An indispensible interdisciplinary approach
To make use of all the information collected on an archaeological site, archaeologists turn to a number of specialists in various scientific fields, including those related to archaeometry. Depending on the context and the questions to be resolved, archaeologists work closely with botanists, zoologists, pedologists, physicists and chemists.
There are many archaeological specialties, and new fields continue to open. An increasing number of archaeologists work in fields like dendrochronology, palynogy, carpology and zooarchaeology, obtaining conclusive results.
Zooarchaeology is the study and interpretation of animal remains found on archaeological sites.
Why do archaeologists painstakingly collect all the animal bones on an archaeological site? The reason is that bone remains, as well as teeth, fur and, in cases of exceptional preservation, even stomach contents, can provide information that helps to answer questions about the lifestyles of the people who once occupied the site: What did they eat? How much did they eat? What food did they prefer? How did they cut up meat? How did they hunt and fish? What environment did they live in, and what was the climate like?
Zooarchaeology provides complementary information that assists archaeologists in resolving these questions.
Carpology, or the archaeology of seeds
Carpology is the study of seeds and fruit (pits and stones), grains, aromatic plants and pulses recovered during an archaeological excavation. These remains may be found in privies, storage places, ovens and refuse sites and, more rarely, stuck by charring to ceramic vessels. Archaeologists call these finds plant macro-remains.
Carpology helps archaeologists reconstruct the daily life and environment of the people who ate this food: What did they eat and what plants did they grow? What plants did they use for medical purposes? What were their customs and what crafts did they engage in? As an example of clues to this last question, the discovery of sprouted barley grains or hops indicates that the people living on the site made beer.
Bioarchaeology, also known as paleoanthropology, is the study of past human populations on the basis of their skeletal remains. It is a highly technical and delicate field that calls for a thorough understanding of the human skeleton, knowledge of burial practices and deep respect for remains of those who preceded us.
In historical archaeology, bones discovered in old cemeteries constitute osteological collections that can be studied to extract valuable information about the living conditions, health and demographics of various populations, as well as the illnesses people suffered, the medical treatments they underwent and the rites and beliefs that influenced society at the time.
The work of a bioarchaeologist is similar to that of an archaeologist. Both seek the same goals and use traces left by humans in the ground to reconstruct and understand former ways of life. Like an archaeologist, a bioarchaeologist must take into account the context in which the bones to be analyzed were found.
While the biological characteristics of a group are of interest to bioarchaeologists, it is what these characteristics can tell them about social phenomena and the historic context in a given era that constitutes the real focus of their study.
In Québec, research in this field has accelerated in the past ten years or so, as more places of worship are abandoned and ancient cemeteries are discovered by chance.
Dendrochronology, or how to read tree rings
Dendrochronology is the study of tree growth rings. The results obtained through this discipline can be used to give wood samples a precise date. Timber framework, floorboards, ceilings and barrels, as well as wood-backed paintings, can be analyzed in this discipline.
How does dendrochronlogy work? It is based on the fact that the number of concentric rings observed in the cross-section of a trunk normally corresponds to the number of annual cycles of tree growth. The age of a felled tree can be determined by counting the rings one by one, from the centre to the outer edge, next to the bark. This number gives the number of years the tree lived.
The study of tree rings also takes into account the width of each ring, which may vary depending on the climatic conditions during a given year of growth. Narrower rings indicate conditions like summer drought, late-spring frosts or early-fall freezes.
The diameters of tree trunks can also be used for dating, since the sequence of diameters over 50 to 100 years is statistically similar for all trees of the same species in the same region. On the basis of regional diameter standards, it is possible to date archaeological samples.
Dendrochronology can thus be used to determine the year, and even the season, in which a tree was felled. Combining information about the species, the date and the region from which the wood came, an archaeologist can learn about sawing techniques and the preparation of architectural timber, as well as what parts of forests were cut.
Palynology, or the archaeology of pollen
All pollen is protected by a sturdy casing that can last for thousands of years. When pollen is studied under a microscope, it can reveal what plant it came from. Palynology is the analysis of this information in order to reconstruct the vegetal environment of an archaeological site and its evolution in time.
Palynology plays an ever-growing role in archaeological research. Pollen analysis provides a significant amount of information about the natural environment in which human groups lived a very long time ago. Like carpology, this discipline tells us about farming methods and diet, the kinds of grain cultivated, ancient vegetal covers and even the climate of a given period.