The New World of Old World Plants – Alexandria Mitchem

September 2, 2016

This summer, I was fortunate to be able to go into the field with Dr. Chantel White to explore the sub-discipline of archaeobotany, the study of ancient plant remains. I have been in the field before, spending last summer learning to dig with Dr. Megan Kassabaum. Upon my return, I conducted research for my senior thesis in anthropology on the plant remains from the Smith Creek site, which led to my decision to pursue further training in archaeobotany.

I thought, “I have field experience, broadly. I have lab experience, specifically. Why not get field experience, specifically?” So off I set, to Greece, where I have never dug or studied before. In fact, I’ve never even worked with Old World plants, beyond a few class projects in Dr. White’s class. (Let it never be said she didn’t know what she was getting herself into.) I joined Dr. White and the team of the Princeton-Greek Survey and Excavation of the Molyvoti Peninsula, under the direction of Nathan Arrington of Princeton University.

Me and two other students working to set up the flotation tank. Photo by Dr. Chantel White.
Me (right) and two other students working to set up the flotation tank. Photo by Dr. Chantel White.

Flotation machines are amazing. They basically revolutionized archaeobotany by making it possible to recover tiny seeds and bits of charcoal through flotation that would have been lost by wet- or dry-screening. I owe the entire data set of my senior thesis to flotation. There is, perhaps, one downside to flotation—the amount of equipment you need. You can either buy a flotation machine, hope your site already has one and that it works, or make one. Anyone who has worked in other countries knows you don’t always have access to the same hardware you’d find in the States, which leads to dragging suitcases stuffed with equipment through customs. This summer, Dr. White has devised a flotation machine that involves bringing a few materials (a hand pump, clasps, etc.) and buying ones that can be found in virtually every country (trash cans). That’s right, folks—we’re doing science with trash cans!

My experiences in the field this summer have been incredibly different from last summer’s. In part, this is because I’ve never been to Greece before; I’ve had a whole new country to get acquainted with in five weeks. Lagoons surrounded by mountains, amazing tomatoes and cucumbers, potato chips in flavors such as oregano and ketchup—it’s been a wild ride. More than that, being in the field as a specialist, or even just to assist a specialist, is vastly different from going into the field to dig. Instead of digging, I was processing samples. Instead of staying in one trench, I would go from trench to trench, clarifying sampling processes, and distributing extra necessary items to the excavation team, like tags, bags, and buckets.

A view from our work table. Photo by Alexandria Mitchem.
A view from our work table. Photo by Alexandria Mitchem.

Some parts of the field experience were the same, however. I still worked on a small portion of the project, only actually seeing part of the data every day. Like an excavator working in one trench, it is essential to communicate with crew members, to tell people what I’ve found, ask them what they’ve found, and try and keep my work in the context of the larger picture. Archaeology is still collaborative, and I still owe much of the work I’m able to do to the larger team and community of people who help make these projects happen.