Photograph of a crop being harvested in Wiltshire
Stooks of corn during harvest in Wiltshire. Archaeobotanists can interpret evidence for past arable farming from archaeological remains of crops and weeds © Historic England, Fay Worley
Stooks of corn during harvest in Wiltshire. Archaeobotanists can interpret evidence for past arable farming from archaeological remains of crops and weeds © Historic England, Fay Worley

Archaeobotany

Archaeobotany is the study of ancient plant remains. By studying archaeobotanical remains we can find out how people used plants in the past: for food, fuel, medicine, symbolic or ritual purposes, or for building and crafts. We can also use plant remains to reconstruct past vegetation and the ways humans interacted with their environment.

The main types of plant remains that archaeobotanists work on are macrofossils (seeds, grain and fruits, chaff, tubers), charcoal and wood, and microfossils (phytoliths, pollen, starch grains). Plan remains are preserved by charring, waterlogging, mineralisation and desiccation.

Activities

We conduct and commission research into archaeobotanical remains related to English sites, archive collections, and sometimes even historical buildings. We support and provide advice to the sector, and promote and develop best practice in archaeobotanical sampling, reporting and research. Our research is published in site reports, Research Reports and journals.

We use ArboDat 2016 English Version© for archaeobotanical recording and data sharing and we administer the UK ArboDat user group. The ArboDat 2016 English Version is the product of the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Hessen, Wiesbaden, Germany, hessenARCHÄOLOGIE/Archäeobotankik.

ArboDat is currently being used by over 30 archaeobotanical laboratories in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Poland, Finland and the Czech Republic, and was introduced to British archaeobotanists in 2017. The European user group is administered by the Niedersächsisches Institut für historische Küstenforschung NIhK Wilhelmshaven.

We coordinate the professional Archaeobotanical Working Group (AWG) and the Charcoal and Wood Work Group (CWWG).

Facilities and equipment

  • Flotation and wet-sieving facilities
  • Chemical preparation laboratories (Hydrogen fluoride standard)
  • Archaeobotanical laboratory with high and low power microscopes
  • Keyence VHX 700 Digital 3D imaging microscope
  • Other analytical equipment is available within Materials Science and Archaeological Conservation

Reference Collections

The archaeobotanical seed collection currently includes around 4500 specimens of seeds and fruits of mainly British species. Most are dried, with some experimentally charred items. Details of species held are given in the downloadable catalogue.

We also hold collections of wood and charcoal, charred tubers, mosses and slides of animal and plant fibres. We add new accessions on a regular basis.

Researchers can visit the collections by prior arrangement. We also lend out many of our accessions. Please note that students require prior approval from their supervisor(s) before using the collection and close supervision is not always possible. Practitioners and researchers  are invited to attend one of our Open Collection Days. Contact Ruth Pelling for details: see 'who we are' section.

Archaeobotanical regional reviews

Hall, AR and Huntley, JP, 2007 A Review of the Evidence for Macrofossil Plant Remains from Archaeological Deposits in Northern England, Research Department Report Series 87/2007

Carruthers, W and Hunter Dowse K, 2019 A Review of Archaeological Plant Remains from the Midland Counties report, Research Department Report Series 47/2019

Pelling, R, 'A Review of Archaeological Plant Remains from the Southern Region: Anglo-Saxon to Post-medieval' (in preparation)

Campbell, G and Pelling R, 'A Review of Archaeological Plant Remains from the Southern Region: Prehistoric and Roman' (in preparation)

Who we are

Ruth Pelling

Senior Archaeobotanist

Ruth is an archaeobotanist with experience of working on both British material of all ages, and late prehistoric, Roman and Islamic archaeobotany of north Africa. She is particularly interested in periods of transition, non-food uses of plants, and cultural aspects of food and cuisine. Ruth is an Honorary Senior Research Associated with UCL and a Visiting Fellow to the University of Bournemouth

Contact Ruth Pelling

Zoë Hazell

Senior Palaeoecologist

Zoë has a Geography background (Quaternary Science), with research experience in the reconstruction of past environments and landscapes. Her multidisciplinary interests mean that she has worked on diverse projects, from the use of peatlands to reconstruct past climatic conditions to the study of wood use through the identification of archaeological wood/charcoal remains.

Contact Zoë Hazell

Gill Campbell

Head of Fort Cumberland Laboratories

Gill leads the team of heritage scientists based at Fort Cumberland. She is an archaeobotanist and specialises in the analysis of waterlogged material. Her research focuses on the utilization of plant resources in the past, the nature of biocultural heritage and the development and improvement of archaeological science practice. Current projects include the investigation of plant use at two sites: Tintagel Island, Cornwall, and Birdoswald cemetery, Hadrian’s Wall.

Contact Gill Campbell

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