Tim Burton

A Day in the Life of an Archaeobotanist

8AM: As an archaeobotanist I can have a bit of variety in my work schedule. I can be called on to go on site at very short notice, but generally my base is in the office, doing assessments and analysis on any plant remains retrieved from site.


I arrive at the office (Museum of London Archaeology) around 8am. First order of business is usually making a cup of tea and eating breakfast while I wait for my computer to boot up. Then I check through any emails that arrived overnight before starting on my current project.


The practical work I’m doing today is part of an environmental assessment for a large waterfront site in London. Around 250 bulk environmental samples were taken during excavation at the site. We processed these in flotation tanks and now it’s my job to scan through the clean remains under a low powered microscope to see if they’re archaeologically interesting, recording very broadly what’s present. Once I’ve finished scanning all the flots, I’ll produce tables of the remains and write a report with recommendations for the next stage of work. This might include anything from recommending further archaeobotanical work on certain samples, to beetle analysis or wood species identification.

Cups of tea: 1.


where the magic happens

My work space

10 am: I’ve assessed two flots so far this morning – I could easily have spent much longer on them, but keeping to deadlines and budget is very important in commercial archaeology. Both samples contained lots of stems, some meadow type taxa, bran (the outer layer of cereal grains) and some fruit remains like fig seeds and apple endocarp (the tough bit around the seeds). At this stage I’d suggest they might be mixed dumps of stabling waste and household waste, but I’ll leave it to the analysis stage to really investigate.

Cups of tea: 2

Flots assessed: 2


12pm: Not much to report I’m afraid. I’ve assessed two more flots, one with quite a lot of wood chips in it, which might suggest woodworking at the site. At least all the flots have lots of plant remains though! I’ll often have to slog through loads of samples with nothing interesting at all turning up.


I’ve also been reminded of one of the perils of being married to another archaeologist – I have been tasked with carrying a metal detector home on the bus so he doesn’t have to come in to the office on Monday morning to collect it himself.

Cups of tea: 3

Flots assessed: 4


12.30pm LUNCH!

Cups of tea: 5

Flots assessed: 4.5

Lunchtime conversation topics: Tim Burton movies, Start Trek TNG, cheese fondue.


2pm: Still plugging away at the flots, and am now assessing one that’s full of charred wheat chaff as well as waterlogged wood chips. A pretty odd mix, but then all sorts of things float up on a river bank, as anyone who’s taken a walk along the Thames foreshore could tell you. I’ve also fielded a few tech queries from one of the less IT literate of my colleagues here, and a phone call about flotation tank meshes. Ah, the adventurous life of an archaeobotanist.

Cups of tea: Still 5

Flots assessed: 6


3.30pm: Had a good chat with our timber specialist about exotic wood timbers (exotic for us being anything not native to the British Isles). Working in London, which has been a trading hub since the Romans founded the city in the first century AD, means that we get woods from all over the world turning up in excavations, particularly in postmedieval deposits. Wood species ID is another one of my jobs at MOLA, so we often work together on assemblages.

Cups of tea: 6

Flots assessed: 8


3.30-4pm: For the last half hour of my working day I’ll be replying to emails, tidying up my workspace and washing my lab ware, and filling out my timesheet for the week.


And maybe I’ll squeeze in one last cup of tea.