A very brief history of archaeobotany in waterlogged sites

Archaeobotanical research at waterlogged sites began with the discovery and investigation of prehistoric moorland and lakeshore sites in the alpine foreland in the second half of the 19th century. The Swiss botanist Oswald Heer (1809-1883), who published his fundamental work "Die Pflanzen der Pfahlbauten" in 1865 (Heer 1865), is considered to be the founder of Archaeobotany, and since the beginning of the 20th century other archaeobotanists have emphasised the importance of plants in prehistoric times. While the first researchers focused only on the discovery, collection and identification of plant remains - mainly seeds and fruits - later archaeobotanists have consideredthe origin of cultivated plants, their wild progenitors and their spread. As waterlogged sites are also rich in wild plant remains the importance of collected plants and the reconstruction of past environments can also be investigated. From the Sixties onwards wetland archaeobotany progressively became an independent branch of research in interdisciplinary excavation projects on the North Sea coast and in the alpine foreland. On the other hand, since the Eighties a lot of botanical investigations have been conducted in waterlogged sediments of wells, ditches and urban medieval latrines.

Where waterlogged plant remains can be found

Waterlogged plant remains can be preserved, if embedded in a permanently wet environment. They are found in the range of the groundwater level, in lake and river sediments, in coastal marshlands, in moors and in gley soils and for that in archaeological contexts such as lakeshore or coastal settlements and in moorland sites. On the other hand, waterlogged plant remains also occur in rural and urban dryland sites when structures such as wells, pits, latrines etc. have been situated permanently under groundwater level.

In all these waterlogged sediments the oxygen content is very low and the activity of micro-organisms is reduced or absent. The plant material is destroyed only to a minor degree and a great deal of the key tissues are preserved (Retallack 1984). Those components which are destroyed very easily are the ingredients of the cells like proteins, sugars and starch. They are not preserved under waterlogged conditions. The next ones which are broken down by bacteria and funghi are the pectines, hemicelluloses and celluloses building up the cell walls. Only under constant wet conditions can these substances eventually survive. What always survives under waterlogged conditions are the lignins, which make up the wooden parts of the plants, and the waxes of the cuticulae covering the plant epiderms. The most resistant plant remains are wood, hard seeds and fruit stones from raspberries, blackberries, sloes, plums, cherries and others. The most delicate plant tissues found in waterlogged contexts are leaves from trees, ferns and mosses as well as fruit coats of grasses, epidermis fragments of leek etc.

Wetland settlements

The majority of wetland settlements in Europe have been excavated along the North Sea coast of the Netherlands and Germany and in the alpine foreland and the Jura mountains of France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy and Slovenia. One type of coastal settlement is the dwelling mound (Wurt), an artificial hillock, created by farmers along the coast to stay dry during high tide and floods. These dwelling hills which where built from 500 BC until 1200 AD can be up to 15 meters in height (Behre 1976; Körber-Grohne 1967; van Zeist 1974).

A lot of Neolithic and Bronze Age lakeshore settlements, pile dwellings (Pfahlbauten) and moorland sites have been found along the prealpine lakes (Lake Constance, Lake Zürich and others) and in mires. Their remains are covered and protected by lake sediments or by peat, but can in some cases partly be affected by waterlevel changes or by erosion (Jacomet 1989; Schibler et al. 1997; Maier 2001, 2004; Jacomet et al. 2004).

The cultural layers of these wetland settlements may sometimes be 1 metre thick and contain large amounts of material that has accumulated in the daily life of the settlers: remains of plant processing such as threshing and dehusking remains and weed seeds, remains of human faeces with thousands of wild fruit seeds and cereal bran, ruminant dung and animal fodder as well as the autochthonous vegetation at the site itself.

Underwater excavation in the pile dwellings of Sipplingen (Lake Constance/Germany). In the light grey lake sediment of the shallow water zone, remains of prehistoric settlements get apparent in darker colours. Remains of piles can be seen as dark dots often arranged in rows. Photo: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Baden-Württemberg.
Excavation at the moorland site Torwiesen II (Federsee/Germany). Remains of neolithic buildings are embedded in peat. The picture shows the substructures of a housefloor. Photo: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Baden-Württemberg.

Wells, pits, ditches and cesspits

Waterlogged plant material can also be found in urban sites and settlements on dry soils (Hall & Kenward 1990; van der Veen 1996), if some of the archaeological structures are below groundwater level. Such structures are, for example, wells, pits, ditches or latrines. The oldest wells with subfossil organic remains were found in northwest and east Germany and are from the Linear Pottery Culture (Danubian Culture, about 5500-4900 BC). They produce large amounts of uncarbonized waterlogged plant remains (Knörzer 1995). Other wells with waterlogged material are from the Late Neolithic (Hakbijl et al. 1989), from the Iron Age and Roman period (Bastow & Murray 1990; Colledge 1988; Greig 1980, 1988a; Körber-Grohne 1979, 1999; Lentacker et al. 1992; Murphy 1986; Paradine 1984; Wilson 1968, 1981). Fills of pits and ditches have been investigated and published by Fairweather 1981; Green 1986; Greig 1990; Knörzer 1999; Robinson 1993; van der Veen 1994 and Wilkinson 2000 and others.

Medieval latrines can also be extremely rich in subfossile plant remains. They contain everything that has survived digestion such as cereal bran, seeds and fruits of raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, figs etc. Often they have been filled with various waste material and kitchen scraps (among others Brombacher 1999; Dickson 1989; Greig 1981, 1988b; Greig & Osborne 1994; Hall 2000; Hall et al. 1983; Holden 1986, 1990; Jacomet & Schibler 1996; Körber-Grohne 1981; Körber-Grohne & Piening 1980; Sillmann 2002; van Zeist et al. 2000; Wiethold 1995, 2003). While the contents of latrines can shed light on the food consumption habits of the users, it should always be taken into account that a great deal of the plant tissues consumed may be destroyed by digestion before entering the latrine. Further processes by which plant material could have been removed or destroyed are the emptying of latrines and chalking. Slaked chalk is put into latrines for disinfection and to reduce bad smells and may affect or even destroy plant tissues.


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