Thursday, 3 February 2011

Seafoods in Prehistoric Wales

Dr Rick Schulting (Lecturer in Scientific and Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Oxford) gave yesterday’s (2 Feb 2011) Origins Lunchtime Talk at the National Museum Wales, Cardiff. His talk, in the renovated Clore gallery, was entitled ‘Cockles, sewin and laver: the uses of seafoods in earlier prehistoric Wales.’ He summarized work he has done in collaboration with the Museum over the past decade; analysing ancient human remains to investigate diet.

Shifting ice sheets and changing sea levels have left little direct evidence of coastal communities in prehistoric Wales. Therefore, human bone fragments have been subject to indirect scientific analysis. Dr. Schulting explained how alkaline conditions are best for preserving human bone, and how caves on Caldey Island and on the Gower Peninsula were explored – some extreme archaeology was involved. The material found in these sites is preserved and studied in the Museum.

The analytical methods used involve looking at isotopes: atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons. For example, carbon atoms normally have 12 neutrons. Carbon-14 is used to tell the age of material, because it is unstable and decays over long time-periods. Carbon-13, which accounts for about 1% of the world’s carbon, is stable and can be used to determine type of diet from bone fragments. A higher proportion of C-13 (compared to C-12) occurs in animals with a marine diet, while a lower proportion of C-13 is indicative of a terrestrial diet. Isotopes of nitrogen are also useful in understanding prehistoric diets. The proportion of different nitrogen isotopes in bone is indicative of an animal’s place in the food chain. In humans, vegans differ markedly from vegetarians and omnivores in their nitrogen isotope profile.

It seems the Mesolithic Welsh were eating large amounts of seafood in their diets around 8,500 years ago. These items probably included the cockles, sewin (a Welsh brown trout) and laver (edible seaweed) of the talk’s title – all familiar dietary items in South Wales today. However, a change of diet occurred as the Mesolithic period gave way to the Neolithic period (characterized by farming, pottery and other early human technologies). With farming came a marked change in diet, with terrestrial plants and animals dominating and much less seafood being eaten in the coastal areas around Tenby and the Gower.

Dr. Schulting’s interesting lecture was the first of ten Origins Lunchtimes Talks at the Museum. Future subjects include Eunuchs in Antiquity (Feb 16th), Vikings in the West (March 2nd), dendrochronology (March 16th), the Dinas Powys hillfort (April 13th) and the making of ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ (May 18th).

Further information:
National Museum Wales:
Dr. Rick Schulting:

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