Biological Evidence: The Carbonised Plant Remains

Mark Robinson

Several small pits containing much charcoal and some burnt bone were found inside the circular building (Timber Building 3) at Silchester Insula IX adjacent to its wall trench. Samples from two of these, contexts C5589 and C6062, were subjected to flotation in water onto a 0.5mm mesh to recover charred plant remains and then the non-floating residues sieved to 2mm to recover bone fragments. The dried flots were sorted under a binocular microscope and the plant remains from them identified.

Results for charred remains are given in Table 1. The carbonised material had the appearance of a substance which had become charred in a semi-liquid state. It contained some vegetative plant fragments which could not be identified. The ratio between charcoal types was established by identifying 20 fragments from each sample. The Quercus (oak) charcoal was all from fast-grown sapwood. No fragments were from wood which had grown for less than five years while the absence of tyloses suggested none to have been more than about 20 years old. The Fraxinus excelsior charcoal was of wood which had spent many years growing very slowly and had then experienced rapid growth. Some of the seeds were encrusted with amorphous charred material but no seeds were noted in the vesicular lumps.

The oak charcoal suggested that a managed supply of fuel, perhaps from a coppiced woodland, was used to effect the cremations. With the exception of the grain of Hordeum sp. (barley) and the seed of Galium aparine (goosegrass), the seeds were all from plants which can be found growing together in marshy pastures. Seeds of Eleocharis S. Palustres sp. (spikerush) were particularly numerous. It is not easy to establish what the carbonised vesicular material was. If it had been bread, it would not have gone through the semi-liquid phase when being burnt and it was not from burnt fruit. It most closely resembles burnt herbivore dung.

Interpretation of the remains other than the charcoal is difficult. Plants of marshy pasture are thought unlikely as fuel or kindling material for burning animal sacrifices at Silchester. Likewise, dung is thought unlikely as a fuel. It is possible that the parts of animals which were burnt included the intestines. It is also possible that organs extracted from sacrifices for divination purposes were burnt. In either case, it is suggested that the dung-like material and the seeds were from animal gut contents.

Context No. C5589 C6062
Sample 905 928
Sample volume (litres) ? ?
Weight of carbonised material (gm)130120
Carbonised vesicular 'crusted' material with some plant tissue little some
Charcoal - percentage
Quercus sp.oak 30 100
Fraxinus excelsior L. ash 70 -
Seeds - number
Ranunculus S. Ranunculus sp. buttercup - 1
R. flammula L. lesser spearwort - 1
Trifolium sp. clover - 7
Rumex sp. dock - 8
Galium aparine L. goosegrass - 1
Eleocharis S. Palustres sp. spikerush - 81
Carex sp. sedge - 6
Hordeum sp.- hulled hulled barley - 1
Gramineae indet. grass - 2
Seed indet. - 14
Total seeds 0122

Table 1: Carbonised material from Silchester A. 2005, 27 animal cremation samples


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