Archaeobotany is the study of botanical (plant) remains that are retrieved from archaeological sites. In simple terms, the purpose of archaeobotanical study is to discover what plants were present at archaeological sites and how they were used in the past.
Archaeobotany is a branch of environmental archaeology. It is sometimes called 'paleoethnobotany' (a term commonly used in the Americas). In general these two terms are interchangeable, although there is a slight difference in meaning. Archaeobotany refers specifically to plant material from archaeological sites. Paleoethnobotnay can include ancient plant remains derived from natural as well as archaeological deposits.
A short history
The earliest archaeobotanical studies began in Europe in the nineteenth century after the discovery of desiccated plant remains in Egyptian tombs. Despite the long history of the discipline, archaeobotany remained more or less on the fringes of archaeology for well over a century. In the 1970s the development of flotation machines to process archaeological soil (these facilitated the recovery of large amounts of plant remains) meant that archaeobotany became increasingly common. It is now considered a routine aspect of archaeological excavations.
Common plant remains
The most common plant material preserved at archaeological sites include seeds and wood (including charcoal), but plant fibres and tubers are also examined. These are macro-remains; material that, although often very small, is visible to the naked eye. Other plant remains, such as fossil pollen and phytoliths (starch silicates of plants) are only visible with a microscope. These are known as micro-remains.
The study of each type of plant material requires a different set of skills. For example, the identification methods used for seeds are very different to those used for wood. Because of the technical skills required to master each branch of archaeobotany, specialisation is essential in order to become an expert in at least one field of study.
One of the primary concerns of archaeobotany is the investigation of the economic relationship between plants and people; what crops were grown and how they were stored and distributed. Other areas of study include the analysis of the ecological relationship between plants, people and the environment in general.
In general, the ecological, social, cultural and economic relationships between people and plants should all be taken into consideration when examining any body of archaeobotanical data. This is because the aim of archaeobotany is to investigate different aspects of the complex inter-relationship between humans and plants throughout history and pre-history. Being informed about developments and discoveries from all of the fields of archaeobotanical study is important . The information gathered from each field is complementary and combined sets of data lead to a better overview of the relationship between humans, plants, environment and economy.