Paleoethnobotany: A Handbook of Procedures. Deborah M. Pearsall. Academic Press, San Diego, 1989. 470 pp. $63.00.
Reviewed by Mark Nesbitt, Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H OPY England, UK
This book surveys techniques of recovery, analysis and interpretation of the three main types of plant remain studied from archaeological sites: macroremains (mainly seeds and charcoal), pollen, and phytoliths. This is an ambitious remit, particularly given that paleoethnobotany is a young field with techniques that are usually passed on by hands-on teaching, and which are relatively little mentioned in the literature.
A particularly attractive feature of this book is its detailed coverage of topics such as recovery and identification that, while unglamourous and often little discussed, are critical to the validity of the final interpretation. The coverage of topics such as flotation, laboratory sub-sampling of large samples, or building a reference collection draws on literature from around the world, is extensively illustrated and clearly laid out in text that is refreshingly readable and jargon-free.
For some topics I would have liked to hear more of the authors views. For example, flotation techniques are exhaustively covered in 60 pages. Many of the techniques described are archaic, offering slow, poor recovery of macroremains, but are given equal treatment alongside the SMAP/Siraf-type pump-driven flotation machines that are in standard use amongst archaeobotanists worldwide. Although the advantages of this type of flotation machine are evident from data presented in tables and hints in the text, its advantages are implicit rather than explicitly stated.
Sampling strategy for flotation - a difficult and controversial topic - receives just four pages of discussion. Here the advice - to take samples of a standard size, starting with 10 liters of archaeological deposit - appears to reflect the authors own experience with well preserved desiccated plant remains in Peru (shown in a mouth-watering photograph on page 80). However, standard sample sizes for macroremains in Europe and the Near East are typically in the region of 30 to 50 litres, sometimes (e.g. for Neolithic sites) much more.
The book shuttles back and forth between American examples, with which the author is highly familiar, and the rest of the world. What works well for paleoethnobotany in one region often does not for another. It may be that, in attempting to offer worldwide coverage, a more sharply focused critique of approaches to sampling and interpretation has inevitably been lost. In contrast Hastorf and Popper (1988), in an edited volume that usefully complements this one, offer a series of thematic chapters of global application that are explicitly based on regional case studies.
This books detailed coverage of the practical details of paleoethnobotany make it a useful learning aid for any novice paleoethnobotanist, especially one with limited access to hands-on teaching. The wide range of topics covered and literature cited also make this a valuable reference for the more experienced, as first port of call for reliable information on almost any aspect of paleoethnobotanical methodology. Several years after publication Paleoethnobotany remains a valuable sourcebook for anyone interested in the field.
Hastorf, C.A. & V.S. Popper (eds.). 1988. Current Paleoethnobotany: Analytical Methods and Cultural Interpretations of Archaeological Plant Remains. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.