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8. Communicating Archaeobotany

The importance of the communication of archaeological research and public engagement has become increasingly important in the last decade, especially in Britain under the impact agenda of the Research Excellence Framework (see Howard, this issue). However, there has been relatively little concern from within archaeobotany as how best to engage plant remains with wider audiences, despite such obvious trends within academic spheres, at least in the UK (an exception being Mulville and Law 2013). Given the strong interest of both other archaeologists and the 'public' with material culture and human remains, strategies for communicating archaeobotanical findings from microscopic plant remains require some consideration. This section seeks to highlight considerations and case-studies of successful communication of archaeobotanical data through public engagement, digital resources and traditional academic discourse.

The communication of archaeobotanical data should foremost acknowledge that the construction of knowledge on past plant-human relationships draws upon a range of information, including folklore, place name evidence and archaeobotany (Witcher 2013). For instance, a number of plants and animals are widely considered to have been introduced to Roman Britain despite there being little substantial archaeological evidence to back this up. An example highlighted by Witcher is of Urtica pilufera (Roman nettle), a plant that used to be a casual species in southern Britain (Stace 2010). The introduction of this plant to Britain is often claimed to derive from Roman soldiers planting seeds to grow nettles to keep warm (Mabey 1996, 68), citing William Camden's Britannia, who in fact was discrediting this story first published by John Parkinson, a herbalist (Witcher 2013). Yet Homer Nearing repeated the story in 1949 (Nearing 1949), as did Mabey, whose authoritative volume Flora Britannica, a 'contemporary flora', is a major source of information on past plants in Britain leading to the nettle story entering the medical literature (Randall et al. 2000). There are no known records of Urtica pilufera in Roman Britain (Tomlinson and Hall 1996), yet the Roman association persists. It would be wrong to ascribe primacy to archaeobotany over other sources of information on past human-plant relationships, but there is arguably a lack of awareness of, and access to, archaeobotanical knowledge beyond the sub-discipline, highlighting the need for archaeobotanists to communicate their research more widely.

Various resources are available summarising examples of how archaeobotanical findings have been disseminated more widely, albeit with no clear discussion of the ethics, theoretical basis and motivations for doing so. Archaeobotanical data are incorporated in a wide range of media at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, including exhibitions, garden reconstructions and children's activities (Heiss et al. 2013). Archaeobotanical data from the Dutch Terps region have been incorporated into a restaurant menu (the Wierden menu) at the Café Hammingh, based on the work of Mans Schepers, and restaurants serving Roman food can be found at numerous archaeological sites and museums, albeit normally based on literary rather than archaeobotanical evidence.

Current discussions of digital archaeobotany have focused on static websites and databases (Warinner and d'Alpoim Guedes 2014; Fritz and Nesbitt 2014), but there is a growing number of archaeobotanical blogs. Notable examples include the Archaeobotanist by Dorian Fuller, maintained since April 2009 and covering mainly Old World research news, and more recent blogs focusing on farming, Ancient Food and Farming, Farming Unearthed and Roman food.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Options for displaying archaeobotanical data concerning barley. A: Charred barley grain from Insula IX, Silchester (scale bar = 2mm). B: Composition of archaeobotanical sample. C: Barley field (By Pekachu — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0), D: Barley bread (By Lucyin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

A recent focus on the visualisation of palaeoethnobotanical data by Herlich and Morrell-Hart (2015, 24) highlights how we can '… increase visibility through intra- and inter-disciplinary engagements, descendant community collaborations, complementary approaches, and technological innovations'. Archaeobotanists have a range of options for visualising data, including charts, graphs, models, images and artistic reconstructions, using methods such as comics and artistic reconstructions (Herlich and Morrell-Hart 2015). The way in which archaeobotanists choose to represent their data affects the success of communication. In considering how to communicate the identification of a barley grain, there is a range of options ranging from the image of the archaeological barley grain, a pie chart representing the sample composition or the interpretation of use as a field crop and as a food item (Figure 1). For instance, Van der Veen and Morales (2015) present images both of desiccated spices and imported foods from Quseir al-Qadim, Egypt, while also including photographs of myrobalan on sale in modern Leicester.

However, archaeobotanical data is not often integrated into archaeological reconstructions, with plants considered as an ordinary aspect of past life not worthy of being the focus of illustrations (Swogger 2000). Through presenting reconstructions of Neolithic Çatalhöyük and Windmill Hill, Swogger has shown how a wide range of archaeobotanical information can be integrated into such images, including key aspects of subsistence, but also symbolic aspects of past plant use. To build on these examples, one could consider the integration of plants in visual reconstructions of Roman towns. In 1990, Burnham and Wacher (1990, 323) remarked that 'it is also the present custom for reconstruction drawings to be clothed with fuzzy lookalike vegetation, even in the best examples of the art; in reality all vegetation varies considerably in colour, size, form and texture'.

