Plant remains recovered from an archaeological site, such as seeds and pollen, can provide archaeologists with critical information about past societies.
Through the recovery and analysis of such remains, archaeologists can gain a better understanding of what types of plants that past societies used for food, medicine, the construction of homes, and clothing.
Archaeobotanists, or paleoethnobotanists, are archaeologists that specialize in the analysis of plant, or floral, remains and the historical relationships between plants and people. Archaeobotanists have made invaluable contributions to our understanding of past societies. Among numerous other things, archaeobotanists have helped us to understand when and even why societies made the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture for their subsistence needs. In addition, archaeobotany can aid in our understanding of trade relationships between societies, and it can even indicate what a region’s environment was like during the time that an archaeological site was inhabited.
The primary method by which archaeobotanists recover plant remains is through a technique called flotation. Through this process, a soil sample that has been collected from an archaeological site is sifted through a screen and into a large water tank. While heavier materials, such as dirt and gravel, sink to the bottom, lighter materials, like plant seeds, pollen, and wood, float to the top. These lighter materials are removed with a sieve, analyzed, and identified.
In addition to the analysis and identification of plant materials, archaeobotanists may also be responsible for:
- Interpretation of plant significance to particular archaeological sites
- Writing archaeological reports
- Collaborating with other archaeologists on research findings and conclusions
- Working with geographic information systems (GIS) to aid in data interpretation
- Setup, organization, and maintenance of archaeobotany lab
- Conducting research using microscopes, identification manuals, reference collection drawings, and
- general archaeological literature
Education and Training Requirements
Most archaeobotanists have a master’s or doctorate degree in anthropology, archaeology, and/or biology with a focus on floral analysis. In addition, archaeobotanists are generally required to complete an archaeological field school from an accredited institution in order to familiarize themselves with archaeological theories, methodologies, and techniques.
In order to identify and to distinguish between different plant remains, archaeobotanists must have an eye for detail. Moreover, due to the often deteriorated condition of plant remains in the archaeological context, the identification and research process can be a very tedious ordeal. Thus, archaeobotany is a field that requires its practitioners to have a great deal of patience and diligence.
Salary and Advancement Opportunities
Depending on location, experience, and employer, archaeobotanists generally earn an average annual salary of approximately $35,000 to $70,000. Many archaeobotansists may start out as archaeological lab technicians in cultural resource management firms or museums. Others may find work as independent consultants that contract their work out to clients.
Due to the field’s highly specialized nature, career advancement in archaeobotany is somewhat difficult. Some archaeobotanists, however, are able to progress to managerial positions in consulting firms that specialize in archaeobotanical research.
Archaeobotanists generally find work with larger cultural resource management firms, museums, universities, and consulting firms that specialize in archaeobotany. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the field of archaeology is expected to grow significantly in the years ahead. As archaeological work increases, so will the need for archaeobotanists to identify, study, and interpret archaeological plant remains.