeenth century 'Foras Feasa ar Éirinn' (Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland), describes the mythical cooking habits of Irish mythological warriors, the Fianna. The text, derived primarily from earlier medieval writings, indicates that the warrior's servants prepared the products of their hunting by digging pits and 'plying them with the stones that were in the fire . . . until they were cooked'.  The warriors go on to arrange themselves around a second pit, 'bathing their hair and washing their limbs, and removing their sweat, and then exercising their joints and muscles'.  While both of these medieval texts refer to the use of hot stones for cooking at a point in the distant historical or mythological past, they demonstrate that the technology of using hot stones in this way was present in the late medieval cultural memory. Beyond cultural memory, Fynnes Morrisons accounts of life in Gaelic Ireland at the turn of the 17th century indicate that the 'wild Irish' of the period, "...drink milk like nectar, warmed with a stone first cast into the fire, or else beef-broth mingled with milk." Moryson (1735, 229) 

18th century cast iron cooking pots. From the Darby collection, Ironbridge Museum, Coalbrookedale, England. 

Cooking in Irish folk traditions

Given the prevalence of the iron three legged cooking pot in Irish cultural memory, it seems difficult to imagine a time when iron cooking vessels were not widely available in Ireland. Iron cookware is to some extent part of the symbolism of Irelands relationship with the cosy hearthside, the potato, and by association with the Irish great famine. Yet investigation of the archaeological record indicates that iron cookware was relatively uncommon outside of urban centres in medieval Ireland, and was more typically associated with high status contexts than with those lower down the social ladder. Indeed, the three legged cast iron cooking pots closely associated with Irish folk traditions may only have become widely available after an efficient means of mass production was established by Abraham Darby at Coalbrookedale in Shropshire, in the early 18th century. A 19th century type of flat bottomed iron pot known in Ireland as a 'bastible', may have been so-called because pots of this type were produced at Barnstaple in Kent.  The early sand casted iron pots produced at Coalbrookdale mirrored medieval three legged designs, and it is perhaps unsurprising that the antiquity of these vessels is misunderstood.

Yet, if the lower status medieval Gaelic population did not have access to iron cookware, how did they manage to heat liquids necessary for cooking, washing, and other 'domestic' tasks. While ceramics may have been used to this end, they too are uncommon in rural medieval Irish archaeological contexts.  Wooden vessels are much more prominent perhaps because they could be more easily produced from locally available materials, and were less prone to breakage than ceramics.  In the absence of metal and ceramic vessels, it seems possible that heating liquids with hot stones was a widely used method of cooking in late medieval Gaelic Ireland (Lucas 1965,81). Lucas notes in the same 1965 paper that hot stone cooking may even have been prevalent in western Ulster until the late 19th or early 20th century,

"The late Anthony O'Doherty, N.T., a native of Cruit Island, Co. Donegal, told me that he often drank milk heated in this way, and that it was the usual way until tin and iron vessels became common." Lucas (1965, 80)

 

Bibliography

Earwood, C. (1989) Radiocarbon Dating of Late Prehistoric Wooden Vessels. The Journal of Irish Archaeology 5, 37-44.

Earwood, C. (1991) A Radiocarbon Date for Early Bronze Age Wooden Polypod Bowls. The Journal of Irish Archaeology 6, 27-28.

Earwood, C. (1993) Domestic Wooden Artefacts in Britain and Ireland from Neolithic to Viking Times. University of Exeter Press.

Lucas, A. T. (1960) Irish Food Before The Potato. Gwerin: A Half-Yearly Journal of Folk Life 3 (2), 8-43.

Lucas, A. T. (1965) Washing and Bathing in Ancient Ireland. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 95 (1/2), 65-114.

Mahr, A. (1934) A Wooden Cauldron from Altartate, Co. Monaghan. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature 42, 11-29.

Moryson, F. (1735) An history of Ireland, from the year 1599 to 1603: With a short narration of the state of the kingdom from the year 1169. To which is added, A description of Ireland. Printed by S. Powell for G. Ewing.

O'Néill, J. (2003) Lapidibus in igne calefactis coquebatur: The Historical Burnt Mound 'Tradition'. The Journal of Irish Archaeology 12/13, 79-85.