Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Exploring Archaeobotany in Ancient Near East

February Speaker Melissa Rosenzweig Attracts and Engages Audience
~ report by Anne Wilson-Dooley ~

Dr. Melissa Rosenzweig, Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University, led us through a wide-ranging discussion of her use of archaeobotany to understand the expansion of the Assyrian Empire during the Neo-Assyrian period (Iron age, 911-609 BCE). Her excavations at Tel Akko in the Israel city of Acre and Turkey’s Ziyaret Tepe illustrated her lecture.

Archaeobotany is the study of human (and animal) interactions with plants in the past. It uses several methods to recover macro- and micro-plant remains from archaeological sites and their surrounding environments.  As important as the actual recovery of plant materials is deeply thinking about the processes that lead to certain materials being present–and absent–from archaeological contexts and environments.

Charring, drying, or waterlogging are often necessary for the preservation of plant parts. It is the recovery of many micro-plant materials–small seeds, pollens, and silica skeletons of plant cells–that substantially fill out our understanding of past cultures and reconstruction of their past environments. To illustrate her site findings, Dr. Rosenzweig brought small vials with examples of charred plant remains for our inspection.

Typical excavation, flotation, and chemical processes are used for recovery. Identification of materials to at least a genus level is sought, although species level is more beneficial when it can be achieved, and can enable reconstruction of the environment of their location. The reconstructions can also lead to what materials have been found that would not be expected to occur in the general location, hence procured or received from elsewhere and/or gathered, hunted, or obtained agricultural products. Recovering DNA from archaeological plant remains is of interest but not really available yet. 

Dr. Rosenzweig involved the audience several times, inviting questions. She asked us to think about all the aspects of plant material used for eating and production of clothing, furnishing, caring for our animals. She passed out apples and asked how many seeds were likely to remain after charring. Evidence from remains of what we typically eat or utilize tell something about our culture.

She addressed the concept of terra nullius, which involves cultural biased assumptions on appropriate use of lands and is often a part of colonization justification. Neo-Assyrian expansion included “agricultural and resettlement programs intended to bring subjects under control.” To use a familiar example, European expansion across North America considered ownership and cultivation of land appropriate as opposed to the Native American populations thinking of unfenced lands as communal for gathering, growing, and hunting.

Extensive soil samples from the site of Ziyaret Tepe located on the southeastern border of present-day Turkey were put through the various levels of screening, flotation, and chemical treatment to extract botanical remains. (In Assyrian times it was located in the hinterland of Assyrian Empire and was
then fully incorporated into the Neo-Assyrian Empire.) Based on her analyses, the occupants of the site were a fully agrarian community, producing domesticated crops prior to the Neo-Assyrian assimilation; their surrounding area was substantially utilized so did not fit a general definition of terra nullius. But by the Neo-Assyrian ideology the area was certainly under-utilized. 

“King-as-cultivator was a popular Assyrian trope, and Assyrian rulers used programs of agrarian investment [irrigation, intensification of cultivation, moving peoples into areas] to explain and legitimize their forays into surrounding territories as proactive measures against famine.”

The presentation was very well received and numerous questions were asked extending us beyond
our expected end time.

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