British Museum blog

Glimpses of diet through plant remains

Philippa Ryan, British Museum

Philippa sampling a 3,100 year old hearth in a large villa (E12.10) at Amara West

I’m in Sudan looking at ancient plant remains from Amara West to investigate past diet and the potential impact of climate change on how plants were used.

This type of evidence can also provide insight into social behaviour, such as differences in diet between richer and poorer households. Additionally, identifying certain types of plant remains, such as cereal processing detritus, can help to investigate the functions of certain rooms or outdoor areas in the town.

Tools of the trade: sieves for botanical samples

The excavators take sediment samples from archaeological contexts such as hearths, ovens, floors and storage bins for botanical analysis. Back at the dig-house, I process the bags of sediment they have collected to extract the charred and desiccated plant remains – using dry-sieving and flotation.

Philippa sorting through a sample after sieving, back in the work room

At the end of the dig season, these samples will then be taken back to the British Museum, with the permission of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, where I will identify the seeds and fruits in conjunction with Caroline Cartwright, who is also analysing the wood charcoal. Modern analytical equipment such as a Scanning Electron Microscopes can help with the identifications.

Scanning Electron Microscope image of tamarisk charcoal from Amara West (Caroline Cartwright)

In addition, I am taking further sediment samples back for processing in the laboratory to extract phytoliths (microscopic silicified plant cells) as another way of investigating the plant record.

On the Nile near Amara West, seeking modern plant material for reference collection

Whilst here, I have also been collecting plants to compare with the ancient plant materials. I have gathered grasses, reeds and branches of trees and shrubs from the riverbanks via boat (watching out for the large crocodiles!), a trip into the desert, and from the island of Ernetta where we are living.

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Edward Ruscha (b. 1937), Made in California. Colour lithograph, 1971. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist.
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See this new acquisition by the Museum, and many other extraordinary works in our #AmericanDream exhibition, opening March 2017. Click the link in our bio for more info.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Vote McGovern. Screenprint, 1972. © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London.
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Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Flags I. Screenprint, 1973. Collection of Johanna and Leslie Garfield. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging.
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