Interns Learn Archaeobotany

ArchaeobotFor anyone who wants to learn about the archaeobotany (also referred to as paleoethnobotany) of the American Southwest, Crow Canyon is the place to do it. Finding academic training in the region is difficult, and former faculty members have retired.

Almost every summer, Dr. Karen R. Adams, one of Crow Canyon's longtime research associates, provides a rare opportunity for one or two Crow Canyon interns to get an intensive education in the discipline. Adams, who was cross-trained in both archaeology and plant biology, has worked in the field for 40 years, and she welcomes the opportunity to train the next generation of archaeobotanists.

The internship application process is highly competitive. This year, two applicants rose to the top: Heather Miljour and Jenna Battillo.

For both, the draw was Adams, who presents archaeobotany as both an art and a science. In a few short weeks every summer, she teaches interns to look at plant parts in the archaeological record and glean what ancient groups were thinking and doing about subsistence, fuels, construction elements, and other everyday needs that could be satisfied by the plant world.

But what, exactly, do archaeobotanists do?

"We study wood and reproductive parts of plants under the microscope to identify food and non-food plant resources important in the past and to understand the plant communities people were drawing resources from," Adams said.

"Archaeobotany reveals the subsistence base of ancient inhabitants of the region, and it's a long list. Meals were made from maize (corn), beans, and squash, and a wide variety of wild plants," said Adams. "The ancestral Pueblo people were very astute observers of the environment. They figured it out. Their foods provided a nice balance of vitamins and minerals, fats and proteins. The archaeological record suggests they were fairly healthy."

They also manipulated their environment by opening up agricultural fields, picking up fuelwood, and harvesting roof timbers. Long occupation of a location could sometimes result in a shift in wood choices through time or difficulty growing corn.

Adams teaches interns to balance lab time with time spent on the landscape learning current plant communities, gathering modern specimens for comparison to ancient plant parts, and burning these modern specimens so they look just like those in the archaeological record.

"You have to have what I call 'the marbles to play the game,'" she explained. "To have the best chance of identifying the prehistoric plant materials, you need extensive modern plant specimens for direct comparison to charred plant bits from archaeological site samples.”

She quoted Crow Canyon board member Dr. Bill Lipe: "The half-life of good data is forever. If we do good work here, another archaeologist could use that data at any time in the future. Our interpretations of the data may have a short half-life. Produce good data and you've done your job."

Besides the opportunity to study with Adams, Crow Canyon offers other advantages.

"We have excellent plant preservation here," Adams said, "and the written records of historic native groups to provide a framework to think about what we're excavating and analyzing. Their perspective on plants brings richness to what we know."

"This is my first introduction [to archaeobotany]," Miljour said. "I've had a long interest in plants and ethnographic uses; then I met Karen."

This internship will give her a chance to find out whether the specialty is for her. Adams said that Miljour will spend 10 weeks looking into a microscope and wrestling with "What is this thing?"

After earning a bachelor's degree in dietetics, Miljour realized she didn't want to do clinical work. This summer, she's looking at diet from another angle.

"I did some soul-searching and came up with archaeology," she said. After working in cultural resource management, she has enrolled in a master's program in applied archaeology at the University of Arizona starting this fall. She hopes her thesis can focus on plant remains from the Pueblo site of Homol’ovi I at Homol’ovi State Park in Arizona.

"Without this internship, I don't think I could do that."

Jenna Battillo has a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Florida and a master's degree from the New York University anthropology department's human skeletal biology program. She began a doctoral program at Washington State University and there got into coprolite (fossilized feces) studies, which involve plant work. Now finishing her Ph.D. at Southern Methodist University because her advisor also transferred there, she is planning a dissertation on coprolites from Turkey Pen Ruin in southeastern Utah, one of the earliest sites for turkey domestication.

"At that point they might have eaten eggs but not turkeys. It was the Basketmaker II period―they had corn and squash but no beans. How did they supplement the incomplete protein of maize?"

For that reason, she studies archaeobotanical materials in coprolites, which offer the most direct view of the human diet. Not all crops were eaten; cotton is an example of a nonfood crop which was grown for its seed fibers.

There are no recognizable coprolites from the Dillard site, but there's still plenty of botanical information to be gained from the excavation. Wood from willows and cottonwood trees, as well as cattails in the pollen record, suggest either that the climate at the time of habitation was damper, or perhaps that the inhabitants managed the landscape to control water.

Battillo, who has completed her time at Crow Canyon, said she wished her internship had provided more public interaction. But any group dropping by the archaeobotany lab space is always welcome to see what plant parts are under the microscope and to talk about the tales of plant use they tell.

"The more the public knows, the more people can appreciate the archaeological record and its nonrenewable nature."

Within the world of archaeology, though, knowledge of archaeobotany, and lab skills in general, opens many doors.

"Laboratory archaeologists get to participate in all kinds of projects," Battillo said. "With a suite of lab-based knowledge, you can make yourself useful to projects all over the world."

"As long as you have a passion ...," Miljour said.

"If you're good at what you do ...," Battillo added.

Adams concluded, "... the archaeological plant record can reveal a great deal about ancient human behavior.”

This project is supported in part by the State Historical Fund (a program of History Colorado, the Colorado Historical Society).

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