An example of the incorporation of archaeobotanical data into such a visualisation comes from the publication of the mid-Roman excavations within Silchester Insula IX. Archaeobotanical and palaeoentomological results (Robinson 2011) contributed directly to the visualisation drawing, with small horticultural plots and a beehive featuring in a visualisation of mid-Roman masonry building 3, with the image caption providing details and references (Figure 2) (Fulford and Clarke 2011, 340; Matthews 2011). The re-creation of Roman gardens at archaeological sites and museums is also a common practice, with notable examples at Fishbourne villa, Corinium Museum and the Silchester Insula IX excavations. Indeed, the authentic re-creation of Roman gardens has been stated as an explicit research goal (Murphy and Scaife 1991, 89). However, the positivism by which Roman archaeobotany identifies imported 'Roman' plants requires consideration, especially considering the deconstruction of the positivist assumptions of Romanisation in the rest of Roman archaeology (Witcher 2013).

Figure 2
Figure 2: Visualisation of mid-Roman masonry building 3, Insula IX, Silchester, drawing on archaeobotanical results. (©Silchester Town Life Project/University of Reading 2011)

A complementary line of research is how archaeobotanical remains are exhibited in museums. This topic is commonly discussed within the archaeobotany community (see, for instance, email thread 'Museum exhibition of plant remains', yet research specifically considering this appears lacking. More widely, plants are perceived as '… collectives or assemblages …' (Head and Atchison 2009, 237) such as vegetation communities, habitats, or, in the case of archaeobotany, numbers of seeds in a data table, and not the plant that produced those seeds. Furthermore, a change in the form of a plant, for instance from cereal grain to flour, also results in a change in the '… capacity to draw an affective response from humans …' (Head and Atchison 2009, 237). This highlights how we should think about the best way to communicate the original plant or plant substance in museum exhibitions, rather than the archaeobotanical remains. An example might be showing a store of spelt wheat grains rather than a small amount of charred grains. Investigation of the wider portrayal of archaeological science in museums showed that 48% of curators made short reference to archaeobotany in museum displays, 44% would like to see more, but there are issues around the desire to tell human stories through artefacts as well as a lack of space (Copley 2010). There is clearly scope for a focused discussion of how best to communicate archaeobotanical remains in a museum environment.

Archaeobotanical evidence can also be vitally informative to wider issues such as climate change, conservation and modern-day social and economic policy, as has been variously stated within archaeobotany and more broadly environmental archaeology (O'Connor 2001; Marston et al. 2014b). One example is informing choices of modern-day crops. For instance, in north-west Kenya, preliminary archaeobotanical results have demonstrated the continued cultivation of finger millet and sorghum alongside colonial and post-colonial crop introductions, contributing to a reassessment of current agricultural interventions (Davies 2012; Davies and Moore 2016). In the western Mediterranean, understanding the past importance of hulled wheats is in part contributing to their revival. Einkorn and emmer were introduced in the Neolithic, with the later addition of spelt, but these cereals were almost entirely replaced by free-threshing wheats in the first millennium AD (Nesbitt and Samuel 1996). Consideration of the past extent of cultivation has contributed to the reassessment of their present significance in terms of nutrition, taste, disease and pest resistance (Zaharieva et al. 2010), as well as widening the evidence spectrum for how these crops were used in the past (Nesbitt and Samuel 1996; Peña-Chocarro and Zapata 2014).

Archaeobotanical evidence has also been used to investigate the relationship between climate and society. The analysis of crop taxa from 138 sites spanning the Early Bronze Age to the Iron Age in south-west Asia showed that climatic events, mainly the '4.2 k BP' event at the end of the Early Bronze Age, correlated with a reduction in water-demanding crops such as flax and pea (Riehl 2009). The investigation of carbon isotopes in charred barley grains has also shown that fluctuations in δ13C correlated with Holocene climate fluctuations, showing that the impact of climate change on agricultural systems were highly variable across the region, resulting in diverse responses (Riehl et al. 2014). Finally, archaeobotanical evidence for the weeds of rice paddies has been used to establish the cultivation systems under which rice was cultivated, which was combined with archaeobotanical data on the distribution of past rice cultivation to model the production of methane through time (Fuller et al. 2011).


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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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