5. Archaeobotany and Theory

The dominance of subsistence studies in archaeobotany is both a symptom of its rise to prominence under processual archaeology, and perhaps a reason for its marginalisation in some areas of archaeology today. Environmental archaeology has received strong criticism in the past for its atheoretical approach and absence of social theory (Thomas 1990). Zooarchaeology has since emerged as a theoretically engaged discipline, with lengthy debates in theoretical journals (Overton and Hamilakis 2013) and achieving mentions in recent reviews of the direction of archaeological theory (Thomas 2015). Yet archaeobotany continues to be largely focused on subsistence studies, a situation reflected in the New World where use of the term 'ecofact' is considered to have placed archaeobotanical remains as secondary in importance to 'artefacts' (Morehart and Morell-Hart 2015). This section seeks to counter the low presence of plants within theoretically engaged areas of archaeology by clarifying the theoretical basis in which archaeobotany operates and highlight the main strands of theoretical engagement visible in archaeobotany today. New research directions for archaeobotanical data will then be suggested, as after all, '… once we move from the practical to the interpretational, what we are seeking to do is mainstream archaeology …' (O'Connor 2001, 19).

Underlying archaeobotany is a grounding in Uniformitarianism, that natural processes observed today operated the same way in the past (Lyell 1830; Wilkinson and Stevens 2008). Archaeobotany can also be perceived as an example of 'good' middle-range theory — that observations of present-day plant ecology can be used to interpret archaeobotanical assemblages (Bogaard 2004, 2-5); for instance, the identification of archaeological plant remains through the use of modern-day reference material, and the subsequent knowledge of plant ecology gained through such identifications. As these interpretations are not directly related to a broader understanding of human behaviour (Charles and Halstead 2001), they are considered safe from criticisms of formal analogies (Bogaard 2004, 4). As long as these key points are taken into account for the identification of plant remains and the interpretation of formation processes, plant remains can be utilised in a wide range of theoretical approaches (Hastorf 1999, 79).

However, the conspicuous association between archaeobotany and New Archaeology, primarily through the Cambridge 'Palaeoeconomy school', deserves consideration. Hans Helbaek was taken on expeditions to the Near East, for instance to Jarmo by Braidwood in the 1950s, and the Siraf flotation machine was developed under the Higgs School of Palaeoeconomy in the 1970s (Watson 1997). The understanding of culture as a product of human adaptation to the environment and climate provided a central role for environmental archaeology (Binford 1972; Higgs 1975). In Britain, the study of plant macrofossils has continued throughout the early- and mid-20th century (Lodwick 2017a), but archaeobotany only rose to prominence with the work of Martin Jones and Mark Robinson in Iron Age and Roman central-southern Britain, especially at Danebury hillfort (Jones 1985) and the Upper Thames Valley (Robinson 1981). Jones (1985) explicitly situated his study of charred plant remains within the field of behavioural archaeology by considering charred plant remains as evidence for human activity within the landscape, and retrospectively Jones recognised the influence of the 1970s academic environment on his analysis. Charred cereal remains were interpreted in terms of household or communal crop-processing stages, and redistribution between the hillfort and surrounding rural settlements (Jones 2007, 145).

The wave of post-processual archaeology in the late 1980s and 1990s, with its focus on symbols, meaning and power (Hodder 1982), was not as receptive to archaeobotanical data. Studies did begin to emerge in the early 2000s that have been seen as engaging in symbolic and social analyses (Fuller 2007a, 190), such as Evans' (2003) Environmental Archaeology and the Social Order, Fairbairn's (2000) social perspective on Neolithic cereals in Britain and Austin's (2000) consideration of the social significance of trees and woodland across the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.

Several theoretical threads can be identified within British academic archaeobotany. First, the impact of consumption studies drawing upon various post-structural theories to present food as a key tool for the investigation of social relations, gender, status and identity (Palmer and Van der Veen 2002; Twiss 2012). For instance, the significance of grain-storage pits at middle Iron Age hillforts was reframed as stored grain for feasts, which acted to unite the hillfort community (Van der Veen 2007). A second strand is the use of practice approaches, drawing upon the work of Bourdieu's (1977) habitus theory, in order to argue for the agency of farming in the reproduction of social organisation. The extent to which the theoretical framework is explicitly explored varies, but successful examples include Bogaard et al's (2011) consideration of everyday, routine farming actions in the creation and reproduction of discrete social groups within an LBK village, and the contextual analysis of habitual practices in early farming in southwest Asia (Asouti and Fuller 2013).

Beyond Neolithic archaeology, archaeobotanical evidence has been far less integrated into theoretical considerations of routine practice. Considering Roman archaeology, it was observed nearly a decade ago that floral evidence was rarely used, in comparison to small finds, pottery and architecture, in studies of social identities (Pitts 2007, 698). The large-scale study of new plant foods in Roman Britain has, however, demonstrated that plant remains can be used to identify social identity, through the identification of different consumer groups (Van der Veen 2008), but on a relatively coarse scale of settlement class.

The 'material turn' in archaeology, which considers material culture an active participant in social relationships, has had a minor impact in archaeobotany. Livarda (2013, 102) has called for dates to be considered as 'perishable material culture remains' in the context of ritualised offerings in the western Roman Empire and new plant foods have been considered as 'embodied material culture' (Van der Veen 2008). The clearest proponent of materiality approaches to plants is Van der Veen (2014), who has drawn strongly on Hodder's entanglement theory (2012b), considering the co-evolution of crops and weeds, the routine engagement of farming practices, and plant-people entanglements. A series of case studies is presented, including lifestyle changes following the introduction of summer crops to North Africa and the Middle East in the Islamic period (Van der Veen 2014). Recent progress on relational approaches to animals indicates that there is a growing interest in applying such approaches to plants.

For instance, in response to Overton and Hamilakis' Manifesto for Social Zooarchaeology, a response suggests how 'One could equally consider in various ways how plants and trees (and humans and other animals) are co-related and interdependent' (Pluciennik 2013, 157). But there is also clear resistance to attributing any agency to plants (Hall 2011; Nealon 2016). For instance, 'We should first differentiate between living organisms with and without a central nervous system — non cerebral life forms versus cerebral life forms …' (Lindstrøm 2015, 222). Considering the success of social zooarchaeology in incorporating animals as active participants in our understanding of the past, there is great potential to do the same for plants.


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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