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Botany and Archaeology

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 19 Aug 2015 | comments*Discuss
 
Botany Botanists Archaeobotany

Botany as far as it is relevant in archaeology, mainly denotes all types of ancient organic material (in particular ancient plant remains) collected from excavation sites. The deliberate study of the interrelationship between humans and plants and the environmental context in which this occurred has been called archaeobotany.

Practical Benefits for Today

Archaeobotany can be understood as a sub-branch of archaeology where the scientist is specifically interested in studying how people used plants in the past. It is not only an historical endeavour but scientists in this field also hope, that by investigation of ancient plant practices, that there will be practical agricultural benefits for modern farming enterprises.

Valuable Aid to the Archaeologist

Information and data gathered by archaeobotanists at an archaeological site can provide valuable insights for the archaeological team and the expedition as a whole. For example, carbonised rice has been located at a site of whose occupants were once thought to have only eaten dry crops, such as millet. The discovery of a rice diet reaches far out into the fields surrounding the settlement: the present dry agricultural ground may once have been a well-watered rice field.

Egyptian Tombs Sparked Interest

Archaeobotanists have been interested in recovering archaeological plant remains and studying them ever since seeds and nuts were located in ancient Egyptian tombs in the mid 1820s. The easy to recognise organic items are known as macrobotanical remains as they are large enough to be seen and analysed either by the naked eye or low-powered microscopes, and include such items as leaves, fire coals, stones and pips of fruit, and grains such as wheat, barley, and oats.

The very small particle remains, such as pollen, require high-powered microscopy to aid recognition and study. For this reason microbotanical remains are always laboratory tested while macrobotanical remains can be assessed in the field but are usually also tested in the laboratory.

Seeds More Than One Thousand Years Old

Scientists had always believed that grains, seeds, and other organic plant produce could not survive for hundreds of years and therefore little earnest research was developed in the direction of archaeological botany. As better means of examination became available and as archaeologists further refined their excavation techniques, the means became available to recover and study ancient plant remains.

Archaeobotanists have discovered that fruit seeds and grains can actually survive fire, desiccation, and even long-term water saturation for more than one thousand years. This revelation has sparked a new interest in researching both macro and micro biological remains.

Specialisation of Skill

Archaeobotanists apply their skills in the study of four main areas of human-plant relationship.
  1. Uses of plants as a source of fuel
  2. Uses of plants in craftwork such as building or other construction, tools, textiles, medicine and the like.
  3. Uses of plants as food
  4. Methods of derivative extraction such as oils and juices
Most archaeologists have not had formal training or experience in archaeobotany. Therefore, few excavation sites employ serious archaeobiological techniques to their extracted soils. Biological investigation on a field site requires great patience and a keen eye. Excavated plant remains on the modern digging site are commonly seeds and pips, some of which are very small and hardly discernable with the naked eye.

On site botanists use a basic and easy method to recover these remains. The ‘Floatation Method’ is based on the premise that soil will sink while seeds will float. Collected soil is placed into suitably large containers and water is swirled in to mix to a thin solution. The soil is permitted to settle and organic residues will float on the top. These are carefully skimmed off and dried for examination.

Not Yet a Dedicated Science

Archaeobotany is a specialised area of investigation in archaeology but as yet is not a fully developed discipline in its own right. Archaeobotanists are likely to be closely aligned with anthropologists, geomorphologists, and archaeologists rather than be examining on their own. Thus far, archaeobotanical data has been the result of spin-offs from dedicated archaeological or anthropological studies but continued interest will blossom the recovery of botanical data for its own sake.

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