Monday, 24 November 2014

Routine activities and everyday archaeobotany

A new paper that I wrote with colleagues based at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London has just been published. The paper is titled “Routine activities, tertiary refuse and labor organization: social inferences from everyday archaeobotany”, and my co-authors are leading archaeobotanists Prof. Dorian Fuller and Dr Chris Stevens. The paper is published in an exciting new monograph, “Ancient plants and people: contemporary trends in archaeobotany” by the University of Arizona Press. The monograph contains 14 papers that present a wide-angle view of the current state of archaeobotanical research, methods and theories across the world. The contributors discuss methodological issues and engage in debates on a wide range of topics, from plant utilization in hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist societies to uses of ancient DNA. “Ancient plants and people” provides a global perspective on archaeobotanical research, with a particular focus on the sophisticated interplay between the use of plants and their social and environmental context.

My paper with Prof. Fuller and Dr Stevens re-considers relationships between archaeological contexts and their archaeobotanical assemblages, arguing that many assemblages do not reflect the function of the context itself, but instead represent incidental loss or waste disposal from recurrent, routine activities. One of the remarkable features that every archaeobotanist will have experienced is the uniformity of samples from across given sites, cultures and phases. The recurrence of the same species and parts of species (e.g. grains, seeds, nutshells, chaff, etc.), whether of wild foods, crops or weeds, can often be detected in a narrow range of proportions. What such a pattern implies is that, within any region during a defined period of time, the same type of material is not only routinely being burned but also, in all probability, is being produced by a limited number of well-defined activities, and such activities are being repeated on a continuous basis.

The nature of most archaeobotanical evidence is such that its final resting place is usually only tenuously, if at all, connected to the activities that produced it. Only very rarely will archaeobotanical assemblages contribute to studies of spatial patterning and activity areas on archaeological sites, except perhaps at a coarse scale on the very largest sites. Despite their tertiary nature, however, the recurrent patterns of archaeobotanical assemblages across sites reflect recurrent practices in the past: the routine. As such, they provide an important window on traditions of daily household labour. Through consideration of the composition (rather than the context) of archaeobotanical assemblages, we reveal new insights into social organisation through case studies from North-West Pakistan, South India, Southern Britain and Ireland, and we also address the vexed issue of the role of dung burning in the creation of Old World seed assemblages. The monograph can be purchased via the publisher’s website. 

Fuller DQ, Stevens C, McClatchie M (2014) Routine activities, tertiary refuse and labor organization: social inferences from everyday archaeobotany, pp 174–217. In Madella M, Lancelotti C, Savard M (eds), Ancient plants and people: contemporary trends in archaeobotany. Tuscon, University of Arizona Press