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.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

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A drawing of Christmas Eve, with angels bearing the infant Christ to earth #BMAdventCalendar Born #onthisday 1790: Jean-Francois Champollion, who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs using the Rosetta Stone Dreaming of a white #Christmas? Here’s a wood-engraving of snowflakes #BMAdventCalendar We've reached the final gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series looking at all of the galleries in the British Museum. This is Room 95, the Sir Joseph Hotung Centre for Ceramic Studies. The Chinese ceramics featured include the Sir Percival David Collection. Porcelain was first produced in China around AD 600. The skilful transformation of ordinary clay into beautiful objects has captivated the imagination of people throughout history and across the globe.
Chinese ceramics, by far the most advanced in the world, were made for the imperial court, the domestic market or for export. Sir Percival David mostly collected objects of imperial quality or of traditional Chinese taste. Within this gallery of almost 1,700 objects are examples of the finest Chinese ceramics in the world, dating from the 3rd to the 20th century. Some are unique creations, while others were mass-produced in batches of several hundred at a time. Technological innovations and the use of regional raw materials mean that Chinese ceramics are visually diverse. The gallery was newly opened in 2009 and features touchscreens instead of paper labels. A Japanese woodblock print of a snow scene from today's #BMAdventCalendar This is the next space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series looking at all the galleries in the Museum. Rooms 92–94 are the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries. Continuity and change have shaped Japanese material culture since ancient times. Through extensive cultural exchange, Japan has become a thriving modern, high-technology society while continuing to celebrate many elements of its traditional culture.
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