The above excerpt is from the “Romance of Mils and Dubh Ruis” an early Irish text. The passage is clearly describing a fulachta fiadh. We have already discussed how dubious descriptions in old Irish texts can be, so how do we know if the routine described above would actually work? This question was asked more than 50 years ago by Michael O’Kelly and more recently by Christy Lawless ( Lawless, 1990). They actually performed some experimental archaeology to see if fulachta fiadh made a good cooking place ( Fig. 3&4). I feel it is important to discuss the experiments to show how well a fulachta fiadh works as a cooking place. I will discuss Michael O’Kelly’s experiments as they are more detailed.
He experimented in reconstructing the fulachta fian at Ballyvourney, Co. Cork. During the excavation he came across such features as a stone lined pit (a suspected oven), stepping stones, 2 hearths, a wood lined trough filled with water that seeped in from the surrounding peatty area. He also uncovered four small post holes forming a rectangle, then concluded that it was probably a butchers rack. He also came across two vertical postholes that he concluded was a meat rack. The remains of a small circular wooden hut was also found and he concluded that this was probably a meat store. During reconstruction he found that a butchers’ block could be made quite easily from new timber by making four new posts, running timber from head to foot and across the sides, then placing short timbers across them at right angles. The finished product made for quite a sturdy block. The meat rack was reconstructed by getting two new pieces of timber, placing them in the ground and laying a piece of horizontal timber across the top. The wooden hut was also easily reconstructed.
The most crucial part of the experiment involved the trough. Could water be heated in it by hot stones? Could a joint of meat be cooked in it? O’Kelly replaced the corner stops and planks with new wood and filled in any interstices with moss. He then filled it with water from the nearby stream. He lit a fire in the hearth and placed the stones carefully into it. A long spade like shovel was used to place the heated stones into the water. With this method they found that the water in the trough (454 litres) could be brought to the boil in 30-35 minutes. While the water was heating they prepared the meat, firstly wrapping it in a covering of clean straw and binding it with rope. This process was found to keep the meat free of grit and chips of stone then, basing himself on the modern recipe ‘20 minutes to the pound and 20 minutes over’ they boiled the meat for three hours and twenty minutes, keeping the water simmering by adding a new hot stone every few minutes. When the meat was taken out it was found thoroughly cooked, free from contamination or any smoky or ash taste. O’Kelly conducted a lot of other experiments but the main point to note from all of this is that meat could be butchered, hung out, stored and cooked at a fulachta fian relatively easily.
As discussed earlier it is hard to state that fulachta fiadh were used conclusively for cooking due to the lack of animal remains. In all the excavation reports I have read they all seem to ‘assume’ that cooking went on e.g. “The assumption that this was a cooking trough therefore, is mainly based on the steep nature of its sides, especially the west and south sides (which were) particularly steeply cut” (Doody 1987). There are some sites that cooking definitely did take place. One such site is Peter Street, Waterford. The site “appears to have been used for cooking. The presence of at least four mortars in the background fill suggests that this area was used for the preparation of food” (Walsh 1990). The finds of animal bones also depends on the quality of the soil from the area the site is found in. If the soil is in any way acidic no animal bones would remain. A fulachta fiadh excavated at Fahee South, Co. Clare produced a large number of animal bones from the trough, pit and surface area of the site. “The preservation of bone at Fahee South, may be due to a reduced soil acidity caused by the effect of the carboniferous limestone on the soil and ground water” (O’Drisceoil 1988). This fact must be taken into consideration when deliberating on the cooking theory.
There is one last point of discussion I would like to develop upon. Just as I compared fulachta fiadh to other baths/saunas in the world I would like to compare them now to other cooking sites in the world. If we look to Switzerland there are comparisons to be made with some bronze and iron age cooking ovens. There are a lot of similarities to be found between the stone lined pit at Ballyvourney and cooking ovens at La Roche. The pit at Ballyvourney was 2m in length. It was wedge shaped and six thin flags of shale were lain down to form a floor. A thick layer of fine charcoal had been brushed out through a small gap in the north east corner, so obviously a fire had been lit inside, probably to heat the floor and the walls of the pit. The pit was also built to receive heated stones. At La Roche in Switzerland a rectangular structure was found measuring 2m in length. Stones measuring between 10 and 17cm, partly burned, cracked or shattered formed a regular horizontal layer on the floor. Under the stones a thick deposit of ash and charcoal was found. At a similar second structure at the same site, stones showing signs of fire were found in small piles outside the pit, remains of an animal bone at La Roche also go to show that the site was used for cooking (Ramseyer, 1990). The similarities of both sites are hard to ignore.
I also think it is important to mention that the name fulacht fiadh and fulacht fian have been in the Irish language for at least a millennium. The word fulacht originally meant a recess or cavity and through time it came to be known as a pit used for cooking. Fiadh and fian further emphasise this as they translate as ‘of the deer’ and ‘of the roving band of hunters’ respectively. This all matches up with the literary references to fulachta fiadh being cooking places.
What are fulachta fiadh? |
Arguments for cooking |
Arguments for bathing/saunas |
Arguments for textile centres/laundries |
A compendium of excavted fulachta fiadh | The study of textiles in archaeology | Bibliography |
The washing experiment | The dyeing experiment | The fulling experiment | Results and concluding thoughts |