British Museum blog

Back in the lab: archaeobotany from Amara West

Philippa Ryan, Scientist, British Museum

Archaeobotany is the study of ancient plant remains, and I joined the field team at Amara West in Sudan earlier this year to collect samples for archaeobotanical analysis. Charred plant materials were retrieved on-site from sediments through dry-sieving and flotation. These samples were subsequently brought back to the British Museum for further sorting and identification.

Scanning electron microscope image of a barley grain found in an oven at Amara West

Scanning electron microscope image of a barley grain found in an oven at Amara West

At the moment I am analysing the charred seeds and fruits with Caroline Cartwright, who is also analysing the wood charcoal. The macroscopic plant remains are analysed using both a stereo microscope and a SEM (scanning electron microscope). Charred remains found so far include cereal grains (wheat and barley) and crop-processing waste, fruits such as figs and a wide range of wild plants.

I am also processing sediment samples to extract phytoliths (microscopic plant remains), which are formed when soluble silica taken up in groundwater by plants is deposited within and between certain plant cells. These silicified cells are found within many different plant families such as grasses (which include cereals), sedges and palms.

Phytoliths are difficult to identify, but have the advantage of surviving in both charred and non-charred contexts, so we can learn about the presence and use of plants in areas where seeds and grains don’t survive.

A palm leaf phytolith, scale 10 microns

A palm leaf phytolith, scale 10 microns

At the moment, I am processing sediments to extract phytoliths, which includes the removal of carbonates, clays, organics, other remaining non-siliceous material through heavy liquid flotation, and finally mounting dried phytoliths onto slides. Phytoliths are then identified and counted using an optical (light) microscope.

Analysis of these different types of plant remains helps us learn about the past uses of plants at Amara West in day-to-day life, such as for food, fuel and animal fodder. I am also looking at the distributions of seeds and phytoliths across the site to examine locations of plant based activities such as food processing, as well as whether there are any differences in diet between poorer and richer households, or across the history of the site.

Plant remains can also help to provide information about the nearby vegetation, for instance the types of grasses, wetland plants and trees that grew near the ancient town.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,926 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

#MuseumOfTheWorld In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment! Our unique new partnership with Google's Cultural Institute @googleartproject now allows you to virtually walk through the whole Museum! The British Museum is the largest space ever to be captured on indoor #StreetView, putting the unparalleled world collection at your fingertips. Come and explore!
#MuseumOfTheWorld #Google #ForEveryone

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,926 other followers

%d bloggers like this: