8 Historical documentary evidence

There has been no attempt in this paper to follow up the historical documentary records of plant remains from Classical times or the later periods. Several papers have discussed the importance of relating archaeobotanical work to the written and pictorial evidence, for example Green (1984), Willerding (1984) and Greig (in press). This may be useful in general terms, for example, to list the species which are unaccountably absent from the archaeobotanical record as Greig has done. It seems to the present authors, however, that the dangers of using such documentary evidence uncritically may lead to wrong interpretations of the evidence just as easily as can happen in archaeobotany. For example, species may be listed in medieval manuscripts because of their rarity whilst everyday foodstuffs are not mentioned. Evidence from faecal material on the other hand is much more direct, showing what people, at different levels of society, were eating. There is also the problem of identifying plants from their Classical or old English names. This type of detective work should perhaps be left to the botanical historians and etymologists. Biggam (1993) has demonstrated how complex a procedure the interpretation of Old English names can be. Where there is documentary evidence which is closely linked to the archaeological, as in the following example, there is, however, very good reason to use both sets of evidence together:

Recent fieldwork on the Falkland Islands (Philpott 1992) has revealed evidence of gardens enclosed by banks and ditches at Port Egremont. These were created by English settlers around 1766 but were already abandoned by the end of the 18th century. The plans for digging, manuring and planting the gardens, the initial poor success rate in growing the crops, and the details of the range of species which they brought from home are all fully documented in contemporaneous letters, cartographic plans and official papers. If fieldwork in future seasons includes excavation it is hoped that some archaeobotanical evidence might be obtained from the ditch fills to provide a comparison with the documentary evidence.

9 Conclusions

Using the ABCD it is thus possible to explore and review archaeobotanical evidence for food plants from the British Isles. The analysis has shown that although there is a great deal of evidence for the occurrence of food plants there are still many gaps in the record. These gaps are caused by factors of preservation and by the uneven spread of excavated material both temporally and in terms of types of site. Some periods, for example the immediate post-Roman period, are very poorly represented. There is perhaps a need for more targetted sampling in contexts from certain types of site, even where the potential for preservation of plant material is less obvious. The evidence of some categories of food plant is poor because they are not well preserved. Information concerning the leaf vegetables, for example, is still very thin, although progress has been made for some species.

Only by collating all the available data in this way is it possible to assess the evidence for the introduction, spread and use of different food plants across the British Isles in critical terms.

10 Acknowledgements

The ABCD was compiled during the tenure of a Science-Based Archaeology Research Award from the Science and Engineering Research Council, to whom thanks are due.

The authors would like to thank Dr Rob Philpott, Liverpool Museum, Dr Richard Evershed, Department of Biochemistry, University of Bristol and Dr Ann Conolly, Department of Botany, University of Leicester for their helpful contributions to the original work undertaken by PRT on which this paper is based. We would also like to thank Dr James Greig and Siobhán Geraghty for allowing us to use their not-quite-yet-published results.


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Last updated: Tue 27 Aug 1996