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2. Archaeobotany in the 20th Century

All disciplines need to reflect from time to time on their aims, methodologies and directions. Critical reviews of the historical development of archaeobotany are relatively limited, but several studies do provide a narrative whereby the study of archaeological plant remains progresses from the examination of such remains as a side-interest of botanists, through to the 'flotation revolution' of the 1970s, and subsequent improvements in methodology and interpretation (Fuller 2007a; Pearsall 2016, 28-31; Watson 1997; Lodwick 2017a; Jacomet and Kreuz 1999, 11-19). Pioneering studies of archaeological plant remains took place in the second half of the 19th century, with the study of plant remains from Swiss lake villages by Oswald Heer (Jacomet and Kreuz 2013), and with Clement Reid's studies of plant remains from Roman Silchester and Glastonbury Lake Village in southern Britain (Lodwick 2017a).

Numerous small-scale studies were also undertaken, for instance of desiccated plant remains from Ancient Egyptian tombs (Schweinfurth 1884). In the early 20th century, the analysis of primary deposits of charred cereal remains alongside pottery impressions enabled the long-term history of cereal use to be established (Percival 1934). Yet these analyses had little long-term impact in the development of the field. For instance, in Britain, the development of palynological analysis in the 1920s overshadowed work on plant macrofossils (Birks and Birks 2000). Further developments took place in northern Europe a few decades later, with Maria Hopf, based at the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz from the late 1950s, undertaking work in the Near East including at Jericho (Bittmann and Behre 2008), and systematic analysis was undertaken by Körber-Grohne (1967) in the late 1950s at Feddersen Wierde. Water flotation was initially developed in North America by Struever (1968) as a way to extract charred plant remains from sediment, and was first implemented in the Near East at Ali Kosh in 1963 (Helbaek 1969). The first 'Siraf'-type flotation machine was developed a few years later (French 1971; Jarman et al. 1972). Flotation had a fundamental impact on the discipline as charred plant remains were now recovered in much greater abundance (Watson 1997).

The International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany was founded in 1968, with the first meeting held in Kačina, near Prague, as the Internationale Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Paläoethnobotanik (Van Zeist et al. 1991). Further substantial archaeobotanical studies appeared, such as Jane Renfrew's research on prehistoric food plants in the Near East and Europe (Renfrew 1973). In Britain, macrofossil work had continued in the early 20th century within the sub-department of Quaternary Research in Cambridge (West 2014). However, following the application of substantial on-site sampling and the integration of archaeobotanical results with archaeological research questions, major archaeobotanical studies were undertaken that significantly impacted on the understanding of the Iron Age and Roman periods in the late 1970s (Jones 1981; Robinson 1981). Once sampling had become recognised as a vital part of field practice, substantial advances were made in the interpretation of data, for instance through the application of ethnographic models (Jones 1984; Hillman 1984), experimental charring (Boardman and Jones 1990), and the use of statistical analysis (Jones 1991).

Returning to the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany, since 1968 the workgroup has met triennially (Bittmann and Behre 2008) and resulted in several key publications, primarily in old world archaeobotany (Van Zeist et al. 1991; Van Zeist and Casparie 1984), and the foundation of the journal Vegetation History and Archaeobotany in 1992 (Behre 1992). Unlike the International Council for Archaeozoology, founded in 1971, IWGP is a more informal arrangement, overseen by a committee, but without membership, policies or separate working groups. Sessions are typically organised by geographical region, or by methodological advancement (Greig 1983; Samuel 1998). A substantial increase in the size of the archaeobotanical community can be observed over time, from 11 delegates in 1968 (Bittmann and Mueller-Bienik 2008), to 150 in 1997 (Samuel 1998) and 270 in 2013 at Thessaloniki (Valamoti and Bittmann 2015). Likewise, those attending came from an increasing range of nationalities, from five countries in 1968 to 38 countries in 2007 at Krakow (Bittmann and Mueller-Bienik 2008), which was reflected in various countries represented in papers. IWGP has clearly been a major venue for discussion and debate, and facilitated collaboration between principally European archaeobotanists.

The growth of archaeobotany from the 1970s to the 1990s has been attributed largely to the academic climate of New Archaeology or processualism (Watson 1997). At the same time, the substantial quantities of excavation undertaken in urban and rural contexts under rescue excavation circumstances, and the engagement of pioneering archaeobotanists with these excavations, enabled a wide range of plant remains in varying forms of preservation to be encountered. Advances were also made in the identification of these plant remains through English Heritage funded laboratories (Robinson 2015). For instance, the Environmental Archaeology Unit at York has been acknowledged as having made major contributions to the development of archaeobotany and closely allied fields through the analysis of plant remains from rescue excavations within and around the Roman colonia (Pollard 2012, 179). Examples include the recognition of mineralised plant remains (Green 1979), the understanding of the taphonomy of waterlogged plant remains (Kenward and Hall 1997), and the pioneering analysis of charred and waterlogged plant assemblages that took place at rescue excavations such as Ashville Trading Estate and Barton Court Farm in the Upper Thames Valley (Jones 1978; Jones and Robinson 1984).

The status of archaeobotany was discussed at the TAG 1998 session Environmental Archaeology: Meaning and Purpose (Albarella 2001), where it was considered to be '… still ironing out methodological and theoretical issues …' (Smith 2001, 294). The major concern was that archaeobotanists felt that archaeologists were utilising their interpretations with little critique in relation to the consumer-producer debate (Smith 2001; Stevens 2003), instead maintaining that establishing the economic basis of a settlement is the main aim of archaeobotany (Smith 2001, 295). The responding article merely reiterated that archaeobotany is reliant on ethnographic and economic models (Bakels 2001).

At the end of the 20th century there were few critical statements available on the status of archaeobotany in Britain and Europe. A paper published as the outcome of a conference held in 1997 in order to assess the contributions of sciences to archaeology highlights the need for more scientific approaches, including AMS dating, functional weed ecology analysis and aDNA in Britain (Van der Veen and O'Connor 1998), little of which has been applied to date to archaeobotanical data. Hastorf's (1999) wide-ranging review reflects the methodological advancements made in American palaeoethnobotany, especially in microbotanical analysis, and the benefits from the expansion of archaeobotanical analysis into new regions. The need to pose new research questions was also raised, especially '… fuel use, feasting, the cultural value and symbolics of specific plant taxa, the spatial distribution of plants, and their ritual meanings …' (Hastorf 1999, 79).


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Cite this as: Lodwick, L. 2019 Agendas for Archaeobotany in the 21st Century: data, dissemination and new directions, Internet Archaeology 53. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.53.7

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