Archaeobotany Laboratory

Led by Dr. Chantel White | Contact:

Archaeobotany Lab.

Research in the Archaeobotany Laboratory centers on the analysis and interpretation of plant material recovered from archaeological sites. Our laboratory and methodological expertise is the study of macrobotanical remains (e.g. seeds, nutshell, and wood), which are identified to understand how humans interacted with plants as sources of food, medicine, timber, and in countless other ways.

We have a strong research interest in the reconstruction of foodways, particularly the agricultural production sequence and the identification of processed, cooked, and fermented plant-based foods in the archaeological record. In addition to modern seeds, the laboratory reference collection includes many examples of herb and spice accessions that have been modified through food preparation activities and then experimentally carbonized.

Resources in the laboratory include a high-powered Keyence digital microscope with imaging capabilities, a dual-head teaching microscope, several low-power sorting stereomicroscopes, a precision balance, graduated geological sieves, a library of reference books, and the CAAM Botanical Reference Collection.

Current Research Projects

The CAAM Botanical Reference Collection contains over 2,000 accessions of seeds, nutshell, and fruit pits with a particular focus on Southwest Asia (Jordan and Israel), the Mediterranean (primarily Greece), and the Eastern United States (historical ornamentals and heirloom crops). This collection grows every year, and each time a researcher takes on a new archaeobotanical project, they order additional reference material as part of their research preparation. The majority of our accessions originate from the USDA and from botanical gardens around the world, and our heirloom crops are acquired through seed companies committed to community food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture, such as Truelove Seeds in Philadelphia, PA.

Archaeobotanists have recently begun to recognize the ways in which various human activities, such as meal preparation and cooking tasks, physically alter the appearance of plant material in unique, identifiable ways. CAAM undergraduate and graduate students have been assisting in expanding thearchaeobotanical collection to include experimentally processed plant specimens such as ground cereals, boiled lentils, germinated barley, fermented rice, and pressed grape skins from winemaking. Most of these specimens were also carbonized (burned) to recreate the preservation conditions frequently found at archaeological sites.

With funding from the Penn Price Lab, high-quality digital photographs and 3D scans of each botanical specimen have been obtained using our Keyence digital microscope. Hundreds of region-specific plant taxa have been imaged and collected into CAAM Archaeobotany Reference Books that are accessible to the public as a digital version.

  • Keyence VHX-5000 digital microscope (20x-1000x) with automatic z-stacking, three-dimensional imaging, reflected and transmitted light capabilities, specimen measurement software, and a large viewing screen
  • Unitron 11150-DH Z6 Dual Head Discussion Zoom Stereo Microscope (8x to 50x) teaching microscope
  • Several AmScope stereo binocular microscopes (7x-45x) with a large field of view, large working distance, and reflected and transmitted light capabilities
  • Mettler Toledo ME203E precision balance with a protective cover and draft shield, readability of 0.001g
  • Paragon E10 Sentry Xpress muffle furnace (shared with Ceramics Laboratory) with a steel chassis kiln and insulating firebrick, rated to 2000°F
  • Soxhlet extractor, Allihn condenser, Azzota heating mantle, clamps and glassware for distillation of essential plant oils
  • Fume hood
  • Lab sink
  • Refrigerator and freezer (shared with Zooarchaeology Laboratory)
  • Riffle box
  • Gilson geological test sieves (multiple sizes) to assist in the subdivision of samples by fraction size; flotation samples are routinely divided into several fractions: ≥4mm, ≥2mm, ≥1mm, ≥0.5mm, ≥0.25mm, and pan (<0.25mm)
  • Living World in Archaeological Science – ANTH 2267, CLST 3303, NELC 2950, ANTH 5267, CLST 5303
  • Plants and Society – ANTH 3240, CLST 3316, ANTH 5240, CLST 5316
  • Archaeobotany Seminar – ANTH 5233, AAMW 5390, CLST 7313, NELC 6930
  • Independent Studies
  • Summer Field Archaeobotany Program – non-credit multi-week field program to archaeological sites in Greece, Israel, and Jordan (varies each year) where students learn how to set up an archaeobotanical field lab, build and operate a flotation tank, process samples, sort heavy fraction, and survey local vegetation
  • CAAM Intensive Course Series: Field Archaeobotany