Palynology is an independent science that studies palynomorphs such as pollen acritarchs, spores, dinoflagellate cysts, scolecodonts and chitinozoans, along with POM (Particulate Organic Matter) and kerogen found in sediment and sedimentary rock.
Of the above named types, pollen is probably the most commonly recognised by non-experts. However, it should be appreciated that the word pollen is a collective noun and should be understood in the same manner as the word flour. Neither use a plural alternative unlike the word spore / spores.
Pollen are defined as the multinucleate reproductive micro-gametophyte of seed vegetation. They are enclosed in a microspore wall. Archaeologists find fossilised pollen, generally identified by its shape and apertures.
Palynology has its application in archaeology in the analysis of spores, pollen, and other palynomorphs from archaeological sites in an attempt to reconstruct ancient diets, funeral practices, the function and use of discovered artefacts, the source of raw materials for tools or food consumption, the use of natural topography and artificial landscape changes, the domestication and cultivation of food plants, and the study of human impact on the ancient environment.
Hyde and Williams
The word palynology is said to have been introduced to academia in 1944, by Hyde and Williams, subsequent to correspondence in the magazine “Pollen Analysis Circular’ where the pair of researchers chose the Greek word ‘pale’, meaning fine dust, to convey the similar Latin thought of ‘pollen’ for fine flour or dust. So the word for the analytical study of fine pollens entered the English vocabulary.
A Branch of Earth Science
Palynology is an interdisciplinary branch science of the major earth sciences of geology, biology, and in particular, botany. Palynology deals with both contemporary and fossilised forms of palynomorphs but only the ancient forms are particular to archaeological investigation.
Methods of Studying Microfossils
The palynomorphs under consideration by archaeology are broadly defined as microfossils, organic-walled, and between only five and 500 micrometres in size. They are never usually found free from an enclosed matrix and the extraction process to obtain items for study may involve physical hand-sieving aided by ultrasonic treatments or more hazardous processes using acid digestion methods that literally eat away the surrounding non-organic rock.
Recovered samples are mounted onto glass slides and examined using scanning electron microscopy for very fine particles or less sophisticated microscopes for larger particles. Pollen grains are then identified and compared to pollen diagram charts before interpretation. The study of pollen palynomorphs is particularly useful in evidencing anthropogenic activity, and the history of climate change and vegetation.
This type of archaeological palynology studies the influence of climate change and vegetation on human behaviour and the resulting demographic patterning.
This branch of archaeological investigation focuses on the human impact on the environment through palynological study. Although dealing with the environment, archaeopalynology should not be confused with environmental archaeology.
This term is used in reference to the study of the sedimentary strata of archaeological sites and tends to focus on soils and soil type.
This is primarily a North American term, as they have tended to combine all of the above topics under one common title.
The analysis of artefacts, coprolites, soil, and rock on archaeological sites, in search of microfossils of pollen and other palynomorphs, is helping archaeologists to investigate the intimate inter-relationship between humans and their ancient environments that may be helpful for modern societies that are rapidly outgrowing their own environments.