SAS Bulletin
Volume 19 Number 1/2 January /June 1996

Microfossil Magic!

The First European Phytolith Workshop

The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, part of the University of Cambridge, England, was the venue for the first European Phytolith Workshop on 23rd November, 1995. An informal one-day meeting organized by Dr. Alix Powers-Jones, the Research Director of the Cambridge Phytolith Project, the workshop provided an opportunity for phytolith researchers and those less formally associated with phytolith studies to meet and exchange ideas and information.

Phytoliths (microscopic silica plant fossils) are common on archaeological sites, but infrequently studied in Europe and incompletely understood. This first workshop created a forum for the presentation of research work and for informal discussion. Participant came from both botanical and archaeological backgrounds, and represented a range of experience from complete beginners to established researchers. The workshop was fortunate to welcome in the audience Toronto botanist Alan Sangster, who did much pioneering work on grass phytoliths, and Tim Laurence (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) who is currently working with Wendy Matthews (McDonald Institute) on the identification of plant macro-remains in soil thin sections from the Syrian site of Tell Brak.

A series of short talks in the morning outlined the potential breadth of phytolith studies some of them rather unexpected! while the afternoon was given over to the practical side of phytolith analysis. Martin Hodson (Oxford Brookes University) gave the opening presentation on the identification of wheat hair cells on the basis of their pits. Although the work has strong archaeological links with Israeli sites, an unusual application was pasta quality control. It could be used to check that manufacturers had actually used durum wheat rather than a cheaper alternative in the production of pasta. The cereal theme was continued by Alix Powers-Jones. She discussed the potential for SEM and X-ray microanalysis of phytolith wall microstructure, as a means of identifying ancient irrigation practices.

The following two papers gave examples of how phytolith analysis has been used to good effect on two early urban sites. The work of Marco Madella (McDonald Institute) on material from Kot Diji in Pakistan highlighted the recovery and analysis of disarticulated (individual) phytoliths. Wendy Matthews discussed the presence of articulated phytolith remains in soil micromorphology sections from Tell Brak, and Abu Salabikh in Iraq.

The final two talks gave some indication of new directions for phytolith studies. Liping Zhou (McDonald Institute) gave a brief account of recent phytolith work in China, before going on to discuss the potential for the study of phytoliths in the loess deposits of China and the former USSR. Jill Thompson (Bradford University) discussed the problems she encountered in the recovery of rice macro-remains on her Far East sites, and how rice phytoliths may be the key to understanding cereal treatment and disposal patterns on ancient sites.

After lunch the laboratory session commenced with a visit to the new Multi-Imaging Centre (MIC). This multi-faculty facility is directed by Dr. Patrick Echlin (Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge) and plays an important part in phytolith studies at Cambridge. The MIC is equipped with some of the latest confocal and electron microscopes, as well as dedicated sample preparation facilities.

Workshop participants then examined samples in the George Pitt-Rivers laboratory of the McDonald Institute. Informal and lively discussions followed about the sources of phytoliths found in a number of samples, including a "mystery object" sent by Freya Runge (Paderborn University), who was unable to attend in person, but who sent microscope slides and photographs in her stead.

The day closed with a wine reception hosted by Prof. Martin Jones (Head of Department, Archaeology) and an agreement to make the workshop an annual event.

Contributed by Dr. Alix H. Powers-Jones, The Cambridge Phytolith Project, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3ER England.

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