7. Archaeobotany on the Internet

Internet access over the last few decades, as well as major advances in digital technologies such as digital photography, software and file storage, has revolutionised communication and publication within archaeobotany (Warinner and d'Alpoim Guedes 2014). Discussion of the relationship between zooarchaeology and the internet has received several dedicated journal issues (Law 2011; McKechnie et al. 2015), with Warinner and d'Alpoim (2014, 151-2) providing the fullest discussion within archaeobotany. Archaeobotanists were in many cases early adopters of internet technology, with a Near Eastern archaeobotany website, established in 1999 by Naomi Miller, still maintained and accessed over 30,000 times (Miller 2016). Other notable websites are those of Willcox, Nesbitt and Samuel (see Warinner et al. 2011, ESM table 1). Beyond the wider impacts of FTP, VOIP and online publication (Warinner and d'Alpoim 2014, 151-2), the major impacts of the internet on archaeobotany include hosting training and identification tools, and enabling research collaboration, communication and sharing (Herlich and Morell-Hart 2015).

Online archaeobotany training resources range from wiki-based training modules (Charles et al. 2009) to YouTube videos explaining aspects of sample processing and identification. The Integrated Archaeobotanical Research Training wiki site provides sections of text and images covering the history of study, sampling, recovery, recognition, identification, quantification, data analysis, interpretation and storage for wood charcoal, charred seeds, charred tubers, waterlogged plant remains, pollen, phytoliths, and starch (Charles et al. 2009). Currently, the resource has been accessed over 60,000 times and is widely used by archaeobotanists, although its status as a point-in-time resource means it is already out of date. Video tutorials for practical tasks in archaeobotany, primarily operating flotation, have been available on the internet for nearly a decade, with Fuller providing one of the most useful videos on bucket flotation (Fuller 2007b).

The ease with which plant remains can be identified has been improved through the use of online search engines, web-based reference collections, and open source image archives. Illustrations, SEM images and digital photographs are all options for producing reference images, with paper-based reference guides providing contrasting benefits to web-based resources (Fritz and Nesbitt 2014, 129). The publication of the Digital Seed Atlas books and accompanying online databases have provided access to high-quality images of seeds from the Netherlands, as well as economic plants from across the world (Cappers et al. 2012; Neef et al. 2011), and are now partially available online. Other online reference resources, including agricultural resources, such as the USDA Family Guide for Fruits and Seeds, are listed in Fritz and Nesbitt 2014.

While such resources provide optimal access to images of modern seeds, the variation in preservation of plant macro-remains means that assistance with identification is often needed despite access to a diversity of paper and online reference material. In reaction to frequent requests for further online reference collection and identification tools (Miller 2010; 2011), an open source, open access online reference collection and forum — — was launched in 2010 (Warinner et al. 2011). The website enables registered users to upload identified and unidentified plant remains, utilising creative commons licensing. Currently, the forum has 140 registered users, with 97 uploaded macrofossil images. It is unclear how successful this endeavour has been in moving the field of identification forward, especially given the continued use of the Archaeobotany JISCmail email list for circulating identification queries.

Looking forward, further potential can be seen in several areas of archaeobotany and the internet. First, the use of different forms of media, such as GIFs, in communicating identification criteria (Herlich and Morrel-Hart 2015), which would enable multiple views of a seed or pollen grain to be displayed in a short video. Second, the use of social media for both technical discussions and communicating research, such as the micro-blogging site Twitter. Such platforms enable a wider audience to become engaged with archaeobotany. Beyond the curation of online databases of plant images, developments in 3D scanning also have potential for providing an alternative medium for reference collections and assisting with identification, and are currently being explored in zooarchaeology (Betts et al. 2011). Potential applications to archaeobotany may arise in the future.

Of course, there are wide-ranging debates on the issues of digital archaeology, including those of ethics, access and inequality (Perry et al. 2015). Yet, for a sub-discipline so reliant on both the generation of precise identifications, and the curation and meta-analysis of large datasets, effective use of online digital technologies is vital to the future development of archaeobotany. The inclusion of a dedicated chapter on digitising archaeobotany in a recent edited volume is a substantial step forward (Warinner and d'Alpoim Guedes 2014), but for these online tools to have the greatest impact, it is vital that digital skills and resources are incorporated into the training of archaeobotanists at under- and post-graduate levels, and are also deemed vital aspects of discussion at conferences and workshops.


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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