The archaeobotanical (seed) remains: A preliminary report

Τhe archaeobotanical (seed) remains: A preliminary report

A large number of contexts have been sampled for the study of bio-archaeological data at the site of Drakaina and, up to the present, some 96 samples have been processed from certain squares and more material awaits to be processed. We should, therefore, be aware that our conclusions might not expose certain trends which will reveal themselves when the study is completed.

Photo 1

The method used to separate organic from inorganic material has been known as water flotation (Photo 1). The actual water flotation was implemented at the same time as the excavation and study of all other material, so that by now, all samples have undergone flotation and all the residue has been sorted (Photo 2). The residue is one of the three fractions of material which is generated from water flotation, and this has been completed. It was preferably done at Poros, near the study area, as there are no sources of water in or near the cave.

Photo 2

Other bio-archaeologcal material are basically also found in the fraction that float and these are conventionally named coarse and fine flot.


The archaeobotany

So far three species, and even perhaps four, of wheat seem to have made their appearance, Triticum monococcum (einkorn), Triticum dicoccum (emmer), and, probably, Triticum aestivo-compactum (bread wheat). The fourth “mystery” wheat makes a very timid appearance and has only been detected through few glumes, which, pending further study, could be referred to as possible T. cf. spelta L. (spelt). Hordeum vulgare (hulled barley) is also present but seems, surprisingly, to have been consumed in smaller numbers than wheat. The presence of Hordeum vulgare nudum (naked) -naked barley- is still debatable. A third cereal with a timid presence is Avena sp. (oat), making its appearance, without providing evidence on whether it is cultivated or wild. Therefore, this point needs further investigation, as more samples are still awaiting to be studied.

The other major presence is a variety of pulses, which seem to have been in a somewhat comparable importance to cereals. These are Pisum sativum (pea), Lens culinaris (lentils), Lathyrus sativus/L. cicera (dwarf chickling), and perhaps Lathyrus clymenum (Spanish vetchling) and Lupinus sp. (lupin) as well as some others that have been noted as legumes small, medium and large. Their importance seems to have been comparable to the cereals, taking into account their relative numbers.

As far as tree cultivation is concerned, the almond, Prunus amygdalus, always fragmented, seems ubiquitous, though it was detected in minimal numbers. The presence of Ficus carica (the fig, Photo 3), in several samples and in comparable large numbers is interesting and awaits further investigation. The fruit has been found mainly as charred and mineralized seeds but also as fragments of fruit.

Photo 3

Vitis vinifera (the grape) is also present in a minor way, by the presence only of fragments. This very early find of grape is definitely not unique in Greece as it has already been found in some sites (Toumba Balomenou, Knossos, Franchthi just to mention a few) in the Early Neolithic of Greece. These finds cannot contribute to the issue of its domestication as the fragments could not be used, not even, for morphological comparisons.

Considerable interest lies in the presence of Pistacia terebinthus (terebinth tree), which produces oil and fruits. These are still eaten in some parts of Greece and are, sometimes, roasted and eaten as “nibbles”. Yet the small numbers of whole fruits, amongst several other interpretations could probably argue for the fact that these might have been accidentally included as evidence of the use of this tree perhaps as fuel in the hearths or could they have extracted oil? The examination of the charcoal might, perhaps, produce further evidence on the former question of this issue.

One of the most important points though which emerges with the study of the archaeobotanical material of Drakaina Cave, and mainly cereals, is the fact that most, if not all the material, seems to have had been submitted to some form of processing, just before consumption and no products of storage have been found so far. Even the whole, unfragmented, cereal grains are not the products of some type of storage, but most had been fragmented and deformed giving an impression that most had been pounded/cracked/crushed, probably before reaching this area of the site The break marks are not just the result of some minor form of mechanical damage/erosion, which took place in antiquity. They look as if they had been prepared to be consumed, and some might have even been left-over of meals, something which directs our thoughts to the syndrome of perhaps “visitations”. It is a well known phenomenon that cracked cereals, such as “bulgur”, and other such preparations like “chondros”, and “pligouri” are traditional “fast foods” in that they can cook very rapidly and, thus, are easy to prepare and light to carry (no great amounts of wood are needed; no by-products of preparation; no hard working on site and no specialised cooking utensils are needed). Analyses under SEM need to be done on these fragments in order to reconstruct the preparation method, for example if the “bulgur” fragments were brought parboiled.

Therefore, the problem remains as to what were the visits for? The state of the archaeobotanical remains which characterized cereals was definitely not only reserved for wheat and barley, that is cerealia in general, but it covered all consumed plants, such as pulses, almonds, and figs. Pulses (Leguminosae) also seem to have had their cotyledons split in many cases, whereas almonds (Prunus amygdalus) have always been found in fragments and never whole. Therefore, stressing even more the fact that they did not belong to storage contexts. The other fruit plant, the fig (Ficus carica) is found, mostly in seed form, although a small fragment of a whole fruit of a fig has been retrieved, and they could well have been botanical parts which were disposed in the hearths.

What is striking, so far, is the small number of by products of crop processing, such as culm fragments, rachis and spikelet forks and no large weeds have been identified. An exceedingly small number appears inconsistently among samples, such as Galium sp. (cleavers), Avena sp. (oat - weedy form), Sherardia arvensis (blue field madder), Trifolium sp. (clover) and Lolium sp. It is, therefore, clear that all crop cleaning stages were conducted away from the site, or at least from the studied areas. We can therefore claim that the site, based on the archaeobotanical findings, was not a normal habitation site but must have served other purposes.



What is sure is that macrofossil plant remains, especially seed material had been processed and cleaned elsewhere, but this will be verified when all of the archaeobotany of Drakaina will be studied. If these people were agriculturalists, remnants of crop processing would be detectable, perhaps, on open air sites. At present, there is no archaeobotanical data from other sites in the area and, therefore, comparison is not feasible. Very thorough contextual study of both archaeological data coupled with information from the archaeological sciences (archaeobotany included), we hope, would offer this extra dimension once the study is completed.


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May 2009,
Anaya Sarpaki
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