3. Archaeobotany in the 21st Century

The start of the new decade has continued to see advances in methodological techniques. Important progress has been made, for instance, with the application of Functional Integrated Botanical Surveys to investigate past cultivation practices (Bogaard 2004; Jones et al. 2010), now undertaken in tandem with crop stable isotope analysis (Bogaard et al. 2016). The measurement of carbon and nitrogen isotopic ratios provides a way to assess the intensity of manuring and the water status of crops, but also demonstrates the importance of plant isotopes alongside human and animal isotopes in palaeodiet reconstruction (Fraser et al. 2013; Wallace et al. 2015). Preliminary work has been undertaken with strontium isotopes in order to provenance cereal grains and maize cobs (Benson 2012; Bogaard et al. 2014). Major advances are also being made in aDNA though high-throughput sequencing, the continued development of modern DNA databases and improved sample preparation (Brown et al. 2015; Wales et al. 2014). More detailed morphological analysis of cereal grains themselves has also shown potential for identifying changes in cereal grain size and shape with domestication, and the separation of two- and six-row barley (Bonhomme et al. 2016; Ros et al. 2014; Wallace et al. 2018). Detailed observations of taphonomy continue to provide new insights into the formation processes of archaeobotanical assemblages (Valamoti 2013).

Correspondence analysis continues to grow in popularity as a method to explore archaeobotanical data (Colledge 2002; Marston 2014), while more recently network analysis has been utilised to provide new insights into the trade in exotic plant foods within Roman Britain (Orengo and Livarda 2016). The identification of plant macro and micro remains in thin-section through soil micromorphology analysis also provides a vital new dimension to archaeobotany, especially in tropical regions where the survival of charred plant remains is poor (Matthews 2010). The regional expansion in the application of archaeobotanical sampling throughout the latter half of the 20th century has continued, with major areas of growth in Africa (Fuller et al. 2014b), south-east Asia (Castillo and Fuller 2010) and Australia and New Guinea (Denham et al. 2009). There has also been a notable expansion of sampling at palaeolithic and classical sites in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe (Jones 2009). More extensive reviews of current literature in archaeobotany can be found in VanDerwarker et al. (2016); Pearsall (2016, 28-31); Madella et al. (2014) and Marston et al. (2014b).

While much of this work is being undertaken under research funding, the status of archaeobotany in Britain, where much of the work is developer-funded, is not considered to reflect continued progress. Two reviews of archaeobotanical data from Roman and medieval Britain respectively have demonstrated a decrease in the quality of archaeobotanical data available from the 1990s onwards, in terms of the number of samples per study and the presence of fully quantified data and other crucial information. Concerns have also been expressed concerning the level of expertise in the field (Van der Veen et al. 2007; 2013; Williams 2009, 13). A further issue is the lack of access to many developer-funded reports, largely available only in unpublished grey literature. This is also an issue with CRM data in the United States (VanDerwarker et al. 2016). However, this 'grey' literature is becoming increasingly accessible through the OASIS database, searchable through the ADS (Evans 2015). Solutions to this problem will be explored in Section 4. However, it must be stressed that the situation in Britain, where environmental sampling is consistently included in evaluations and excavations, is much more preferable to the lack of developer-funded archaeology elsewhere.

Reviews of archaeobotany at the end of the 20th century were focused principally on research questions (Hastorf 1999; Palmer and Van der Veen 2002). However, the most recent overviews have recognised that there are also other barriers to how we conduct archaeobotanical research beyond the practicalities of sampling, identification, quantification and analysis. A recent review of New World palaeoethnobotany raised several issues such as transparency in laboratory protocols and data accessibility (VanDerwarker et al. 2016), and Marston et al. (2014b) raise the need for increased training of archaeobotanists in developing countries and greater data accessibility.


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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