6. Moving Forward with Plant Materiality

While appreciating that there are a myriad of theoretical approaches through which archaeobotanical remains can be interpreted, given the strong impact of new materialist approaches in Britain (Thomas 2015), this section seeks to consider how relational approaches to plants in the past could develop, reflecting work in North America where object-orientated approaches have been considered as a productive step forward for a social palaeoethnobotany (Morehart and Morell-Hart 2015, 498). Considerations of how plants have the capacity to affect or act upon humans originate from several strands of recent cross-disciplinary work. First, the discovery from biological sciences that plants have the capacity to sense and communicate (Marder 2012). Second, from philosophical writings that have explored how plants have been side-lined in western thought (Hall 2011; Nealon 2016). Third, and arguably most applicable to the study of archaeobotanical plant remains, is the relational approaches within human geography, which draws upon the work of scholars such as Latour and Gell, to explore how plants can affect people (for a review see Head and Atchison 2009; Head et al. 2014).

Broadly, these approaches have sought to breach the nature/culture divide and consider the agency of plants in human-plant relationships. Admittedly, several studies have acknowledged that methodologies for the recognition of plant agency, that is the specific features or capacities of plants (Head et al. 2015), are still developing (Pitt 2015, 48; Brice 2014). Nevertheless, numerous case studies are available from which archaeology can take inspiration to consider where and how plant agency can be productively explored.

One strand can be identified as the way in which plants in the garden or home affect people. Hitchings' study of humans in British gardens indicated how plants, particularly through changes in their physical appearance, had the capacity to affect emotions and work patterns (Hitchings 2003). Pitt has explored relationships between plants and people in community gardens, using techniques such as walking, talking, time lapse photography and using human and non-human guides to see if caring for plants makes people more compassionate (Pitt 2015). Moving from the garden into the house, an ethnographic study of house-plant exchange networks showed how the physical characteristics of different plants led to them being used as gifts, for instance the runners of spider plants (Ellen and Komáromi 2013). The relationships between humans and crop plants have also received attention. Brice's (2014) study of vine plantations in Australia illuminated the ways in which the physical aspects of grapes, that is their colour, texture and taste, had the capacity to change the labour organisation of the workers through their 'ecological temporality', and also induce emotions such as stress, anxiety and tension.

Examples of where such ideas could be applied span archaeology. Considerations of the temporality of crop plants have received some attention (Garrow 2010), but considering the material changes and needs of different crops throughout the year could provide more detailed insights into the changing temporalities of human experiences. As Van der Veen (2014, 7) has discussed, changes in seasonal labour caused by the introduction of irrigated summer crops in North Africa and the Middle East in the Islamic period caused a move to year-round agricultural labour. It may also be possible to make a more detailed consideration of the material changes crops experience throughout the growing year, in terms of colour and growth habit (Lodwick 2019). The ritualised deposition of plants has also been considered in light of the relational agency of plant items in several regions. Maya cave rituals have been approached through a consideration of plant offerings including maize as evidence for the materiality of ritual (Morehart and Butler 2010), while the significance of burning pine wood is also highlighted in terms of the production of smoke and light (Morehart et al. 2005). Pine, in this case Pinus pinea cones, also feature commonly in Roman ritualised activity. The presence of pine cones are often interpreted as evidence for Roman ritual activities, or as symbols of the afterlife and regeneration. However, a consideration of the material attributes of pine cones in the context of ritual offerings of cones, nuts or pre-prepared incense leads us to consider the production of scented smoke and light, and how this would impact upon the experience of space in shrines and temples (Lodwick 2017b).

Beyond farming and ritual, another area of exploration is the ornamental use of plants in gardens. For instance, Sykes (2009) has suggested how the introduction of new fruit and ornamental trees to Roman Britain would have created new landscapes and affected how people viewed the world. As an example, there is growing evidence for the use of plants in ornamental gardens and landscapes. Box (Buxus sempervirens) has been recorded at 31 settlement phases in Roman Britain, including major towns, villas and farmsteads, and is considered to have been used as an ornamental plant (Lodwick 2017b). However, box is also very distinctive in terms of its appearance, tactility, smell and growth habit, and such characteristics would have ensured the sensory effects of box shrubs would have strongly contrasted with those of the majority deciduous flora, affecting experiences of temporality and place.

A consideration of these factors in a contextual approach, such as at 1 Poultry, London, has shown how box shrubs would have acted as physical and visual barriers, separating a domestic house from the street. The distinctive sensory experience of box would have produced a distinct multi-sensory landscape, which was a different temporal experience to that experienced by rural dwellers (Lodwick 2017b). Considering the growing interest in plants across the humanities and sciences there is no reason why the interpretation of archaeobotanical data cannot draw more widely on these ideas.

A further way forward may be to consider the blurred lines between objects or pictorial representations of plants, written evidence, archaeobotanical evidence for the plant items themselves and botanical knowledge of plants today. Sykes (2014, 1) has argued that zooarchaeology should be the study of archaeological evidence for animals, including bones, depictions and material objects, with an example of such an approach being the combined analysis of literary and zooarchaeological evidence for Anglo-Saxon foxes and badgers (Poole 2015). Several examples can be highlighted within archaeobotany. For instance, Ryan (2011, 303) approaches in situ phytoliths from Çatalhöyük as material culture, identifying the use of different plants for different objects, such as wild panicoid grasses for coiled baskets. The botanical identification of leaves on headdresses from the third millennium BC cemetery at Ur has been discussed alongside the present day distribution of Dalbergia sissoo — the North Indian Rosewood — and archaeobotanical data to consider the significance of the tree in Mesopotamian society (Tengberg et al. 2008). Evidence for the use of plants as material culture is generally limited by issues of preservation, but by drawing upon a wider range of evidence and comparisons (e.g. Hurcombe 2000), it should be possible to explore the interplay between the materiality of plants and plants as material objects.


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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