Organic Materials
n.b. work already done on

"What did people extract from the environment?"
"What was their subsistence - i.e. their basic necessities?"

Must differentiate between Meal and Diet:
Meal - something eaten at a particular time
Diet - the pattern of consumption over long period of time

Meals: sources of information?

  1. Written records (e.g. Apicius)
  2. Representations in art (e.g. Pompeii)
  3. Actual remains of foodstuffs
  4. Ethnoarchaeology (observing tribal eating customs today)

Diet: sources of information?

  1. Human bones - isotopic analysis can suggest e.g. balance of marine/terrestrial foods, upper/lower class diets
  2. Remains of what was eaten

2 definitions:
ZOOARCHAEOLOGY (archaeozoology) = study of past human use of animals (big business)
PALEOETHNOBOTANY (archaeobotany) = study of past human use of plants (getting bigger)

n.b. - must ensure most efficient extraction technique is adopted, so must ensure you understand the conditions of preservation (dry/wet sites see Ch.2)

Focus of interest for the archaeologist:

  1. Which species were eaten
  2. How were they managed, i.e. domesticated

Evidence for consumption?


Evidence for processing or production?

  • At what stage of the process were they deposited on the site? (see diagram)
  • Plants don't preserve well, might be staple foods in the diet yet underrepresented in the record
  • Fish bones - ditto

How representative of the total diet are the remains?
Depends on the site's function:

  • Long-term settlement?
  • Kill site?
  • Regularly occupied? For how long?

Macrobotanical Remains

Most of our evidence is of this type:

Type of remains
Collection method
Dessicated (e.g. arid, desert provenience) Dry sieving
Waterlogged (permanently wet since deposition) Wet sieving
Preserved by charring* flotation
Mineralised e.g. in latrine pits by minerals percolating through sediment Wet/dry sieving according to context
  • charring is the principal or only cause of preservation on habitation sites
  • absence of moisture or fresh air leads to good preservation

How do we judge relative importance of each plant species?

  1. Need for sufficient samples from large number of contexts, recovered e.g. by flotation machine, all from a single period
  2. Need to quantify plant remains. Can be done by
    • Weight
    • Number of remains
    • Variation on MNI technique used for bones (see below)
  3. Need to interpret the context of the plant sample
    • Focus on the human use of the plant to reveal the function of the site
    • Identify each of the many different stages of plant processing (see diagram)
    • Ethnoarchaeological evidence for many of the activities (pre-mechanisation)
    • Experimental archaeology (e.g Butser Iron Age Farm) shows characteristic residues for certain activities, can be compared with samples from the site e.g.
        • i. from ovens
        • ii. living floors
        • iii. latrines
        • iv. storage pits n.b. importance of samples from wide range of contexts

"A species that dominates in a number of samples and contexts may be reckoned to have been important in the economy."


Microbotanical Remains

  • Can help in reconstruction of diet

Esp phytoliths (i.e. minute particles of silica)

    • Specific to certain parts of plants
    • So give clues to harvesting/threshing techniques
    • Also help to differentiate between wild and domestic species
    • May be found attached to edges of stone tools
    • Tell us on which plants they were used
    • May be found on surface of animal and human teeth

Chemical Residues on Plants

    • Help identify species
    • Residues e.g proteins, Fatty lipids (analysed by infra red spectroscopy, gas liquid chromatography, gas chromatography, mass spectrometry
    • DNA

Plant Impressions:

    • Common on fired clay

Tools and other equipment used in Plant Processing(e.g. pottery, sickles, stone grinders )
Can prove or suggest plants were processed at a site, maybe which species and why e.g. cereal farming

Analysis of Plant Residues on artefacts

    • Learn more about use of a tool from the residues left on them
    • Micro-wear analysis of a tool edge - used to cut meat, or wood, or whatever
    • Microscopic study - may reveal plant fibres
    • e.g. what kind of grass was cut by a tool.

Chemical analysis of residues on tool edges:

    • Potassium Iodide turns BLUE to show presence of starch grains
    • Yellow/Brown to show other plant materials
    • Also starch grains detectable by microscope, and picked out of crevices using needle
    • Fats, fatty acids, amino acids (constituents of protein)
    • Extracted, analysed by chromatography and
    • Compared with chromatograms

Isotopic analysis of organic residues - with esp. reference to nitrogen and carbon isotope ratios
Can divide plants into 3 groups:

    • Legumes (all terrestrial) - get nitrogen from bacterial fixation of atmospheric nitrogen
    • Non leguminous terrestrial plants obtain nitrogen from the soil
    • Marine plants -have distinctive ratio of carbon isotopes

Material previously thought useless to the archaeologist, can reveal information on diet and cooking processes n.b.

    • actual surface residues not essential for this analysis!
    • Deposits may percolate into clay's fabric (eg oils and resins)
    • Can be treated with solvents to isolate any organic residues,
    • Then identified by spectrometers and chromatography

Seasonality and Domestication

    • Some plants only available at certain times of year - seasonal
    • Give clues about when a site was occupied
    • But storage of seasonal produce may prolong habitation

Wild or Domesticated?

