Student blog – Life as an Archaeobotanist at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey

This month’s student blog post is inspired by the ‘Day of Archaeology’, which took place recently (24th July 2015), where hundreds of participants posted online entries describing their individual days working in the world of archaeology. Here I will present some of my own perspectives as a PhD student working in the field of archaeobotany, by describing my recent fieldwork in Turkey.

I spent two weeks working at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Çatalhöyük, a substantial Neolithic settlement located near Konya in central Turkey. This is one of the main archaeological sites for my PhD research, in which I am investigating the specific methods used in early farming practices in western Asia. This was my fourth visit to the site, and as an archaeobotanist I spent most of my time working inside one of the on-site laboratories. Çatalhöyük is one of the largest research excavations that I have worked on, with over 100 participants working there at once at its peak, and a good proportion of the team are specialists such as myself. I specialise in plant macro-remains, the charred seeds recovered from archaeological deposits by machine flotation, although I also share the lab with other plant specialists working on phytoliths and wood charcoal, as well as the heavy residue team.

A typical day for me consisted of sorting through flotation samples using a light microscope to pick out and identify charred plant seeds. My PhD research focuses on the wild plant species, or ‘weeds’, that accompany dense grain deposits indicative of storage, so I generally work with a lot of very rich and well-preserved samples. Many of these samples were retrieved from burnt buildings, and present some of the best-preserved primary storage evidence for the Neolithic period in the region, so I feel very lucky to be working on them!

Photographing charred 'weed' seeds at Çatalhöyük.

Photographing charred ‘weed’ seeds at Çatalhöyük.

I also spent parts of the day photographing some of the wild taxa that I found, using a special camera that fits onto the microscope, in order for them to be more accurately identified back in the UK. Identifying seeds to species can be very time consuming, particularly for wild taxa, and it often requires a comprehensive modern seed reference collection. Unfortunately this is not something that can be brought along with me, nor did I have enough time this visit, so quality photos of the charred specimens for identification back home are the next best thing. Although an important task, this process can often be quite dull so I made sure that I had plenty of interesting podcasts to listen to (‘TED Radio Hour’ being my favourite) in order to get me through it!

Occasionally I get the opportunity to don my trowel and get stuck into digging. As an archaeobotanist I rarely get to excavate anymore, so I really enjoy the occasional opportunity when I get called onto site. This usually happens when obvious clusters of charred plant material are uncovered, as these need to be taken as separate samples. This year I got to excavate a preserved storage bin feature from a side room area, though once fully excavated the associated pocket of seeds appeared to signify collapsed material rather than its original contents, perhaps representing the remains of a small hanging basket. It is always really exciting to see my samples collected in the field and it helps me to maintain a useful perspective on the varying nature of the contexts where plant remains are recovered.

A more unusual aspect of the fieldwork this year occurred when we were consulted for an Australian TV programme that featured the site. Me and two other archaeobotanists were asked to help prepare examples of Neolithic meals based on what we know from the archaeobotany of the site. It was quite fun to cook and to taste some of the foods that we have studied so closely down the microscope, even if they were not exactly the most delicious of recipes…

Experimenting with Neolithic meals for a TV programme.

Experimenting with Neolithic meals for a TV programme.

Now back in (rainy) Oxford, I am currently processing through the many images taken during my fieldwork and sorting them into different weed types. The lengthy process of identification now begins and I must admit that I am already missing the glorious Turkish sunshine!