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Identification Criteria for Plant Remains Recovered from Archaeological Sites in the Central Mesa Verde Region

by Karen R. Adams and Shawn S. Murray

This document consists primarily of two large compendia that list both metric and nonmetric descriptive data for analyzed plant remains collected from archaeological sites excavated by the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center between 1983 and 2000. The purpose of presenting these data in tabular form is to provide analysts and interested readers with an easy-to-use guide for the identification of plant remains in archaeological assemblages from the northern Southwest. Compendium A lists the identification criteria for wood charcoal, and Compendium B lists the identification criteria for charred nonwood specimens (primarily reproductive and nonwood vegetative plant materials). Both compendia also include links to specimen photographs.

Many of the plant parts listed in Compendia A and B were originally described in various archaeobotanical reports prepared for Crow Canyon, both published (Adams 1993*4, 1999*2) and unpublished (Adams 1989*2, 1989*3, 1989*5; Bowyer 1995*1; Bowyer and Adams 1998*1; Brown 1995*1; Jackman1996*1). Descriptive information in these reports has been modified and expanded for inclusion in the compendia. For corroborating information and additional detail, the following sources were also consulted: Adams (1980*1, 1980*2, 2001*1); Barefoot and Hankins (1982*1); Bell and King (1944*1); Bohrer (1986*1); Bohrer and Adams (1976*1); Correll and Johnston (1970*1); Cutler and Whitaker (1961*1); Dale (1968*1); Delorit (1970*1); Friedman (1978*1); Gould and Shaw (1983*1); Harrington (1964*1); Isely (1947*1); Kaplan (1956*1); Kearney and Peebles (1960*1); Martin and Barkley (1961*1); Minnis (1987*1); Rainey (1998*1); Reeder (1957*1); Schweingruber (1982*1); Wellhausen et al. (1952*1); and Welsh et al. (1987*1).

For a discussion of the protocol used during basic analysis, readers are referred to a separate on-line publication, Archaeobotanical Analysis: Principles and Methods (Adams 2004*1). That document includes a discussion of the interpretive potential of charred and noncharred plant remains (paragraph 6); definitions of the two broad categories of plant remains (wood charcoal and charred nonwood specimens) (paragraph 7), and an explanation of the naming and labeling conventions used in analysis and reporting (paragraphs 9–12). An understanding of these basic analytic, recording, and interpretive protocol is essential to understanding the information presented in the compendia.

For ease of use, we provide the reader with several options for ordering the entries in Compendia A and B. In Compendium A, entries may be sorted (a) alphabetically by taxon, (b) by type of ring pattern, (c) by the presence or absence of vessels, (d) by presence or abscence of resin canals, and (e) on the basis of whether or not rays are visible at low magnification. In Compendium B, entries may be sorted (a) alphabetically by taxon, (b) by plant part, (c) by "face view" shape, (d) by cross section shape, or (e) by size class. The various shapes recorded in Compendium B are illustrated in Figure 1. The column heads that structure both compendia are explained in detail in separate, linked lists (Compendium A column heads and Compendium B column heads).

Because confidence in botanical identification varies, depending in part on the preservation of the specimen and the level of experience of the individual analyst, ancient specimens are not always identified to the same taxonomic level. For example, Atriplex-type charcoal is a more general identification than Atriplex canescens–type charcoal. Yet the differences in descriptive terms between specimens identified to the more general level and those identified to the more specific level are often negligible. For this reason, in the example above and in many other cases in Compendia A and B, the same or very similar descriptions are repeated for multiple entries, corresponding to more-general and more-specific taxonomic identifications. In some instances, the reader is simply referred to the description of the other plant part for the information.

When it is known that only a single species within a given genus is present in the region, all specimens identified to that genus most likely represent the one known species. Nonetheless, in Compendia A and B, we maintain the genus and genus-species designations as two separate entries. For example, Acer negundo is the only species in the genus Acer that grows in the Mesa Verde region, so all archaeological Acer remains are probably of this species. In Compendium A, however, Acer and Acer negundo are listed separately, and we leave it to individual researchers to combine or keep separate the two taxonomic categories as may suit their individual purposes.

Finally, to further assist the user, we provide photographs of examples of most of the described items, which the user may view by clicking on the photo numbers in the relevant column of each compendium. The items were photographed at various magnifications, which are always specified. Although almost all of the plant-part descriptions are based on observation of charred specimens, some photographs are of noncharred examples (information on the condition [charred vs. noncharred] and age [ancient vs. modern] of each photographed item is provided). The analyst should keep in mind that burned plant materials often shrink, so the charred specimens are usually smaller than their unburned counterparts. Photographs were taken by Shawn S. Murray, Karen R. Adams, and Vandy E. Bowyer.

Click on the titles below to access Compendia A and B:

Compendium A. Plant Identification Criteria: Wood Charcoal

Compendium B. Plant Identification Criteria: Charred Nonwood Specimens

1Although twig fragments are wood, they are described in Compendium B because their small size makes it difficult for analysts to observe the traits typically recorded for larger pieces of wood.

Karen R. Adams (Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1988) is an independent consultant in archaeobotany with more than 30 years of experience in the American Southwest and northern Mexico.

Shawn S. Murray (M.S., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1997) is an archaeobotanist with experience in the American Southwest and Mali, Africa.

To cite this publication:

Adams, Karen R., and Shawn S. Murray
2004 Identification Criteria for Plant Remains Recovered from Archaeological Sites in the Central Mesa Verde Region [HTML Title]. Available: Date of use: day month year.*

*Example: Date of use: 26 November 2004.

Copyright © 2004 by Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. All rights reserved.