The environmental context of past societies: Seventeen years of archaeobotany in Environmental Archaeology

By Don O’Meara

Since its launch in 1996 Environmental Archaeology has become an important medium through which contemporary archaeobotanical research is published. Indeed, the very first volume was dedicated to a topic firmly linked to archaeobotany: The Archaeology of Fodder. With a recent edition (February 2013) focusing on the ‘Bioarchaeological research on animal dung’ it could be argued that the journal has come full circle. Thus, it is a good time to digest the contribution the journal has made over the past 17 years. In the introduction to the first volume it is remarked that “growing interest in this topic is now being shown from an impressively broad range of specialisms within environmental archaeology” (Charles et al. 1996). This firm multidisciplinary commitment, which is evident in the range of specialisms represented in that first volume, would reoccur up to the present time. The contributions to Environmental Archaeology are often presented by large multidisciplinary teams, however, along with results from large projects the journal also publishes research from single archaeobotanists working on specific topics or a single site. This includes work on charred and waterlogged plant macro-fossils, wood, charcoal and phytoliths. Added to this, the ‘Short Contributions’ section has often been an effective sounding board for methodological issues of archaeobotanical significance or for presenting ‘notes’ on interesting discoveries.

animaldungFrom its first issue to the present time the publication of multidisciplinary research has been prominent. Studies which have presented the results from three or more forms of proxy evidence have included the publication of results from the Faroe Islands (Church et al. 2005 vol. 2), channel fill deposits of a Bronze Age date from Staffordshire, England (Smith et al. 2001, 1-12), or the remains from the Late Roman Farm of Boreham, Essex (Murphy et al. 2000, 35-48). In other instances the publication of papers with a more concentrated archaeobotanical focus can present the results of a single project, or highlight important changes or new development in a well known field. Projects which have been included in this way include Bertacchi et al. (2002, vol. 2, 181-188) presenting the results of the examination of remains from the Roman Harbour at Pisa, Italy, the discussion of medieval flax retting from Poland (Latałowa and Rączkowski 1999, 33-40), or Solvedt’s paper on carbonised cereal remains from Neolithic and Bronze Age Western Norway (2000, 49-62). Aside from presenting new results, several papers highlight recent developments in prominent sites, reminding us that ‘classic’ papers or sites reports which might be required reading for archaeobotanists might be out of date if we’ve not kept up to speed with current developments. These papers have included reviews of Roman plant foods in Britain (van der Veen et al. 2008, vol. 1, 11-36), an investigation of prehistoric and Roman agricultural production and consumption models (Stevens 2003, vol. 1, 61-76), new aspects of archaeobotanical work at Neolithic lake dwellings in Switzerland (Hosch and Jacomet 2001, 59-71), and a reassessment of the cultivation of wild plants at Tell Abu Hureyra (Colledge and Conolly 2010, vol. 2, 124-138), which was itself part of a special edition themed ‘Early agriculture in uncertain climates: themes and approaches’.

waterloggeddepositsThe archaeobotanical papers published in the journal also include discussion on theory and methodologyfrom leading researchers. These have included papers such as ‘Wheat Identification – Why bother?’ by Jones (1997, 29-34), Smiths paper ‘Criteria to Distinguish Capsule Fragments of Flax/Linseed (Linum usitatissimum L.) from Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum L.)’ (1999, 19-24), Akeret ad Kühn’s paper on identification of leaves of Cyperaceae (2008, vol. 1, 37-50) and Hall, Kenward and McCamish’s study of thinly distributed plant and invertebrate remains (2003, vol. 2, 129-144). Vandorpe and Jacomet’s paper on pre-treatment methods for strongly compacted organic deposits (2007, vol. 2, 206-214) and work by Jones et al. on a means to assess the level of preservation of waterlogged deposits (2007, vol. 1, 71-86) present current research on sample processing which are applicable to many researchers. Advice and best practice on the collection and storage of reference material has been discussed by Nesbitt et al. (2003, vol. 1, 77-84) and Fairbain’s paper on the preparation of leaf epidermis specimens for reference collections (2003, vol. 2, 167-175) add to the papers which present practical advice from leading researchers in their field. Other papers from the ‘Short Contribution’ have included Ryder’s identification of Bronze Age hemp fibres from Scotland (1999, 93-95), Cooreman’s identification of Caper (Capparis spinosa L.) from medieval layers in Belgium and Pelling and Robinson’s discussion on emmer wheat from Saxon sites in Britain (2000, 117-119).

Experimental methodology such as Carol Palmer’s examination of ’An Exploration of the Effects of Crop Rotation Regime on Modem Weed Floras’ (1997, 35-48), or observation on the changing vegetation of abandoned agricultural river terraces (Palmer et al. 2010, vol. 1, 64-80) discuss modern analogies and observations relevant to understanding the ecological impacts of agriculture. Experimental work by Wallace and Charles (2013, vol. 1, 18-30) on the survival rates of plant remains through the ruminant digestive system is one of a number of papers in a recent edition dedicated to the identification and analysis of dung in the archaeological and archaeobotantical record. Stokes and Rowley-Conwy’s examination of the potential of fat-hen (Chenopodium album) to be exploited as a food source (2002, 95-99) is one of a number of papers to provide consideration for the interpretation of archaeobotanical assemblages. The frequent enthohistorical studies such as Bell’s paper ‘Changing Harvest Dates in Post-Medieval Ireland’ (1998, 69-71) and papers on the use of leaf hay (Halstead et al. 1997, 71-80; Haas et al. 1997, 81-86), or the social context of plant use in medieval south central Europe (Sillasoo 2009, vol. 1, 76-89) present historical or ethnographic research which present useful analogies for researchers working in other regions.

Wood and charcoal analysis has included studies of charcoal exploitation in medieval Yorkshire (Wheeler 2011), hypocaust fuel in Roman Britain (McParland et al. 2009) and the use of woods in the construction of fish-traps during the Neolithic in the Netherlands (Out 2008, vol 2, 1-10). Papers have also included regional examinations of ecological change as examined via the environmental archaeology record, including woodland change in the Southern Levant (Mithen et al. 2007, vol. 1, 49-70) and woodland use in 4th Millennium BC Jura, France (Dufraisse 2006, vol. 1, 87-99).

The geographical spread of the papers represented in the journal reflects the growth of the AEA in recent years with papers being published from researchers in many parts of the globe. This includes papers on rice remains from Neolithic China (Zheng et al. 2002), the social context of the emergence of Chinese agriculture (Fuller and Qin 2010), the archaeobotany of pulses from Indian archaeobotany (Fuller and Harvey 2006, vol. 2, 219-246) and woodland fire patterns in western Canada (Brown and Hebda 2002, 1-12). As well as these archaeobotanical contributions in the 2011 special edition ‘Recent studies in Australian palaeoecology and zooarchaeology: A volume in honour of the late Su Solomon’, present results from the southern hemisphere, as did palaeoecological studies from Brazil (Iriarte and Behling 2007, vol. 2, 115-127; Scheel-Ybert and Dias 2007, vol. 2, 129-138).

The range of topics and themes discussed, an ever increasing geographical spread, and an increase from 2 issues per year to 3, combine to make Environmental Archaeology an increasingly important medium for the presentation of archaeobotanical research. This expansion has occurred as its parent organisation, the Association for Environmental Archaeology (AEA), has also grown in recent years, and we hope will continue to grow in the coming years.