Fuel and Plant Use in Northern Mesopotamia
Archaeobotanical data documenting fuel and land use strategies in northern Mesopotamia from the 5th millennium BCE through 16th century CE
This dataset contains the results of macrobotanical, dendrological, and dung spherulite analysis of sediment samples taken from three sites (Surezha, Tell Zeidan, and Ziyaret Tepe) located in northern Mesopotamia. The data spans a wide range of time periods, from the fifth millennium BCE through 15th century CE, with the majority of data focused on the Ubaid/Late Chalcolithic and Late Assyrian Periods. The primary aim of this project was to examine fuel selection behaviors among pre-urban and urban societies in northern Mesopotamia through the analysis of carbonized macrobotanical remains. It also seeks to understand how fuel use activities are related to wider plant use activities, in particular agricultural and agropastoral economies.
These data highlight some meaningful spatial and temporal differences in fuel and plant use activities between the sites. The data are best viewed as the summation of a palimpsest of activities, in which remnants of agricultural production, waste disposal, herd management and dung collection, and fuelwood gathering were incorporated into the archaeological record via fuel burning and subsequent ash dumping. Dung fuel and at least some crop waste were both commonly employed at all three sites in varying proportions, and the macrobotanical data thus speak to both herd management and crop processing strategies. Wood use varied considerably, both between sites and across time periods, likely due to a combination of local abundance of woodland vegetation and changing patterns of resource exploitation.
Seed and wood remains were recovered from samples by flotation, identified to the most specific taxonomic level possible, and tallied by sample. Select wood charcoal fragments were also assessed for dendrologically-meaningful features, including ring curvature, evidence of traumatic growth/reaction wood, degree of vitrification, and the presence of tyloses, bark, pith, insect damage, radial cracking, and fungal hyphae. Dendrological features are recorded by presence for each fragment examined. Finally, for each sample, an analysis of dung spherulites and calcitic ash pseudomorphs of calcium oxalate recovered from either a small subsample of sediment or the smallest fraction of flotation material was undertaken in order to a) confirm the presence of animal dung fuel, b) assess the relative contribution of dung fuel compared to wood fuel.
Sediment samples were collected systematically from primary and secondary depositional contexts as well as fill. Sample volume is recorded within the dataset for reference. Several hand-picked samples of wood are included from Ziyaret Tepe. Prior to flotation, subsamples of sediment were taken from the Tell Zeidan and Surezha samples for spherulite analysis. All sediment samples were processed via flotation; Surezha and Ziyaret Tepe samples were processed using locally-constructed Ankara-type flotation machines, while the Tell Zeidan samples were processed via bucket flotation. The Surezha flotation machine employed water-recycling.
Macrobotanical and wood charcoal sorting and identification employed standard methodological practices (see dissertation by Proctor for full description) and utilized a variety of published guides and modern reference material housed in the University of Connecticut Archaeobotany Laboratory. Wood charcoal weight is recorded for all wood >2mm, however only specimens >4mm in size were identified. All identifications and specimen counts were recorded by sample.
Wood charcoal fragments were also assessed for dendrologically meaningful features, including ring curvature, evidence of traumatic growth/reaction wood, degree of vitrification, and the presence of tyloses, bark, pith, insect damage, radial cracking, and fungal hyphae. Qualitative ring curvature assessments followed the technique employed by Marguerie and Hunot 2007. Dendrological information is presented on a specimen-by-specimen basis separate from identifications and counts, as not all identified fragments were subjected to dendrological analysis.
Modified dung spherulite analysis followed the liquid mount applications described in Canti 1998 and Smith et al. 2018. Sediment smears were viewed at 400x magnification on a Leica 2700M microscope using plane- and cross-polarized light. Quantification of remains involved counting visible spherulites and calcitic ash pseudomorphs of calcium oxalate within 10 semi-randomized fields of view. Counts were then normalized by the mass of sediment aliquot placed on the slide. Spherulite analysis for Ziyaret Tepe used pulverized <0.5mm fraction from flotation rather than sediment and therefore should not be quantitatively compared to the data from the other two sites.
Marguerie, D., and J.Y. Hunot. 2007. “Charcoal Analysis and Dendrology: Data from Archaeological Sites in North-Western France.” Journal of Archaeological Science 34 (9): 1417–1433.
Canti, M. G. 1998. “The Micromorphological Identification of Faecal Spherulites from Archaeological and Modern Materials.” Journal of Archaeological Science 25: 435–444.
Smith, A., L. Proctor, T.C. Hart, and G.J. Stein. 2018. “The Burning Issue of Dung in Archaeobotanical Samples: A Case-Study Integrating Macro-Botanical Remains, Dung Spherulites, and Phytoliths to Assess Sample Origin and Fuel Use at Tell Zeidan, Syria.” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 28 (3) 229–246.
Potential Applications of the Data
This dataset can potentially be used in future projects examining fuel, land use, and agropastoralism in northern Mesopotamia. Additionally, the data may be of use in archaeological studies of long-term environmental change and vegetation reconstruction, provided the limitations and biases inherent in carbonized macrobotanical datasets are well understood and taken into account.
We would like to acknowledge the generous financial support of the National Science Foundation (Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant #1832198) and the University of Connecticut Department of Anthropology in completing this research.
Proctor, L. 2021. Fueling socio-political complexity: Examining fuel use and fuel economies during the Chalcolithic and Iron Ages of Northern Mesopotamia. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Connecticut
Proctor, L., A. Smith, and G.J. Stein. 2022. "Archaeobotanical and dung spherulite evidence for Ubaid and Late Chalcolithic fuel, farming, and feasting at Surezha, Iraqi Kurdistan." Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 43: 103449.
Smith, Alexia, Philip Graham, and Gil J. Stein. 2014. "Ubaid Plant Use at Tell Zeidan." Paléorient 41 (2): 51–69.
Smith, A., L. Proctor, T.C. Hart, and G.J. Stein. 2019. "The Burning Issue of Dung in Archaeobotanical Samples: A Case-Study Integrating Macro-Botanical Remains, Dung Spherulites, and Phytoliths to Assess Sample Origin and Fuel Use at Tell Zeidan, Syria." Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 28 (3) 229–246.
Current Disposition of the Physical Collection
All samples are currently curated in the University of Connecticut Archaeobotany Laboratory:
UConn Archaeobotany Laboratory
453 Beach Hall, Unit 1176
Storrs, CT USA 06269-1176
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