    • Transition to Human management could be complete with 20-200 years for eg wild wheats and barleys
    • Macrobotanical remains enable clear distinction
    • Once people began to cultivate cereals, they gradually developed varieties that retained their seeds until they could be harvested

Meals and Cookery

    • Can now estimate at what temperature a plant was cooked! ( cf.Lindow Man)
    • Subject residue to electron spin resonance (technique which measures the highest temperature to which it was subjected in the past
    • n.b. the burning of organic materials produces a "radical carbon" which survives a long time, tells of highest temperature endured, and duration and antiquity

Plant Evidence from Literate Societies

    • Wealth of evidence for domestication of plants
    • And farming practices
    • And cookery
    • e.g. Strabo, Josephus, Virgil, Varro, Vindolanda tablets, Herodotus, wall paintings
    • n.b. evidence of literature and art only give short term view of diet
    • only archaeology gives longer view


    • Considered more important in the diet?
    • Status? (c.f. Homeric Society)
    • Animal remains usually better preserved on archaeological site.

Information from Animal Sources
Once archaeologists were only interested in

    • Morphology of different animal species
    • What they told us of the environment
    • What they told us of chronology
    • Whether wild or domestic
    • Whether they were remains left by hunters or herders

Now - since WW2 they are also interested in

    • How the remains got there
    • What they tell us about
              1. Subsistence
              2. Domestication
              3. Butchering
              4. Seasonality

Animal remains: Are they present through

    • human agency for food or clothing or tools (eg antlers, bone tools)?
    • Natural causes
    • Other predators? (carnivore refuse, owl pellets, burrowing animals etc)

NB. As usual context and content of faunal remains are crucial
NB. Study of TAPHONOMY (i.e. what happens to bones between deposition and excavation)

    • Gives clues esp. in Lower Palaeolithic

How to prove human use of animals?
How to differentiate between

    • (stone) tool marks
    • scratches made by animal teeth
    • Etching made by plant roots
    • Abrasion by soil
    • Damage by excavation tools - NB
      1. use of scanning electron microscope to examine scratch marks on bones (p.283)
      2. Use of high-precision rubber impression on bone surface, makes epoxy resin replica (saves handling fragile bone) which you then examine under microscope.
Cut marks v-shape, straight sides
Carnivore teeth Broader u-shape grooves
roots Irregular marks
Abrasive particles Shallow grooves

What if both cut and carnivore marks on a bone?

    • A question of who got there first! Where are the marks?
    • Competition for the meat
    • Use of tendons, skins by humans

Microscopic features:

    • Not conclusive on their own
    • Need to study context of the find and position of the marks

Other proof of human processing of bones?

    • Artificial concentration of bones
    • Burning of bones
    • Un-burnt bones could have been brought by non-human predators

Macroremains are the most abundant and informative animal residue ie

                • Bones
                • Teeth
                • Antlers
                • Shells

Not necessarily the whole diet! Many foods leave no remains eg grubs, blood Human remains? Cannibalism? Limb bones cracked open for marrow? Cut marks may suggest de-fleshed meatbones or scraped clean for re-burial?


Analyzing a Macrofaunal Bone Assemblage:

    • Identify them
    • Quantify them in terms of
          1. numbers of animals
          2. meat weight

Allowance must be made for:

      • Age
      • Sex
      • Season of death

How do we deduce Sex?

    • Easy for deer (only male has antlers)
    • Dog (only male has penis bone)
    • Animals which have different pelvic structure
    • Feet (large for male, small for female) (esp. in cattle)

How do we deduce Age?

    • Check degree of closure of sutures in the skull
    • Eruption and wear patterns on the teeth

How do we deduce Season of Death ?

    • Bones and teeth can help
    • Tooth eruption and wear - and growth rings of dentine, and annual rings of cementum, a mineralised deposit below the gumline. Deposition in bands dependent on seasons of want and plenty. Teeth survive better than bones.
    • Bone shaft growth
    • Annual cycle of antler growth and shedding

Small Fauna:

Birds: remains consist of

    • Bones
    • Guano
    • Feathers - often exploited for this rather than for meat
    • Footprints
    • Eggshell

Evidence for human exploitation

    • Cut marks on bone, burning
    • Small boned birds - probably brought to site by non-human predator, or were local inhabitants


    • Weight can be deduced from bones, suggesting what was their contribution to diet
    • Species found may suggest fishing methods utilised


    • Midden sites best indicator of human diet
    • Coastal middens mainly of mollusc shells,
    • Terrestrial middens consist mainly of snail shells , freshwater molluscs which greatly outnumber bones, because they survive better
    • Doesn't necessarily mean they were staples of the diet (1 red deer carcase = 52,267 oysters!)
    • Shells can only be sampled ; they must be
                      1. Screened (ie by sieving)
                      2. Sorted
                      3. Identified
                      4. meat value calculated (shell to flesh weight ratio)

How were Animal resources exploited?
Tools, Vessels, and Residues Fishing and Hunting:

    • fish traps of Stone Age, eel-fishing boats, animal bones with points embedded in them to make spear heads,

Trails of blood

    • on tools may identify species being hunted (molecular fingerprint)
    • Fat and phosphate residues from animals and fish, phosphate analysis of soils can suggest manuring of fields.

Food residues in vessels -

    • milk fat, cheese, beer, yeast, fish fats

Animal prints and tracks

    • Paw prints eg on Roman roof tiles and bricks of cats, dogs and birds Assessing diet from Human Remains