International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany

Delwen Samuel, Institute of Archaeology,

University College London

The apocryphal story about the first meeting of the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany (IWGP), held 30 years ago, is that the gathering was small enough that every one attending could fit into a single taxi - an alternative version says it was a telephone booth. The eleventh meeting was held in Toulouse, France, May 18-23 1998, at the Université Paul Sabatier, and was organised by Philippe Marinval (Université Paul Sabatier) and George Willcox (Institut de Préhistoire, Jalès-Berrias). This was the largest IWGP meeting yet, with 150 people listed as participants. The steady rise in numbers over 30 years is a healthy development for archaeobotany, but it also means a turning point may have arrived for the structure and format of the IWGP.

The six-day programme was very full and it appeared that most of the participants gave a paper or presented a poster. Five whole days were taken up with lectures, with some time - not enough - at the end of each day for poster-viewing, as well as small-group practical discussions of the archaeobotanical material which various participants had brought. Because there was so little time scheduled for these latter activities, the organisers encouraged those who so wished to come and go from the lectures. The lunch break each day gave some time for local exploration, and many took advantage both of the fine weather and the botanical gardens next to the University to enjoy picnics, and coffee at the pleasant park cafe. The sixth day was devoted to an excursion to the Montpellier area, a region with typical western Mediterranean vegetation.

The IWGP is certainly international, with participants coming from 25 different countries, although only five of these are non-European. Its scope focuses solely on the Old World but has begun to range more broadly than ever before. This is in part due to the greater number of participants, but also no doubt because archaeobotany is becoming much more widely accepted as an integral part of archaeological investigation. It is also an indication of recent political changes and attendant new possibilities for archaeological activity.

An archaeobotanical "first" must be plant remains from Albania. Julie Hansen (Boston University) presented a waterlogged and charred assemblage from late Bronze Age/Iron Age Sovjan in the east central part of the country.

There were no less than three papers on the archaeobotany of Turkmenistan, a country whose archaeological record is just beginning to become known outside the former Soviet Union. Mike Charles (University of Sheffield) discussed the central role of einkorn, a low-risk, low-input crop of Neolithic farmers living in the harsh conditions of southern Turkmenistan. The basis of agriculture in Chalcolithic and early Bronze Age Turkmenistan was described by Naomi Miller (University of Pennsylvania), at which time einkorn seems to have been abandoned in favour of six row barley and bread wheat. The historical period at the Silk Road oasis of Merv completed the sequence, where Sheila Boardman (University of Sheffield) and Mark Nesbitt (University College London) found evidence for flourishing summer cultivation of cotton in Sasanian times, well before the Islamic "agricultural revolution" postulated by Watson (1983).

There were nearly a dozen further talks on regions far-flung from the IWGP’s traditional core European zone. They included ethnobotanical and archaeobotanical investigations in Nepal (Karl-Heinz Knörzer, Neuss, Germany) and the origins and development of agriculture, especially of pulses, in southern India (Dorian Fuller, University of Cambridge). Caroline Vermeeren (BIAX Consult Amsterdam) spoke on the wood resources of the Roman port of Berenike on the Egyptian Red Sea coast, including the use of teak from dismantled boats originating in the Indian Ocean region. The ethnography of finger millet processing in Uganda was presented by Ruth Young (University of Bradford), as a case study for the explanation of the scarcity of ancient charred plant remains in eastern Africa.

The conference opened, not by considering any particular region, but with a session on methodology. This fell into two parts: first, a discussion on molecular methods, dominated by DNA analysis, and second, statistical methods for the analysis of ancient assemblages and modern ecological data. Two DNA papers were presented by a team from the Botanisches Institut, Basle (Robert Blatter, Stefanie Jacomet, Angela Schlumbaum). Their careful work has had a very low recovery rate, making the faith in DNA analysis to answer a range of archaeobotanical questions - a prospect raised by several speakers throughout the meeting - seem misplaced.

For the first time at the IWGP, participants were invited to provide papers on a general theme proposed by the organisers. The topic was the origins and diffusion of crop plants, an important archaeobotanical question, and one that has potential links with wider questions of economic, social and cultural change. Daniel Zohary (The Hebrew University, Jerusalem) focused on modern data, explaining the use of living plants to investigate whether crops were domesticated once or several times. Most talks in this session were archaeobotanical case studies investigating the arrival of crops in a particular region, such as Aoi Hosoya’s (University of Cambridge) presentation on the introduction of rice in Japan and accompanying social changes. It was less obvious how some other papers related to the theme.

