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 11,972 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Happy Holi! This beautiful painting depicts the celebrations of the Hindu festival 
#Holi2015 #Holi #festival #painting Here’s an illustration by Helen Binyon of the Bennett girls from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice #WorldBookDay #JaneAusten #PrideandPrejudice #author #books #illustration Many famous authors have studied in the Museum's Reading Room including Karl Marx, Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker! #WorldBookDay #history #author #museum #library This papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Ani is over 3,000 years old! #WorldBookDay #papyrus #books #history Today is #WorldBookDay, and we’re celebrating all things books! Beatrix Potter's endearing characters and stories are beloved the world over. Here’s an illustration to her book The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies (1909)
#BeatrixPotter #books #illustrations #drawing Our forthcoming exhibition ‪#‎IndigenousAustralia (opening 23 April) will include magnificent loans from Australia plus specially commissioned artworks. The National Museum of Australia will loan this masterpiece, titled Yumari. Find out more and book tickets at www.britishmuseum.org/indigenousaustralia
#exhibition #australia #history #art
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,972 other followers

%d bloggers like this: