Review of ‘Plants in Australian Archaeology, Tempus’ edited by W. beck, A. Clark and L. Head

26th May 2014

‘Plants in Australian Archaeology, Tempus’ edited by W. beck, A. Clark and L. Head, 1989, Anthropology Museum, St Lucia: University of Queensland, 1213 pp. ISBN 909611-40-8 (pbk)

Review by Bill Boyd

Now here’s a book worth having! $20 these days is a reasonable price for a book. and all the more so when the book is of good quality. In this inaugural issue of Tempus, the editors have done an admirable job of compiling and coordinating a series of original reviews, and consequently have produced a volume which should, without doubt, be on the shelves of any archaeology library.

At the 1986 Australian Archaeological Conference, Anne Clarke met with Wendy Beck and Lesley Head to discuss their intention to write a book which dealt with the range of archaeobotanical methods used in Australian archaeology. There are two main reasons for such a book, and in my opinion, the book succeeds in addressing these. Firstly, those who taught archaeobotany found that textbooks rarely covered Australian material in other than a cursory manner: Secondly, a problem, not uncommon throughout the world, is that professional (and any other I presume) archaeologists did not have information about archaeobotanical methods. To overcome these problems, researchers were commissioned to write chapters, within a number of format and content guidelines, on their own speciality. Methods, and in particular the adaptation to Australian conditions are important, so these take precedence in each chapter. Examples of applications are abundant, and these are mainly Australian, with one from Papua New Guinea. This is a departure from other texts in which there are many good, but in the Australian context, irrelevant examples from the Old and New Worlds: To reinforce the applicability of the techniques discussed, each chapter finishes with a case study from the work of the authors, thus reviewing archaeobotanical work from this region.

So, what is in the book? Before we run through the chapters and see who’s doing what. here’s an interesting sociological comment which was not lost on the editors. In their preface, Beck, Clarke and Head comment: ‘One of the characteristics of Australian palaeoethnobotany that had struck us all was the predominance of women researchers. an aspect given a certain irony when the traditional Aboriginal division of labour is considered!’. Food for thought?

The first chapter, written by the editors, is titled Plants In hunter-gatherer archaeology. In this, Beck, Clarke and Head discuss some of the conceptual issues of Australian archaeobotany. Emphasis on hunter-gatherer communities provides another distinction from many texts, where the emphasis is on agricultural rather than non-agricultural societies. The authors argue that there are three levels of analysis which need to be identified and discussed should progress be made in Australian archaeobotany: (i) techniques for extracting plant remains from archaeological and other sediments, that is the immediate concerns of most excavators, (ii) theories which allow the translation of those remains into interpretations of human behaviour (so-called ‘middle-range theory’), and (iii) wider issues of change in prehistoric society that plant-based evidence can address. Clearly a wide range of issues can be dealt with under such headings. Just to provide a taster, let me quote: ‘The fact that plant use in Aboriginal society appears to have been overwhelmingly women’s work has undoubtedly contributed to its low profile until recently. Stone tools are obviously more widely found and better preserved in archaeological sites than plant remains, but we can be sure that if men were the primary gatherers, much more effort would have gone into increasing the archaeological visibility of this activity’.

I’ll refrain from too much comment, although I suspect that the phenomenon discussed here is not unique to Australia, and I am sure that there has been as much imbalance in, for example, European palaeolithic studies, without, I suspect, similar conclusions.

However, before I put my foot into my mouth too far, let’s hurry on to chapter 2. Plant use in a contemporary Aboriginal community and prehistoric implications. In this chapter. Betty Meehan discusses issues regarding plant use in so-called hunter- gatherer societies, using a study of the Anbarra people from Arnhem land to illustrate ways in which such a community uses plant resources. In doing so, the argument is put that plant resources represent an important, if not the most important input to the community resource economics. Importantly, this aspect of community economy has low visibility in the archaeological record. This is not an exclusively Australian problem, and one has only to look at the European archaeology where ‘paleo-social’ interpretation is based on the highly visible material remains of past societies; the most mundane aspects such as what ordinary people ate have only been addressed widely during the last decade or so. The Australian situation is clearly more extreme, given the relatively limited material evidence that is available. Consequently, the ethnographic record takes on greater importance in developing archaeological models.

Before interpretation of archaeobotanical evidence, one must understand how the evidence got there in the first place. In chapter 3, The taphonomy of plants, Wendy Beck discusses the main principles of taphonomy. Taphonomy is described here as the study of events between the death of a plant part and its discovery as archaeological evidence, and is illustrated in a simple diagram showing the stages and pathways, such as burial, exhumation, diagenisis, collection by the original users of the plants, and so on. It is important to understand these processes, since taphonomy controls the nature of the evidence, thus bearing directly on archaeological inference. Beck discusses these processes and considers how these factors allow us to predict the plant preservation potential at a site. So how is all this applied? This is briefly (perhaps too briefly?) dealt with by reference to environmental monitoring, measurement of decomposition rates, assessment of physicochemical variables and archaeological ethnography. The last application leads in to Beck’s case study, in which she discusses her own work on cycad seed processing by Aborigines, which renders a toxic food source edible. This case is probably typical of most taphonomic considerations, discussing plant food processing rather than issues such as post-depositional decay. In some respects this is unsurprising, since the primary interest in archaeology is the story that the evidence tells us about past people; the impact of soil decomposers, although critical, is just a little less exciting.

Anne Clarke deals with Macroscopic plant remains in chapter 4, providing a review of the use of plant macrofossils in Australian archaeology. Macro- fossils are defined here as those plants and plant parts large enough to be seen without a microscope, although for thorough identification, a low-powered microscope is often essential. Clarke draws attention to the few macrofossil studies here, which is in contrast to the ‘rest of the world’. Nevertheless, the potential value of this technique is reinforced by reference to six sites, Rocky Cape, Drual/Glenisla, Ken’s Cave, Cheetup, Puntutjarpa and, of course, Anbangbang, in which macrofossils other than wood have been analysed. Clarke provides a thorough review of techniques for the recovery, processing and identification of plant macrofossils, offering a range of methods to do the same job, for example, ‘no floatation – dry sieving’, ‘no flotation – wet sieving’ and ‘flotation’ for sample collection.

Chapter 5 continues the theme of macrofossils, with Debra Donoghue discussing Carbonised plant macrofossils. This really represents a special case of plant macrofossils, but since their taphonomy often differs from that of other macrofossils, it is reasonable to separate the two chapters. Consequently, Donoghue briefly discusses taphonomy, which is, in this case, related to past fire. Although all plant remains can be preserved as carbonised fragments, typically wood is the common such fossil, but as elsewhere in the world, systematic collection of carbonised wood for post-excavation archaeobotanical analysis has not been high on the list of excavation priorities. Following the discussion of methods of retrieval, identification and interpretation, Donoghue closes her chapter with a case study from her MA research into the use of pandanus is the Manim Valley, Papua New Guinea.

One of the most ubiquitous fossils used in palaeo-ecological studies is pollen. In chapter 6, Pollen, Lesley Head comments that ‘It is understandable that those of us interested in the relationships be- tween prehistoric people and plants are drawn to pollen [since] a microfossil that is abundant, widely distributed and, in the right conditions, resistant to decay holds much promise’. It is apparent in Head’s chapter, however, that pollen is a fossil not widely used in Australian archaeology. Most of the chapter deals with methods, and covers material published more commonly than for those methods described elsewhere in this volume. Nevertheless, it is useful to outline these techniques for the reader who may not have access to specialist texts, and thus allows the archaeologist to understand pollen diagrams produced in non-archaeological contexts. How- ever, as an introduction, Head discusses a theme which she considers to be of greater importance than the details of methodology: why should pollen be used? Set against the world situation, Head argues that the Australian scene is not very optimistic, partly due to preservation problems and partly due to the difficulty of interpreting the evidence in the traditional ways of the Old World. Nevertheless, application of this technique requires an especially critical approach in the Australian archaeological setting, and Head concludes that pollen analysis probably has more to offer than is often realised. That potential is illustrated in Head’s case study, which is based on her own extensive work at Discovery Bay, south-western Victoria.

Getting closer into the traditional material archaeological evidence, Jay Hall, Su Higgins and Richard Fullagar discuss Plant residues on stone tools in chapter 7. This is a quite different field from the previous few chapters. Rather than identifying plants by morphology, anatomy, and palynology, this technique relies on the chemical analysis. Given the relationship between tools and resources, stone artefacts often provide the most direct link between plants and their use in Australian archaeology, and such evidence may take one of a range of types: use wear, residues, ethnography, artefact morphology and archaeological context. Residues offer possibly the most direct link between tools and people, and it is argued that residues are more widely present than is conventionally thought. This chapter, therefore, looks at the methods of processing samples for residues (in particular starch) and analysing and identifying those residues found. These techniques have wider application that just starch analysis, and the authors provide a list of plant residues which have been previously identified on stone artefacts: cellulose, lignin, lipids, resins, amino acids, and so on. Clearly the potential is high. To illustrate the potential, a part of the Moreton Region Archaeological Project (Queensland) is described, in which a relationship between levelled pounders and a plant known as fernroot is demonstrated. This evidence, although still ambiguous in its conclusions, is then used within the context of archaeological hypotheses generated during this project.

I have a feeling that one of the potentially most useful fossils in the Australian archaeological context are phytoliths. In chapter 8, Phytolith analysis: introduction and applications, Doreen Bowdery provides the necessary introduction to this class of fossil and its use. In Bowdery’s review of some of the applications of phytolith analysis, it becomes immediately clear that phytoliths have been completely under utilised in the Australian context, this being emphasised by the very brief case study (which is not even headed as a case study) in which Bowdery’s own work is only mentioned in passing, largely, I suspect, because her work has not progressed sufficiently far for a full write-up at the time of writing. For anyone, however, interested in the potential of phytoliths, the section of applications, describing uses elsewhere in the world should be encouraging reading. How do you find phytoliths at your site? Read the extensive section on methods and find out!

The final chapter, The uses of ethnohistory and ecology, Beth Gott returns, in part, to Meehan’s earlier theme that interpretation of archaeological material can usefully apply ethnographic and ecological information. Gott briefly reviews the sources of ethnohistorical records, such as scientific journals, floras, herbarium lists, language lists, illustrations and so on, describing how they may best be used, and drawing attention to particular problems in their use. A major theme which she discusses is the problem of identification: Gatt quite rightly states that the proper identification of plant and animal species is essential if archaeology is to rest on a scientific base. This may seem rather obvious, but any non-botanical archaeologist who has, at some time, had to wrestle with botanic nomenclature, for example, will understand the importance of such a statement. To illustrate the use of ethnohostorical data, Gott reproduces a summary of her previously-published research on the use of a plant known as Murnong which provided a staple food for Victorian Aborigines, concluding that such a study, backed up by some field work, uncovered a range of information previously unknown, and raised issues of Aboriginal diet and health and the effects of the European invasion.

And that’s that. Altogether, an impressive collection of reviews and information. Anyone with an interest in archaeobotany will find material of interest in this book, and if they are not satisfied with the contents, they can use the extensive reference lists provided by all the authors. This is a book for the authors to be proud of, and a book for the reader to enjoy and use.

Boyd, B.
Review of 'Plants in Australian Archaeology, Tempus’ edited by W. beck, A. Clark and L. Head
June 1990
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