1. Introduction

Archaeobotany, or palaeoethnobotany, is now an established sub-discipline of archaeology across much of the world. The recovery, identification and analysis of archaeological plant remains are helping to rewrite understandings of early plant cultivation and domestication (Fuller et al. 2014a), population movements (Crowther et al. 2016), and early farming practices (Bogaard et al. 2013). In regions where there is a long history of archaeobotanical study, the reanalysis of substantial datasets are providing new insights into diet and agriculture (van der Veen et al. 2008; Riehl 2009). Furthermore, major advances in the analysis of plant microfossil phytoliths (Hart 2016) and starch (Barton and Torrence 2015), and the application of biomolecular techniques to plant macrofossils (Fiorentino et al. 2015) are rapidly expanding the amount of information that can be gained concerning plants from archaeological sites.

Archaeobotany is now considered to be a mature discipline, working at the detailed identification of taphonomic analysis and the application of new techniques. The discipline has a series of key texts (Pearsall 2016; Hastorf and Popper 1988; Van Zeist et al. 1991; Jacomet and Kreuz 1999), a long standing triennial conference — the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany, a dedicated journal - Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, and several key institutions, including groups at UCL's Institute of Archaeology and Groningen University (Watson 1997). There is an established set of identification atlases, considered a maturity factor by Killick (2015), although problems have been raised concerning quality control in some areas of study (Van der Veen et al. 2007). However, in Europe there are few critical reviews of the discipline and little sense of a clear agenda as archaeobotany moves forward into the 21st century. In Britain, where the majority of archaeobotanical work is carried out in a developer-funded context, there are many concerns about the quality of, and access to, archaeobotanical data. In contrast, palaeoethnobotany, effectively the American version of archaeobotany, has received a series of reviews and agendas in recent years (Hastorf 1999; Marston et al. 2014a; VanDerwarker et al. 2016). While many of the conclusions of these reviews are equally valid for Europe, the different institutional, theoretical, and disciplinary standings of archaeobotany means a consideration of the status, methods, interpretations and directions of archaeobotany in Europe is required. This article comes from a specifically British viewpoint, and offers a broad perspective on the areas of archaeobotany beyond the core aspects of data collection and analysis.

“the need to recognise the role of plants in past, present and future societies has never been more pressing as we enter the Anthropocene”

It is considered here that plants are not as 'present' within archaeology as they could be, given the importance of plants for the past and future of humanity. The vast majority of archaeobotanical studies examine human exploitation of plants, primarily through cultivation, rather than interactions between humans and plants. The term 'plant blindness' can usefully be applied here — the inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features of plants (Wandersee and Schlusser 1999; 2001). Hall (2011) has argued that in western thought, plants have been side-lined from human life, and denied any volition, independence, or agency. In contrast, animals are now considered as sentient, agentic beings, and the 'animal turn' has had a significant impact on social sciences and archaeology over the last decade. While agitation for the recognition of the importance and unique characteristics of plant life could be seen as a self-interested attempt to extend the attribution of agency to yet another disciplinary sub-field, the need to recognise the role of plants in past, present and future societies has never been more pressing as we enter the Anthropocene. Archaeobotanists form the majority of people who study plants at archaeological sites, and it has to be the responsibility of this discipline to ensure that plants play a larger part in our archaeological past. In order to make this happen, it will be argued here that archaeobotany must become more accessible, more theoretically engaged, and more effectively communicated both within and beyond archaeology.

Several lines of evidence can be drawn upon to indicate the current status of archaeobotany within archaeology. Considering the major archaeological text book, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practices (Renfrew and Bahn 2016), plants are well represented, but primarily as the subjects of domestication and cultivation; for instance crop processing (311), plant domestication (37, 169, 204, 272, 274, 281-2, 300) and food production (169, 111, 249), with other elements of human-plant relationships, such as gardens (265) and woodland management (269), rarely mentioned. Turning to overtly theoretical text books, plants fare even less well. In Johnson's Archaeological Theory, plants are only mentioned in relation to the application of Middle Range Theory (Johnson 2010, 53), while Hodder's Archaeological Theory Today, discusses plants in relation to human exploitation (Hodder 2012a, 30). Considering recent issues of Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, the majority of papers are concerned with reporting new datasets or syntheses in relation to human subsistence practices or vegetation.

This is not to deny that there is theoretically engaged research taking place within archaeobotany; there are numerous recent papers offering new ways of interpreting previously published archaeobotanical data (Asouti and Fuller 2013; Van der Veen 2014). However, the vast majority of archaeobotanical reports are concerned primarily with subsistence practices. This view is shared by a recent review of the status of palaeoethnobotanical research (Morehart and Morell-Hart 2015), and a recent survey of archaeobotanists highlighted the view that 'many archaeologists do not think of plants (and archaeobotany) as being essential for understanding ancient societies' (Miller 2011, 10). To consider the closely allied field of zooarchaeology, there are now several volumes committed to the social interpretation of faunal remains (Russell 2012; Sykes 2014) and numerous articles where the animal itself rather than the zooarchaeological data comes to the fore (Poole 2015; Sykes 2012). Furthermore, as the methodologies of archaeological science continue to expand into new frontiers, such as proteomics and DNA, plant macrofossils are slipping out of the realm of archaeological science, being absent from a recent retrospective issue of Journal of Archaeological Science for instance (Torrence et al. 2015). As the application of standard archaeobotanical techniques in long-studied areas begins to lose the ability to produce new information, we need to work harder at using these data to reveal new insights into the past.

Identifying why plants are not as visible in archaeology as they could be will require further consideration of the history, institutions and common practices of archaeobotany. However, rather than dwell on the limitations of archaeobotany, this article seeks to highlight practices that can improve greater accessibility, communication and re-use of archaeobotanical data, by presenting integrated discussions of several key aspects of archaeobotany:

Throughout this article, 'palaeoethnobotany' is used in reference to New World research, and 'archaeobotany' in reference to European traditions.


Cite this as: Lodwick, L. 2019 Agendas for Archaeobotany in the 21st Century: data, dissemination and new directions, Internet Archaeology 53.

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