The other general theme of the conference was ethnobotany. Some papers in this session were interesting descriptive accounts of traditional plant use. Two examples were the Iberian cultivation of hulled wheats and legumes described by Leonor Peña-Chocarro (Universidad Autonoma de Madrid) and Lydia Zapata-Peña (Universidad del Païs Vasco, Bilbao), and Füsun Ertu’s (Istanbul) paper on gathering and consumption of wild bulbs and roots by Turkish villagers. Other papers started from an archaeobotanical assemblage and investigated modern knowledge to explore how different species might have been used in ancient times. One such presentation was given by Rene Cappers (Groningen Instituut voor Archeologie) on the food supply to Roman Berenike, which considered, amongst other topics, the pickling of peaches. Like the session on origins and diffusion, however, it was difficult to see why certain papers had been included with this theme.

The remaining four conference sessions grouped papers according to geographical location. Of these, three covered different regions of Europe, and the European sessions took two and a half days - almost half the time allotted to all lectures.

Organisation by geographical grouping was unfortunate because it discouraged people from attending a wide range of papers. Participants tended to listen to the papers from "their" region, and to do other things when another area was being discussed. A few hardy souls sat through the entire five days solid (sitting on incredibly uncomfortable lecture hall benches), but they were definitely in the minority. This reviewer admits to missing a substantial number of European reports. In turn, I noticed a large proportion of the European contingent were absent from sessions covering non-European topics.

Perhaps strangely for a major conference on archaeobotany, there were no papers on identification presented in the methodology theme. Identification is of course of fundamental importance and agreement on criteria is vital. Many identification problems, such as the separation of wheat grain and chaff, are now yielding to detailed analysis (e.g. Hillman et al. 1996 [for 1995]), or at least archaeobotanists are making efforts to reach a consensus about identification criteria. Indeed, one of the most important functions of the IWGP is to bring archaeobotanists together to observe and discuss material in order to reach such agreement.

Speakers chose not to present identification-based papers as methodology, because they aimed to use identification decisions to address other questions. The taxon of the meeting was grape. At least two papers attempted to separate wild and cultivated grapes or different varieties of grape, based on grape pip morphology: Ruth Pelling (University of Oxford) and Marijke van der Veen (University of Leicester) on the origin and spread of viticulture in North Africa, and Danièle Martolini (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Zurich) and Christiane Jacquat (Geobotanisches Institut ETH, Zurich) on grape pips from Nabatean and Roman Petra. Stummer’s index (Stummer 1911), the earliest measure attempting to separate wild and cultivated grapes, was frequently referred to. After one of the "grape" papers, Mordechai Kislev (Bar-Ilan University, Israel), chair of the session, vigorously questioned the use of Stummer’s index, not only in these papers, but in many other archaeobotanical reports. He pointed out that it is already well known to be unreliable yet it is constantly used, while other detailed studies, such as those by Facsar (1970; 1973) and Terpó (1976; 1977) have been largely ignored.

The way forward, it seems to me, is a major wide-ranging study of modern and ancient grape pip morphology, including taphonomic issues such as charring distortion (a study begun by Smith and Jones (1990)). Image analysis may be one way to tackle the problem, along the lines of the important work presented by Jean-Frédéric Terral (Université de Montpellier II) on distinguishing wild and cultivated olives. Clearly, such novel approaches are required to move forward and may well be applicable to other difficult taxa.

Although there were many excellent exceptions, there were still too many papers in this meeting which followed the same uninspiring formula: description of the site followed by presentation of the archaeobotanical assemblage, perhaps completed by brief site-specific interpretation. Often, nothing was explored beyond presence of plants and basic local farming practices. With so much emphasis on regions and catalogues of archaeobotanical data from them, there is at present not enough of interest for all participants.

What works for smaller groups of people is not necessarily suitable for larger numbers, and the strengths of the original intimate gatherings are perhaps in danger of being lost in the current format. There are a variety of ways in which information exchange, wider relevancy and close personal interaction can be fostered within a larger group. The sessions could in future concentrate on general archaeobotanical themes, not on regional divisions. Speakers should be encouraged to address wider issues raised by site assemblages. In general, archaeobotanists working in different regions will not find colleagues’ reports truly of interest unless they demonstrate how the results are relevant to broad economic, social and cultural questions, or they present stimulating methodological and theoretical approaches.

