Environmental Archaeology


Illustration: Environmental Archaeology Lab, UMEA, Sweden. Source: Public domain.


Environmental archaeology is concerned with the relationship of humans with the biosphere. Therefore how they affect and are affected the ecosystem. It is a dynamic relationship with the environment. It is a broad range of specialised archaeological studies pertaining to human prehistoric environment interactions. Developed in the 1960’s it uses ways to reconstruct past environments and relationships between humans and important environmental variables and resources, as well as data recovery and analytical methods.

Environmental archaeology is a subfield concerned with processes, factors, and conditions of past biological and physical environmental systems, and its relationship to cultural systems. It is broader contextual archaeology. Its aim is the determination of dynamic interrelationships and culture. This dynamic relationship with the environment includes studying climate and meteorology, the ecosystem, natural habitats. palynology, mollusca, archaeomagnetism, to view the human relationship with the biosphere. The branch is concerned with documenting and understanding the physical environment in which particular cultural systems operated.

The focus of environmental archaeology is sometimes synchronic in the reconstruction of land use at and around a site at a particular phase in its history. The focus is sometimes diachronic in trying to understand the changing nature of vegetation cover or animal populations in a given landscape. Its interest is in matters of context and the dynamics of relationships between people and environments. in addition it is concerned with the symbolic meanings that earlier populations attached to particular plants, animals, and landscape sectors. [By synchronic is meant concern with a subject as it exists at a particular time, not with its historical antecedents. By diachronic is meant studying a subject in its historical context].

Palaeoecology is thus the study of human communities in their environments, and especially the effects people had on the physical environment, and vice versa. Thus artefacts are manufactured, developed, and modified by humans for use. However, ecofacts are quantifiable natural remains or products from the environment or ecosystem. Therefore patterning within an environment can result from ploughing. Also stratigraphy is important in environmental archaeology because studying by context shows contextual relationships in sequential development.

Science in archaeology is used in two senses e.g., science in archaeology and archaeological science. Therefore (1) the formal use of scientific method and logic in analysing archaeological records, and (2) the use of natural science data in evaluation and interpretation of archaeological material and contexts. Environmental archaeology involved soil scientists, chemists, physicists, geologists, botanists, pathologists, zoologists, and ecologists. This led to the development of palaeobotany, zooarchaeology, palaeopathology, palaeoecology, and palaeoenvironmental reconstruction.

Palaeobotany and Palynology
Palaeobotany or archaeobotany, or archeoethnobotany, is the study of ancient plant remains within the archaeological record. This ancient flora or biomass includes pollen, seeds, carbonised grain, wood, plant fibres, flax, dye plants, brewing remains, fruit stones, and nuts. Mainly using charred, waterlogged, desiccated seeds, plant fibres, leaves, wood and fruit, as well as the impressions left by plant remains in clay or other plastic materials. Thus charred cereals, which indicate the presence of cleared and cultivated ground, grain impressions on pottery, give clues to the character of past environments. Specialised techniques are required for the fuller picture of the vegetational cover of ancient landscapes. Pollen analysis (palynology) and molluscan (snail) analysis have proved the most successful.


Images of seeds

Pollen analysis or palynology was first developed in Sweden in 1916. Pollen is extremely durable and survives very well in acidic, poorly aerated sediments, such as lake beds and peat bogs. Palynology is the study of fossil or living pollen or spores, including production, dispersal, and applications. Pollen analysis is used in palaeoenvironmental reconstruction to identify natural and human-induced vegetation changes, and thereby developing relative chronologies. Palynology studies plant life at certain periods using the remains of pollen grains found in soils from the same period. The resilient exine or outer coating of pollen grains and spores of plants, mosses, and ferns, is preserved in anaerobic environments such as lakes and peat bogs. Preservation also occurs in some dry, acidic soils as found in caves. The proportions of different species is an indication of type and mix of flora.

Pollen zonation is a relative dating technique that can be recognised and correlated regionally, with analysis after extraction of preserved grains from the matrix and then sampling the residue. Pollen grains belonging to different plant species are very distinctive and easily identified with microscopy. interval samples throughout a section or core identify absence or presence and provide a differential representation of individual pollen grains at each point. The picture built up is of vegetation present at different periods.

Archaeozoology or zooarchaeology is the analysis of animal remains within the archaeological record. Archaeologically recovered animal remains include insect remains, animal bones, teeth, antler, molluscs (fresh, marine, terrestrial), leather, furs, hair. coprolites, parasites, fish, birds. Archaeozoology is the interpretation and association of animal remains with artefacts and people. It is focused around the recovery and analysis of animal remains in order to examine the physiology and ecology in relation to cultural activities. It contributes to the understanding of animals in society. Major themes are animal domestication, exploitation, use patterns, butchery practices, and dietary contributions. Archaeozoology therefore focuses on human use of and impact of ancient animal populations, provides data on subsistence, dietary patterns and animal domestication. For example pigs and deer favour a woodland habitat.


Small animal remains

Analysis of mollusca is a valuable method because pollen seldom survives on alkaline soils or chalk downland. In addition pollen can travel great distances on the wind, whereas snail shells give a picture of very localised environments. Shells of land snails, which are landscape dependent, are frequently preserved and different species favour particular types of environment, for example woodland, open country, boggy ground, or cultivated land. The shells of marine, estuarine, freshwater and terrestrial molluscs are well preserved in calcareous archaeological deposits and naturally occurring sediments. Species identification reveals information on economy and environment. Shell middens show accumulation of molluscs as humans discard patterns and mainly relate to economy and eating habits of community responsible. Also buried soils, ditch, pit-fills, slope-wash deposits, blown sand, loess (layer of fine-grained fertile soil often in basins of large rivers, old water courses, and alluvium (made of sand and soil left by floods).

Most mollusca species have preferred habitats and rarely move far. Land mollusca are: (1) shade loving woodland species; (2) open country grassland species; (3) scree-loving species on masses of loose stones on mountain-sides; (4) catholic species with a wide range of habitats; and (5) marshland species. Freshwater mollusca include: (1) slum species in small bodies of water that is poorly aerated and subject to periodic drying; (2) catholic species in almost all freshwater contexts; (3) ditch species in plant rich slow streams; and (4) moving water species in large bodies of oxygenated water.
Accumulating sediments provide samples from different horizons and chart changes in local environments through time. Samples for molluscan analysis, through sections of a gradually silted ditch, allows for counting representation of individual species. According to the layer it is possible to reconstruct the changing past environment.

Analysis of insect remains is derived from anaerobic and semi-aerobic deposits. This reveals climate, local environment, and health and welfare of the local population. Most common is the hard exterior of beetles (coleoptera) and other fragments, as well as eggs and larvae. Samples are usually collected by froth floatation. Parasitic infestations can be obtained from coprolites as well as samples of diet.

Essay contribution to University of Oxford Undergraduate Certificate in Archaeology (2004).



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