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Plant Residues in Archaeology


Pollen Grain

Pollen Grain

Daetis Jennings

A plant residue is the term used by archaeologists to refer to the microscopic parts of sticky bits left over from either processing or cooking vegetal matter. Their discovery has been a great boon to archaeological science, because plant matter-leaves, stems, seeds, and fruits-doesn't usually survive in archaeological contexts unless it has been burned. Plant residues such as opal phytoliths, pollen grains and starches, are made of of tiny plant parts which were built to last longer than leaves and fruits-whether to promulgate the species (pollen grains) or to outlast overly dry or wet periods (phytoliths and starches as food supplies for the plant).

The microscopic parts of plants are found in many archaeological contexts such as storage pit features or living floors, and also on the interiors of pots or on the surfaces of stone tools such as manos and metates that people of the past used to process plants.

Types of Plant Residues

During laboratory analysis, these residues are processed and studied under a microscope, identified to species or type if possible. Information about the species of plants at a given site may be used to identify information about diet and other human uses of processed plants, processes of domestication, or general ideas of the climate of the site vicinity.

Sources and Recent Studies

See additional information on the glossary entries for opal phytoliths and palynology.

Barnard H, Ambrose SH, Beehr DE, Forster MD, Lanehart RE, Malainey ME, Parr RE, Rider M, Solazzo C, and Yohe II RM. 2007. Mixed results of seven methods for organic residue analysis applied to one vessel with the residue of a known foodstuff. Journal of Archaeological Science 34:28-37.

Romanus K, Baeten J, Poblome J, Accardo S, Degryse P, Jacobs P, De Vos D, and Waelkens M. 2009. Wine and olive oil permeation in pitched and non-pitched ceramics: relation with results from archaeological amphorae from Sagalassos, Turkey. Journal of Archaeological Science 36(3):900-909.

This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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