Archaeobotany, or Palaeobotany, is the study of plant remains in Archaeology. These can vary in size from
microscopic plant remains (see also Pollen Analysis) to large wood pieces or complete trees.
People have used and modified plants since the earliest human presence in the world. Human diets have always
involved some proportion of plant intake (although this has varied in relation to animal-derived foodstuffs). With
the introduction of agricultures, humans have managed and modified plants and crops on an increasingly large and
complex scale. The remains of seeds, grain, fruit stones and nut shells can tell us about land-use, diets,
gathering strategies, forms of cultivation and even spiritual beliefs (a cultural area closely connected to the use
of plants for medicinal and perception-altering effects). Wood, plant fibres and charcoal can tell us about
buildings and industrial production (and are also used in dendro- and radiocarbon dating techniques). In common
with other environmental archaeologists, Archaeobotanists are primarily interested in reconstructing past ecology,
and understanding the role of humans in selecting and modifying the flora of their own environment.
Botanical remains are normally collected from excavated material using a flotation system which passes water
through a soil sample and separates tiny seeds, fibres and wood fragments from the soil, sieving them to a size
which can be as small as 300 microns (0.03 cm). Charred grains (which were burnt during drying or preservation
processes) are often particularly well preserved. The plant remains are then examined, identified and analysed
using microscopes. More recently, studying plant DNA has become of greater interest to archaeobotanists. Extracting
plant DNA is a much more elaborate scientific process, but early results promise a new and informative source of
information on ancient techniques of plant domestication, food residues on pottery, and plant-derived products such
as dyes and fibres used in artefact production.
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- J. Evans and T. O'Connor, Environmental Archaeology, Principles and Method, Sutton, Stroud, 2001.
- D.F. Dinacauze, Environmental Archaeology, Principles and Practice, Cambridge University Press, 2000.