Two very different papers given at Toulouse provide examples. Klaus Oeggl (Leopold-Franzens-Universität, Innsbruck) spoke on that perennially interesting topic, the Iceman. What made the lecture fascinating was the integration of a range of different environmental data. These confirmed an origin of the Iceman to the south of the Alps, and provided new evidence for the season in which he died - in spring or at latest early summer, not in autumn as had previously been assumed. Anne de Hingh (Rijksuniversiteit, Leiden) reviewed theoretical models for agricultural intensification to reassess how Bronze Age and early Iron Age farmers of north west Europe intensified production. She rejected Boserup’s (1965) oft-quoted but inappropriate model of increased frequency of cropping and technological evolution, in favour of Morrison’s (1994) emphasis on diversification. The theoretical input means that this paper should be of relevance and interest to all archaeobotanists working on agricultural systems, not only those working in north west Europe.

As Glynis Jones (University of Sheffield) warned when announcing the next IWGP to be held in England in 2001, if large numbers of papers continued to be offered, many would have to be converted into posters instead. This may be an opportunity, not a demotion. Given a dedicated session with authors available for discussion, posters can be more memorable, and are unquestionably more interactive than papers. The one-to-one or small group exchanges centred on posters are beneficial both to the presenter and the audience. The format allows the participants to choose the level of involvement: a quick glance to see what subjects are covered, detailed reading, brief chats or intense discussions. Three years on, I remember far more of many posters presented at Innsbruck, where dedicated time was provided, than of most lectures, precisely because of the interactive nature of the session.

With dedicated poster sessions, more time is available for lectures, which can then become truly broad-based thematic sessions with adequate time for discussion rather than brief question and answer periods. One of the major problems with talks at Toulouse could be avoided, namely that the 15 minutes allotted for each lecture was, in most cases, simply not enough to develop a well-argued theme from complex data.

One of the great strengths of the IWGP has always been the opportunity to examine archaeobotanical material from many periods and places. The "work group" aspect needs to regain its dominance. With less emphasis placed on lectures, this would be possible. Now that the IWGP covers such a wide geographical region and the full range of the Holocene, there is a good case to be made for practical sessions in which people can demonstrate not only their mystery specimens, but also known material which may be highly unusual imports elsewhere, and therefore difficult to identify, or which is generally rare or problematic.

At Toulouse, the size of the conference, the diversity of participants and the broad geographical and chronological topics which were covered is a clear and heartening indication that archaeobotany in the Old World is a vigorous and expanding subject. The IWGP faces a challenge to maintain its historical strengths in the face of its growing membership. There are, however, ample opportunities to build on developments in methodology and increasing knowledge about ancient human interactions with plants, to allow the IWGP to flourish for the next 30 years.


Boserup, E. 1965. The conditions of agricultural growth. Chicago: Aldine.

Facsar, G. 1970. Habitus studies on seeds of Vitis vinifera L. sorts. Acta Agronomica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 19: 403-6.

Facsar, G. 1973. Agricultural-botanical analysis of the Medieval grape seeds from the Buda castle hill. Mitteilungen des archäologischen Instituts der Ungarischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 4: 157-73, Pls. 46-54.

Hillman, G.C., Mason, S., de Moulins, D. & Nesbitt, M. 1996 [for 1995]. Identification of archaeological remains of wheat: the 1992 London workshop. Circaea, 12(2): 195-209.

Morrison, K.D. 1994. The intensification of production: archaeological approaches. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 1/2: 111-59.

Smith, H. & Jones, G. 1990. Experiments on the effects of charring on cultivated grape seeds. Journal of Archaeological Science 17: 317-27.

Stummer, A. 1911. Zur Urgeschichte der Rebe und des Weinbaues. Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien 41: 283-96.

Terpó, A. 1976. The carpological examination of wild-growing vine species of Hungary. I. Acta Botanica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 2(1-2): 209-47.

Terpó, A. 1977. The carpological examinatin of wild-gorwing vine species of Hungary. II. Qualitative and quantitative characteristics of vine seeds. Acta Botanica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 23: 247-73.

Watson, A.M. 1983. Agricultural innovation in the early Islamic world. The diffusion of crops and farming techniques, 700-1100. Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.