I am an archaeobotanist - I count plant remains from archaeological sites to reconstruct agricultural practices and diet. I'm currently finishing my PhD at the University of Oxford, which is investigating the relationship between agriculture in Late Iron Age southern Britain and the emergence of oppida. A major part of my project has been focussed on studying the plant remains from the Silchester Insula IX 'Town Life' Project.

My Day of Archaeobotany

My last Day of Archaeology post was back in 2014, as I was finishing my Phd and doing a spot of field school teaching in the final season of the Silchester Town Life Project – a long term archaeological excavation within a Roman town in southern Britain. Since completing my Phd, I have been fortunate to be employed as a post-doctoral research assistant in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading. My time has been split between working on the second monograph of the Rural Settlement of Roman Britain project, and undertaking archaeobotanical analysis on various sites excavated by the Silchester projects. At the moment, I am looking at samples from a site excavated as part of the Silchester Environs Project, which is exploring the first millennium BC landscape around Silchester. Several prehistoric enclosures were identified in Pamber Forest on the basis of Lidar and field survey. Trenches were excavated in spring 2017, revealing part of a late prehistoric settlement with a ring gully and possible evidence for charcoal-making. Pottery places some of the occupation in the Iron Age, but post-excavation dating and analysis are all ongoing.

Excavation within Pamber Forest showing multiple phases of activity. Photo credit: Silchester Environs Project.

Flotation sample ready for analysis

Silchester lies in an area of sandy-clay soils and gravels, to the north-east of the calcareous Hampshire Downs. We have a good understanding of farming practices on the chalk downlands, but little idea of farming in the area around Silchester prior to the development of the Late Iron Age oppidum. The hinterland of Silchester sees limited developer-funded archaeology, so it is really important that this project is able to undertake intensive sampling of excavations to recover a range of environmental remains. Bulk samples were taken during excavation of a range of features, and then processed in a flotation tank to separate charred plant remains and charcoal from the sediment.

My day went something like this:

09:00 Arrive at Work.

Drink coffee. Check emails.

09:10 Begin microscope work.

I had spent the last two days assessing the samples from this site – undertaking a quick scan of the flots under the microscope and scoring the abundance of different grains, chaff, weed seeds and charcoal, plus recording the presence of any modern contamination. Charred plant remains were overall very rare, so I initially selected several samples which contained at least five items. I split each sample into size-fractions, and then get to work sorting at the microscope.

11:00 Coffee break with other members of the department. Reading has a lovely bunch of staff and students, and it’s nice to hear how different projects are progressing.

11:30 Continue microscope work for the rest of the day (with a quick lunch break). Luckily my samples contained an interesting range of plant remains – barley grains, spelt wheat glume bases, blackberry seeds, hazel nutshell, a few rush seeds and some other weed seeds. This range of plants is typical for the Iron Age in this area, but the quantities recovered are very low – especially when compared to later Iron Age settlements around Basingstoke. This suggests that arable farming was not undertaken at a very large scale. That said, the preservation conditions in Pamber Forest aren’t great – the site is in an area of woodland, and many of the samples contained lots of modern roots. Radiocarbon dating will be undertaken on some of these plant remains in the future to check that they aren’t intrusive from later activity. More excavations are planned for the future, and i’m looking forward to seeing what turns up in the samples.

The results of my day.

The site was excavated by the Silchester Environs Team. Thanks go to the Calleva Foundation for their generous continuing support, also to the Englefield Estate, the Hampshire Wildlife Trust, Natural England and James Strang for their help and allowing us access to Pamber Forest and Simm’s Copse.

Read about the ongoing Silchester excavations here, and follow progress on twitter and facebook.


Seeds and Silchester

As the University of Reading Insula IX ‘Town Life‘ Project draws to a close, so does the PhD that i’ve been writing on it over the last few years. As Silchester has dominated my archaeological life over the last five years, it seemed right that I spent most of my Day of Archaeology 2014 there (technically yesterday). I have been studying the macroscopic plant remains from the excavations since 2009, when I turned up as a recent graduate, searching for good archaeobotanical dataset to study for my masters (I chose well!). I’ve sorted and identified 1000s of charred, mineralised and waterlogged seeds from Insula IX. The insights gained range from finding out that olives were consumed at Late Iron Age Silchester, to showing that residents of the oppidum were growing and processing their own cereals. After spending a few summers working in the Science@Silchester team, elbow deep in a flotation tank for 7 weeks, I was just returning for the afternoon to teach a session on Archaeobotany at Silchester to the field school students, passing on some of the knowledge I’ve gained over the last few years.

My day kicked off with coffee number 1 at my desk at 8:30am, finishing off a beautiful powerpoint presentation on the many wonders of charred plant remains. I may have gone a bit overboard, but you need lots of images to explain how bags of soil magically turn into tiny plant remains. After squeezing in an hour of PhD chapter editing, I headed off to the train station to make my way to Silchester. The cycle between Mortimer station, spiritual gateway to 100s of field school students, and Silchester takes me through tiny country lanes. The soil around Silchester is a mix of clay, sands and gravels, so there’s more in the way of pasture and orchards than cereal fields. Eventually making it on to the droveway, the stench of portaloos tells me i’ve made it to Insula IX!

Blue skies over Insula IX

Blue skies over Insula IX ©Lisa Lodwick

After a quick catch up with the Science@Silchester team (you can read about them in last years Silchester post), I’m bundled in to the mini bus by Amanda Clarke to take me off to St Mary’s. It feels a bit strange to be teaching in a church, but the students were very keen, and I hope they learnt something. I also got to show off some of my favourite plant remains, including the charred olive stones from the final day of the 2012 season, and some beautiful spelt grains from a pit excavated back in 2006.

Archaeobotany teaching at Silchester

Microscopes and plant remains set up in the church! ©Amanda Clarke

I head back up to site to see how flotation is going. As the archaeology in Insula IX is running out, there’s unlikely to be any more ‘deep features’ this year producing waterlogged or mineralised plant remains, but hopefully the remaining pits will produce some good charred assemblages to complement those studied for my PhD research. Mike Fulford’s site tour kicks off at 4:30, so I’m able to catch up on the all new developments in Insula III – the most exciting (for me) is the discovery of a (probable) corn drier, interpreted by the Victorians as a hypocaust. If this feature can be dated, it will provide great evidence for how the agricultural role of Silchester changed over time.

Science assistant Rory manning the flotation tank

Science assistant Rory manning the flotation tank ©Lisa Lodwick

Flotation sample at Silchester

Disappointing number of plant remains.. plenty more samples though! ©Lisa Lodwick

After getting my fill of archaeology for the week, I’m off to home to continue with the PhD editing. I’ve produced lots of new evidence for how, where and when the residents of Late Iron Age and Roman Silchester were supplied with food, and I’m looking forward to finally finishing so I can discuss the findings with the rest of the project team.

The Insula IX excavations are coming to an end this year – open day dates are Saturday 26th July and Saturday 9th August.

Follow Amanda Clarke’s wonderful blog from the excavations http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/silchesterdig/

Silchester Twitter @silchexcavation

I tweet about plants and archaeology @LisaLodwick. You can read more about my AHRC funded PhD research at the University of Oxford here.