Crab apples, 3500 BC to 2000 BC

Photo of charred apple from Carrownagark 1, Co. Sligo, excavated by IAC Ltd. Photo by John Sunderland

Hello, I’m Penny and I work as a researcher with Project TIME. I am an archaeobotanist, so I look at plant macro-remains (usually charred fruits and seeds) that are preserved in archaeological deposits. These are good raw materials for radiocarbon dates from excavated sites.  

I’m really excited about starting Project TIME’s database, it’s a great opportunity for me to also research lots of archaeobotanical results from the period between 3500 and 2000 BC. I’m particularly interested in looking at contexts where apple remains are found. Crab apples are native trees in Britain and Ireland and their fruit was probably utilised by people from the earliest times. However, several archaeobotanists have noticed that their remains seem more frequent in the period covered by Project TIME, particularly from approximately 3400 BC onwards (for example, see Whitehouse et al. 2014). 

I started thinking about this around 18 months ago when I was looking at a large quantity of apple remains (charred pips and fruit flesh) in a sample from Ireland. They came from an isolated pit found in Ballincolling, Co. Cork. Smaller quantities of hazelnut shell fragments and sherds of Beaker pottery were also found. A radiocarbon measurement from a hazelnut shell fragment,  3799 ± 28 (UBA-42767) suggests activity in the late third millennium BC.*

Then, a few months ago, I was looking at samples from another site in Carrownagark, Co. Sligo where lots more apples were found, also from pits associated with pottery (lithics were also found). You can see from the photograph here that some apples survived intact — amazing!*

When I looked for parallels it turned out that large quantities of apple were also found associated with pottery and lithics from a site in Angus in Scotland (Robertson, 2015) and another site in Worcestershire in England (Clapham, 2018). In both cases these were associated with Grooved Ware, and the calibrated radiocarbon dates from the charred apples ranged from 3000–2600 cal BC. 

It’s interesting that these deposits are associated with pottery (and sometimes with lithics) and that they are found in pits. Both Grooved Ware and Beaker pottery can be found in special (‘structured’) deposits, with the pottery deliberately and carefully placed in pits. Could it be that plants were also specially selected and placed in the pits? After all, plants and foods have a symbolic as well as a utility value. For example, Irish mythology and folklore often associates apples with the otherworld, fertility and healing (although these traditions are much more recent than 3500–1500 BC!) 

I am looking forward to starting our database; hopefully we’ll find out that there are several more pits full of apples out there, in the archaeological grey literature. 

*Thanks to Avril Purcell from Lane Purcell Archaeology for the details about the site in Ballincollig and to IAC Archaeology for the details about the site in Carrownagark. The photograph of the charred apple was taken by John Sunderland.


Clapham, A. (2018) ‘Plant macrofossils from non-palaeochannel deposits’, in Jackson, R., & Mann, A. Clifton Quarry, Worcestershire: Pits, Posts and Cereals: Archaeological Investigations 2006-2009. Oxford: Oxbow Books.  

Mac Coitir, N. (2003) Irish Trees. Myths, Legends and Folklore. Cork: The Collins Press. 

Robertson, D. (2015) ‘The ecofact assemblage’, in Hawthorne, D., Roy, M. and Streatfeild-James, J. ‘Crab apple processing: the contents of an isolated Neolithic pit at Courthill Farm, Inverkeilor, Angus’, Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal, 21–22, pp. 7–14. 

Whitehouse, N. J. Schulting, R. J., McClatchie, M., Barratt, P., McLaughlin, T. R., Bogaard, A., Colledge, S., Marchant, R., Gaffrey, J., & Bunting, M. J.  (2014) ‘Neolithic agriculture on the European western frontier: the boom and bust of early farming in Ireland’, Journal of Archaeological Science, 51, pp. 181–205. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.08.009

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